Women on Capitol Hill barred from time alone with male bosses?

Women need the same access to meetings and events as men have, says Peggy Drexler.

Story highlights

  • Report: Some congressional offices discourage one-on-one meetings between male legislators and female staffers
  • Peggy Drexler says such policies encourage discrimination against women in the workplace

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)As the media likes to point out on a regular basis, it's hard enough being a woman in certain male-dominated industries — tech, banking, politics among them — despite the considerable strides made toward gender equality. And a recent study revealed that things are perhaps about to get much worse.

In a survey conducted among women working in Washington, the National Journal found a disturbing trend: policies that prohibit, or at least inhibit, female staffers from spending time alone with their male bosses. Many female aides reported to the National Journal that they've been "barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression."
Peggy Drexler
Most bosses who have implemented such unofficial policies have told their staffers that such measures are simply for protection —their own and their staffers'. It's easy to get the wrong idea, after all, when it comes to (generally older) men and (generally younger) women, isn't it — all those women willing to sleep their way to the top, all those men willing to let them.
    Such policies, though, can help preserve the image of propriety (if not actual propriety), making sure, as one staffer said, situations don't seem "untoward." Perception is key. Politicians, more than most people, live in glass houses. If people can talk, they will talk. Like combat, Capitol Hill is a dangerous place. There are landmines at every turn.
    Except, of course, women are no longer banned from fighting in combat roles. For one thing, that ban was highly discriminatory. And so is this one — except, you could argue, even more so. Keeping women from performing certain tasks at work, based solely on their gender, their level of attractiveness, or, worst of all, what they or someone else might do — or what others might think they might do — as a result of their gender or level of attractiveness, is highly discriminatory, as well as illegal, especially if those tasks are ultimately necessary in order to advance.
    This is true even if the intention is honorable, though I'm not convinced it's necessarily honor we're dealing with here. Instead, I think what's happening is, at least in part, about maintaining a patriarchy, and keeping the power balance shifted toward men. It's putting women in their place, masked as a protective measure, while placing the blame squarely on them.
    Such policies, after all, assign to women the role of bringing down men and perpetuate the notion of woman as Eve, ever the temptress. Women are cursed before they start, and punished not because they've done anything, but because of a threat that is purely hypothetical. If women don't get ahead in Washington, these policies seem to imply, it's really no one's fault but theirs.
    Men, of course, don't face such threats.
    And women won't get ahead. Eventually, if not already, such policies will prevent them from doing their jobs in numerous ways —and simply for being women, and through no action of their own. As many of the female staffers have reported, they have already suffered setbacks, as more junior-level men are tasked with jobs beyond their experience level simply because a male politician doesn't want to "be alone with" the female staffer who has earned every right to be there.
    The National Journal report concludes somewhat ambivalently, ceding that, well, at least these policies are happening in just some offices, and aren't quite the norm. But the takeaway should be far direr. Even implementing bans out of a concern for perception is a very slippery slope.
    If similar policies begin to be enacted in other fields, the consequences for women will be serious. We will see a revival of gender segregated offices, if not entire industries.
    The rights that certain working women fought for — from female reporters' fight to be allowed in male locker rooms to equal opportunity laws in such fields as construction and farming and other traditionally male-dominated industries that have histories of excluding women — will be reversed, or at least nullified. And the notion that women are in need of protection will resurface. If she's not the temptress, she's the damsel in distress. It wouldn't be long before a woman's choice will be one or the other. And neither is one she should be willing to accept.