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Trickle-down equality: More women in Congress means less sexism for staffers

Staffers say they benefit when female lawmakers call out casual sexism on the Hill

Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., recently called out a male colleague on the House floor for making a sexually suggestive remark. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., recently called out a male colleague on the House floor for making a sexually suggestive remark. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Women in Congress have been getting attention recently for calling out casual sexism on the Hill — and female staffers say it’s making their jobs easier.

California Rep. Katie Hill told a male colleague she didn’t appreciate his sexual innuendo on the House floor. Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild tweeted that a different male lawmaker had tried to “mansplain” her own bill to her. And CNN reported on female lawmakers who had been greeted “Hey, beautiful” by male members of Congress, looked “up and down” by men in the hallways on Capitol Hill, or mistaken for staff members or spouses. 

The lawmakers, part of the most diverse Congress in history, say that they’ve made a point of calling attention to institutionalized sexism to change how Washington works.

“Having women in Congress, some of whom may have experienced sexual harassment before, is important in fighting against unwanted advances and gestures,” said Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus. 

Hill has spoken of drawing attention to “archaic” behavior.

“The only way it can be broken down is by seeing women as your peers and over and over and over again … having those kinds of behaviors not be accepted,” she told CNN. 

From the archives: Actress Evan Rachel Wood testifies about being sexually assaulted

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They’ve come a long way

Staffers who spoke to Roll Call in recent days say they have already noticed a difference.

“It’s awesome,” said a woman who works for a Democratic House member. “It makes you feel really empowered.”

In the past, female staffers have said they felt pressured to quietly tolerate inappropriate behavior from their colleagues, and sometimes their bosses. It was considered an unfortunate aspect of working in an environment where powerful men called the shots.

Oral histories collected by the House historian for a 2016 retrospective on women in Congress, for example, are full of such anecdotes.

Consider Rochelle Dornatt, who worked on the Hill in various member offices for more than 35 years — as a legislative assistant, researcher, floor assistant, and finally as chief of staff to California Rep. Sam Farr from 1993 to 2017. 

During her tenure, Dornatt had a boss who refused to allow female staffers to sit next to him in the front of his car, male colleagues who didn’t think to include her on political retreats, and a series of creepy encounters with a lawmaker who thought it was OK to grope her while she was trying to count votes on the House floor. She never told her supportive male boss about that one, she said, because she thought it would reflect poorly on her.

“I didn’t know what to do, because a staffer who accuses a member of this, who do you think’s going to come out on the crappy end of that scenario?” she told the Office of the Historian. “You know it wasn’t going to be the member. It was going to be me. Even if he got dinged for something inappropriate, I would never be able to hold my head up. I’d never get another job, because I was that one who got involved in that scandal.”

A question of math

Female staffers who spoke to Roll Call in recent days said that couldn’t be further from their experience this Congress.

Part of it is simple math: More women are in charge, and that means more staff work for female bosses, who are considered more likely to hire and promote women, said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers political science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, who has studied congressional staff diversity.

Dittmar said there hasn’t been a lot of scholarly research into the experiences of women and people of color working on the Hill. But there is some evidence of a relationship between the diversity of members and the diversity of staff. And more diversity can change longstanding norms.

“The extent that women are calling out gender biases broadly in the institution, and are just challenging stereotypes and ways in which women’s power may be questioned within the institution, that may be helpful to all the women in that institution,” she said.

That was the case for the Democratic staffer who said she felt empowered by the discussion about sexism. (She and other staffers who spoketo Roll Call requested anonymity for this story.) 

“I work in a mostly female office,” she said. “It’s not that sexism is absent. We talk about it.” But she doesn’t experience it directly, she said.

Her friend, who works for another female Democrat, said she had come to the Hill from a law firm where she was always conscious of gender imbalances in the office. She realized that would not be the case on Day One of her new congressional job. “I walked into a a staff meeting for the first time, and there were a few guys, but it was mostly women of color,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was very exciting.”

The two women were having coffee on a recent afternoon at the Dunkin’  in the basement of the Longworth Building, a windowless haunt of lawmakers and their staffs, too harried to step outside even on one of the first warm days of spring.

Historical accounts, and some that came out of the recent #MeToo movement, have described Congress as a male-dominated place, where the bathroom layout, certain office policies and even the dress codes sent women the message that they did not belong. But here, on a typical recess day, the surrounding tables were full of equal numbers of women and men sharing rapid-fire conversation over paper cups, or purposefully typing at laptops.

Staff members and other women who work on the Hill said the new diversity in member representation has trickled down in immeasurable ways. Staffers are careful to book more female witnesses and people of color for congressional testimony. More women and people of color want to work in offices with colleagues who look like them, they said. 

Some ways to go

But change has not come to every office.  As is often noted in accounts of diversity in the 116th Congress, the number of female Republican lawmakers actually fell this year, from 23 to 13. A contractor who works for multiple offices on both sides of the aisle said she is frequently struck by the differences in how women are treated from one office to the next.

“It seems like in the female members’ offices, there is a lot more equality,” she said. “The way male colleagues interact with women, the quality of the women coming in.”

But in some offices, she said, the women all seem to be working in clerical positions. And when she arrives to do a job with a male colleague, male staffers and lawmakers still assume that he is her manager, she said.

One older member of Congress is renowned for hiring young, female interns, she said. Her colleagues warned her about it, she recalled, telling her, “He likes to hire the young ones and look at them.”

The stories were confirmed for her the first time she walked into the office. “It gives me the absolute creeps,” she said. 

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