As Shakespeare put it, in a line that is not quite self-evident:
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard,
Hoist with his own petard,
It may or may not be your idea of sport, but the prince is referring—in modern terms-- to a terrorist whose bomb goes off unexpectedly and kills him.
The slightly outmoded word “enginer” refers to someone who builds and designs engines, not necessarily to someone who conducts them.
One recalls the 1970 explosion of a townhouse in Greenwich Village. While members of the Weather Underground were preparing a bomb, they made a mistake, the bomb blew up, three of them were killed.
It may not seem quite fair to compare bomb-making to gender politics, but our fine-tuned awareness of sexual harassment has caused apparently caused some Congressmen to exclude their young female staffers from one-on-one meetings.
Given their prominence and the possibilities for public exposure these men are exercising an excess of caution. Unfortunately, it works against the best career interest of their female staffers.
Somehow or other Congressmen have learned that young women are a threat and that even the appearance of impropriety can severely damage their political careers.
How did we get to this point?
Since the practice has been going on for some time, let’s give credit where credit is due—to Bill Clinton’s peccadillos with several women, among whom an intern named Lewinsky.
And let’s give credit also to those who rose up in righteous fury upon learning that Clarence Thomas was accused of having uttered some sexually suggestive remarks to Anita Hill.
These events raised everyone’s consciousness about sexual harassment in the workplace. But apparently, they also made women into a potential threat to their male superiors.
It makes sense. Raised consciousness about sexual harassment forces people to see professional interactions in potentially sexual terms. It sexualizes women, and defines men as potential or actual sexual abusers.
The more you see professional women in terms of their sexuality the less you will see them as professionals.
Given this climate, many men—especially those who are in the public eye and whose antics are most likely to be exposed—are unwilling to assume the risk. They refuse to have closed-door one-on-one, private meetings with female staff and do not want to be seen out at a function with a female.
For all anyone knows, it is all perfectly professional. And yet, given the cultural climate, there are greater chances for misinterpretation—innocent or malevolent.
The National Journal has the story:
In an anonymous survey of female staffers conducted by National Journalin order to gather information on the difficulties they face in a male-dominated industry, several female aides reported that they have 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.
"Even though my boss is like a second dad to me, our office was always worried about any negative assumptions that might be made. This has made and makes my job significantly harder to do," one female staffer told National Journal.
Another reported that in twelve years working for her previous boss, he "never took a closed door meeting with me. … This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult."
This situation is apparently not the norm:
The issue is hardly the norm. Numerous staffers contacted for this story, both male and female, said they had never experienced or even heard of such a policy. But those who do employ these policies could have a legal issue.
The lawyer’s solution: sue.
Any Congressman who systematically excludes female staff from certain types of interactions might now be threatened with legal action.
Attorney Debra Katz sees how this makes career advancement more difficult for women:
"So much happens in creating trustful relationships and if you can't develop a trustful relationship where you're having some one-on-one time, as the men apparently are getting—I can see many reasons why this is a terrible idea, terrible in the sense of discriminatory," Katz added, calling the practice "clearly unlawful."
The presence of women in a Congressman’s office thus becomes a threat: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. One finds it difficult to understand how women are advantaged in the workplace by having their presence made a danger.
And, how is anyone going to litigate face time or private meetings? In this, as in many other cases, we should never underestimate the ingenuity of lawyers.
For reasons that remain mysterious to some, the same problem does not arise with senior female senators, for example.
Maine Senator Susan Collins does not get it:
The Maine Republican said she was "just stunned" that some of her male colleagues would be so concerned about working closely with their female aides. "To me, that's just extraordinary because of what it implies, the lack of professionalism that it would imply," Collins said. "It implies that a man and a woman can't have a completely professional, proper relationship. That's just stunning."
It doesn’t feel absurd to think that under certain circumstances it is difficult for a man and a woman to have a completely professional relationship. Need we mention that the fault is not always on the side of the male?
Given human nature, it has occasionally happened that a young woman will act in ways that are not entirely professional, the better to advance her career or even to find herself a husband. Heaven forfend, but unmarried young women have even been known to flirt or seduce married bosses.
To imagine that women are totally innocent in these matters stretches credulity.
Pretending that the difference between the sexes does not exist seems not to serve the best interests of men or of women.