I was not surprised to see the recent news stories detailing a difficult work environment in Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office. The newly announced presidential candidate has long held a reputation for being a demanding boss in a town of demanding bosses. But the reports were also unsurprising in another way: In my 30 years in politics, including working for female bosses and as one, I have observed that the complaints about such work environments hit women faster and harder than they do their male colleagues.
Let me say that I have never worked for Klobuchar and cannot speak to conditions in her office. Personally, I like her very much and have a great deal of respect for her. Still, the behavior described in news articles about her Senate office is disturbing. No elected official or candidate should mistreat his or her staff. To her credit, Klobuchar has acknowledged that she knows she can be too tough, values the work her staff does and has pledged to be a better boss.
The reports about Klobuchar have rightly prompted a debate about whether sexism lies behind the coverage of another too-tough female boss. “These attacks from anonymous sources on Amy Klobuchar are a bunch of gendered bullshit,” tweeted progressive activist Amy Siskind. Some of Klobuchar’s own staffers told HuffPost and BuzzFeed that they feared the critiques were rooted in skewed gender expectations. Other observers pointed to a long history of male bosses in Washington getting tough media coverage for their own tough behavior.
I, like others, doubt that a male candidate with similar staff complaints would have seen them become the lead narrative of his presidential announcement. But the problem is not that political journalists fail to report altogether on demanding and difficult men in politics. It’s that the reporting on such behavior is presented in a dramatically different fashion than it is in stories about female bosses in politics—as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame. Those who say that Klobuchar is getting the treatment she deserves also miss another, larger force at play: We still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses.
It is not hard to think of tough male bosses in Washington. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has a reputation for being demanding; you will find such stories chronicled in the press. The same holds for men in politics with whom I have worked. A Google search of “Bill Clinton” and “purple rage” yields a number of anecdotes about the private temper tantrums we in the Clinton press office would endure when preparing the president for White House news conferences. Profiles of my friend and former colleague Rahm Emanuel are littered with stories of his profanity in the office and warnings by his staff that anyone working for him needs to “develop a thick skin,” write off going to weddings or family vacations, and expect to be available “25/8.”
While the anecdotes about these men are not entirely flattering, they are presented as colorful asides meant to give dimension to the hard-charging zeal with which these individuals do their jobs. Stories about intimidating male bosses are typically not presented as disqualifying, but as evidence of these men as formidable leaders. These are men who should not be underestimated. These are men who should be respected.
Imagine if it was reported that a female politician was prone to bouts of “purple rage” or that she expected staff to skip weddings and family vacations, and be available to her “25/8.” She would not be admired for the hard-charging zeal she brought to the job. She would be seen as unhinged. She would not be considered a formidable leader. She would be someone who was not able to stand on her own two feet without staff constantly holding her hand.
Staff can be part of the problem. We too often embrace the notion that working for demanding men shows how tough we are. It shows we can handle life in the big leagues. It makes us cool. Working for a difficult and demanding woman isn’t seen as cool. Working for a difficult and demanding woman is seen as humiliating.
There is another, subtler and deeper sexism at work in the reports about Klobuchar. I know from firsthand experience that it is hard to work for a woman in politics. That’s different from saying women are hard on their staffs. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that women are held to different and often higher standards than their male counterparts—by their colleagues, by the media, by the public. The pressure these women feel gets internalized by their staffs.
I certainly internalized that pressure when I would help first ladys Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton during my time as a staffer in the communications offices of Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. No one ever told me I needed to put extra care into the memos I prepared for the first ladies, but I did because I knew they had to be flawless when they appeared in public. And they nearly always were. I encountered that same dynamic when I would venture to help Elizabeth Edwards, my friend and another woman who was seen as difficult and demanding during the presidential runs of her husband, John Edwards.
The pressure I felt increased in my later role as communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Even with all the poise, smarts and experience Clinton had, I knew what she did every day on the campaign trail was, as Barack Obama once put it, akin to Ginger Rogers doing all of Fred Astaire’s moves but backward and in high heels. In Clinton’s case, everyone was looking over her shoulder to judge her on style, too. No matter how much grace and confidence a woman has, that kind of pressure is going to trickle down to her staff.
I am sure that in the work I did for Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards, I internalized more pressure than I needed to because I was a woman trying to help another woman do something hard. I felt a special sense of responsibility and obligation to do my best for these women, understanding the pressure they felt to be nothing less than flawless themselves. It’s what women do, after all. It’s what is expected of us. We take responsibility for getting the hard things done.
In my experience, that’s a heavy load for a staffer to carry: trying to be perfect when the woman she is working for carries the pressure to be perfect, too.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Jennifer Palmieri