Campaign Confidential:  What It’s Like To Be a Woman on the Top Political Campaigns

It should come as no surprise that campaigns fall victim to many problems facing traditional employers, like lack of representation of women, pay disparities, and sexual harassment.  After all, campaigns are just another workplace.  A Jezebel study last week revealed serious issues with both pay and representation for women on the major presidential campaigns, and a former Donald Trump staffer made headlines when she filed a discrimination charge in January.

While many on the left would like to dismiss gender discrimination as a problem of the Republican party, it should be noted that Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s since-suspended campaign had the best representation of women at the top of the pay scale, and not a single woman was among Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sander’s top 10 highest paid employees.  Jezebel noted that every presidential campaign that they looked at – with the exception of Hillary Clinton’s – “employ[ed] significantly more men than women.”

As a former field organizer during the 2014 cycle, I reached out to numerous female friends in the Democratic campaign world to ask them about their experiences, both positive and negative, working on campaigns. As a legal assistant who hears about a lot of workplace issues on a regular basis, I was struck by the similarities between the stories I heard from clients at our firm on a day to day basis, and the stories I heard from my female friends about their experiences on campaigns.

I spoke with Megan Simpson, who was the Coordinated Campaign Director for the Alaska Democratic Party in 2014 (and my former boss).  Megan, who worked on every even-numbered election cycle from 2004 to 2014, has held supervisor or management positions on Presidential, Senate, and House races across the country.  She told me:

“I’m fortunate enough that I’ve personally been working on campaigns where I’ve moved up higher and worked with strong females…on [Senator Jon] Tester’s race, it was pretty evenly divided.  I’ve never personally worked in situations where it was a bunch of men and then me, but I have seen it on other campaigns.”

She emphasized that while her experience wasn’t 100% representative, she felt like she had been given equal opportunity to grow alongside male counterparts in her career.  She talked about how working on campaigns gave her – and many of her coworkers, regardless of gender—the opportunity to develop their own voice and manage hundreds of volunteers.

But not all of the experiences that I learned about were as positive as Megan’s.  A friend who worked on the coordinated field campaign supporting Senator Kay Hagan’s reelection race in 2014 – who we’ll call Sally – frequently felt uncomfortable doing canvassing (knocking on doors) shifts in her assigned area, where she was often subjected to catcalls or harassment from men at the doors.  Sally’s area simply wasn’t safe – on more than one occasion, men at the door threatened that they would use a gun on her if she didn’t leave.  She asked her male supervisor if she could refrain from knocking alone after dark, but he told her no.  She said that a lot of the “top people” on the Hagan campaign “benefited from this ‘whatever it takes’ attitude, which fundamentally played out at the expense of young, often women organizers.”

When I asked Sally whether she felt like she had an HR person or someone she could raise confidential HR concerns to on the Hagan campaign, she wrote back, “no one.”

Another friend – let’s call her Amy – interned on a Democratic Senate campaign last fall, but quit after the male campaign manager repeatedly hit on her.  The campaign manager was nearly a decade older than her and had years of campaign experience.  She noticed that he treated her differently from other employees by taking the time to help her revise her resume and inviting her to a prominent local politician’s party to “make connections.”

“I guess I was naive enough to think that…he thought I was just really competent and qualified,” Amy told me.  “I thought he was just trying to help me with my career.”  My friend wasn’t naive to think that— I can assure you that she is indeed qualified and competent — but she was understandably upset to learn her supervisor’s true motivations.  He revealed to Amy in a private message that he was “into” her and told her that she was “one hell of a date” when she accompanied him to the local politician’s event—which Amy had viewed in a purely professional context.

Short of going directly to her candidate, Amy didn’t have a lot of options on a small campaign.  Even large campaigns rarely have professional HR teams, as campaigns are structured as temporary, goal-driven organizations — not as a company with a future, with incentives for employee retention.  Without anyone to go to, Amy eventually decided to quit the campaign rather than deal with her boss’ unwanted advances.

Even when such issues are reported, campaigns may not be prepared to deal with them – another side effect of organizations where most employees have likely not received any kind of EEO or HR training.  I heard of one instance in a competitive 2014 Senate race where a woman of color reported a male Regional Field Director (essentially, the supervisor of all of the field organizers in a given region) for a number of concerns, including drug use on the job and threatening violence against female field organizers.  She reported the concerns to the RFD’s first and second-line supervisors, who included the Field Director of the campaign.  Shortly after, the woman who reported concerns was transferred to a different region — and the RFD stayed in place, still managing the same female employees who he had been accused of threatening.

“[The RFD] was too valuable to move,” my contact explained to me.  “At the core, field campaigns are sort of put up or shut up.”  This kind of mentality doesn’t lend itself well to reporting concerns — you might find yourself punished and sent across the state.

Megan explained to me that campaigns set up a structure where everything goes through the RFD, “which makes sense for work,” but “we need to do better on campaigns to make sure that people understand that there are other people you can talk to.”  Field organizers regularly work 14-hour days, 7 days per week, and, depending on location, may only work with a handful of other organizers and their supervisor on a regular basis – making it hard for them to be aware of potential resources or ways to report concerns.

While it may be disappointing for political idealists to know that the campaigns they support are not perfect, campaigns can still be seen as an important vehicle for change.  All of the women I spoke with were either currently working in politics, volunteering on a campaign, or expressed interest in returning to the game – largely because they believe the issues that campaigns fight for are so important.

“As a woman, one of the many reasons why I continued working in politics forever is because I believe that we don’t have it equal in this country and that we have to make that change…we have to elect the people that will help us continue to fight and stand up for our rights,” Megan said to me at the end of our conversation.  “It’s an opportunity to help move [that process] forward.”

Lindsay Funk

Lindsay Funk hails from the great state of Washington and works as a senior legal assistant in the DC office of Sanford Heisler, LLP. She once wrote more than 80 pages about a law that restricted the civil rights of Alabama’s Muslim population. Fun fact: she ate more Russian pelmeni (dumplings) while living in Juneau, Alaska than while she was living in Moscow, Russia.

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