Close your eyes and consider the words “state rep.”
Whose image springs to mind?
Tram T. Nguyen, a youthful-looking Vietnamese-American woman elected to the House in November, pointedly challenged that assumption on Twitter this week, when she recounted an exchange with a lobbyist who just couldn’t see her as a legislator.
“Lobbyist: ‘Are you Rep X’s aide?’ ” Nguyen wrote on Twitter.
“Me (in full suit): ‘No.’
“Lobbyist: ‘Are you Rep Y’s aide?’
“Me: ‘No. I’m Rep Nguyen.’
“Lobbyist: ‘Oh, you’re Rep Nguyen’s aide.’
“Me: ‘No! I’m the representative.’ ”
“This is why we need more women,” Nguyen wrote, specifically calling for more women of color in leadership positions.
Granted, the lobbyist had been looking for a different lawmaker in the “class of 2019 bullpen.” That’s a hearing room serving as a temporary work space for a dozen freshman legislators who have not yet been assigned their own offices and who sit, intermingled with their aides, along two parallel tables. Still, Nguyen had a nameplate, and the lobbyist had first assumed the guy seated next to Nguyen was the elected official. (That was her legislative aide.)
And the same thing often happens beyond the bullpen, in elevators and hallways around the State House, said Representative Maria Robinson, a Framingham Democrat. In a single day, Robinson was mistaken for an aide nine times, she said. She took it in stride.
“I’m brand new in the building, and people will learn,” Robinson said.
Like Nguyen, who is 32, Robinson is newly elected, youthful-looking, and Asian-American (31, from Korea). While they’re not the first Asian-American women in the House, they’re the only ones currently in office, and they’re often mistaken for one another, as well for as aides.
Nguyen was stopped from entering a staff bathroom on Wednesday at the State House by someone who initially took her for a tourist.
“I get it. I look much younger than I am,” Nguyen said. “Everyone keeps telling me I will love it some day. But it has been a struggle to establish my authority.”
It’s not that it never happens to men. Twenty-five-year-old Representative Andres X. Vargas, a Dominican man and Haverhill Democrat, is often regarded as an aide or an intern, said his legislative aide, Kiara Tringali. “It’s a constant battle to just check people’s intrinsic thoughts on who is an elected,” she said.
This is not, however, a problem faced by Representative Patrick Kearney, a newly elected Scituate Democrat who graduated from Boston College High School in 2013. Tall and telegenic, he just might be the guy you picture when you hear the words “state rep.”
“I’m almost a decade younger, and nobody’s ever mistaken me for an aide,” Kearney wrote on Twitter, in response to Nguyen’s post. “Keep up the good work Tram. Proud to be your classmate.”
Kearney faces a whole different set of assumptions, of course. But in the State House, where he represents the norm, outliers like Robinson try to keep things light. When someone hands her paperwork to give to “the representative,” she sometimes says: “Well — good news for you! I am the representative.”
Robinson is used to navigating places where she doesn’t fit type. An international adoptee, she was raised Irish-German Catholic in northeastern Pennsylvania (home of “The Office,” she notes). She studied chemical engineering at MIT and worked in the male-dominated energy field.
When someone is surprised by her rank, she said, “I try and reduce their embarrassment. It’s giving them the opportunity to check their own biases, and I don’t want to make them feel bad about that by any stretch of the imagination.”
Think about that: She reassures the people who underestimate her, to soothe their embarrassment. Because she’s used to it. Because she knows she’s not what they were expecting.
At what point will they start expecting her?
“What She Said” is an occasional series on gender issues