Women in Congress are speaking out about their own experiences with sexual harassment — by other members of Congress.
As the Washington power center comes under increased scrutiny as a breeding ground for sexual harassment, several female California Congress members — including former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), Rep. Linda Sanchez (D) and former Rep. Mary Bono (R) — have come forward with their own experiences with harassment in the Capitol, as recounted in a report from the Associated Press:
Boxer said that during a hearing in the 1980s, a male colleague made a sexually suggestive comment to her that she had to then get removed from the record out of embarrassment.
“When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside it, would repeat. And I would avoid that member,” Sanchez told AP.
These stories come on the heels of a video campaign from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who herself had experienced harassment as a lawmaker and called on her colleagues to come forward with their stories.
While national media has homed in on the details of the Harvey Weinstein case and sexual harassment in Hollywood, there have been an increasing number of reports from the AP, Politico and Washington Post showing, rather unsurprisingly, that harassment is a problem pervasive in the Capitol.
Congress, which didn’t develop a reporting system for harassment until 1995, after Republican Sen. Bob Packwood resigned in disgrace over harassment claims, still has a ways to go to address the underlying dynamics that make the legislative branch an environment ripe for inappropriate behavior.
Congress is a breeding ground for harassment
There are certain factors that lead to higher levels of workplace harassment:
- In male-dominated environments, women experience high levels of harassment.
- Workplaces that revolve around the approval of a powerful authority figure create a risk for harassment.
- Those in low-wage positions experience high levels of harassment because they do not have bargaining power to push back.
Congress checks those boxes.
“Wherever there are big power disparities with people working closely together, that is a risk factor for work place harassment,” Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president of workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said. “When you have a congressman working with a woman who is in her first job after college, that is a dynamic that can risk work place harassment.”
Working relationships are currency on Capitol Hill, where the future of people’s careers hinges on supporting a person in power. Staff positions are low-paid and have high turnover — and moving jobs often requires having a good reputation.
For those experiencing harassment, there’s a constant fear of tarnishing that reputation. And it’s a well-founded concern — a 2015 analysis of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows 75 percent of women who report harassment experience retaliation, a real fear on Capitol Hill.
“I was in the position of having no choice but reacting in a way that was going to make a big deal out of it in front his staff or his wife, or acting like nothing was happening. I chose the latter,” Ally Coll Steele, a former Democratic senator’s intern, told the Washington Post about the senator grabbing her buttocks at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Time and time again, these stories come to the surface. In 2015, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) settled a sexual harassment case with his former communications director Lauren Greene after a series of inappropriate comments. Farenthold still holds office. In 2011, Rep. John Ensign (R-NV) resigned after acknowledging having an affair with a staffer. In 2010, Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) resigned after allegations that he had groped a male staffer. In 2014, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) shared personal accounts of sexual harassment from her Senate colleagues. The list goes on.
For many staffers, the best solution is often to change offices, a practice that can allow a serial offender to affect more individuals. There’s no question that most cases in Congress are going unreported.
But solutions are few and far between. Speier’s 2014 attempt to mandate that members and staff undergo harassment training went unanswered. Now Speier is planning to introduce legislation to revamp Congress’s oversight entity, and is encouraging people to come forward with their own stories.
“The chief of staff held my face kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Speier said in a video campaign calling on congressional staffers and members to share their experiences of harassment. “I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside. … Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.”
There some movement to make policy changes in the Capitol
Earlier this week, top Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) made a push to make anti–sexual harassment training mandatory on Capitol Hill, following efforts from Speier.
“I am convinced that sexual harassment training is vitally important to maintaining a respectful and productive working environment in Congress,” Grassley wrote in a letter to the Senate Rules Committee Tuesday.
He went on to urge a policy change, calling for the “immediate implementation of a policy requiring all new Senate employees” as well as “all current employees who have not yet received training” to go through online or in-person sexual harassment training. Currently, no one in the Capitol is required to undergo harassment training. Evidence shows harassment training is useful for identifying harassment, but not for preventing it.
Rep. Eleanor Norton Holmes (D-DC), who was the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the federal agency that enforces civil rights in the workplace — has also introduced legislation that would make Congress subject to the same civil rights laws that pertain to federal agencies and the private sector. The bill would allow for subpoena authority for the Office of Compliance, the congressional entity that manages harassment complaints, and would also require harassment training.
As workplace harassment becomes more of a national flashpoint, it’s clear there is more energy behind a push for action in Congress — and that there is a lot of work to be done.