This week, female members of Congress came forward with accounts of sexual harassment during their time working in the U.S. Capitol. Four current and former lawmakers spoke with the AP about enduring suggestive comments and harassment from their male coworkers.
The report comes as a growing number of women accuse prominent men in Hollywood, the media, and business of harassment since reporting about Harvey Weinstein opened the flood gates for accounts of sexual harassment and assault. More than two decades after Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) was forced to resign from Congress after an array of women came forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault, the women’s accounts this week detail how little has changed.
Leading lawmakers in the House, where much of the harassment of female lawmakers allegedly occurred, responded quickly, saying they would take the accusations seriously. On Face the Nation Sunday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the Committee on House administration will be holding hearings on the issue within the chamber. In a memo to lawmakers, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) encouraged his colleagues to complete sexual harassment trainings and make the sessions mandatory for their staffs.
“Harassment has no place in this institution,” he wrote, according to the AP. “We can and should lead by example.”
Members of Congress and their staffs can and should complete sexual harassment trainings, and Ryan should see to it that all employees in the U.S. Capitol know the law when it comes to harassment in the workplace. But if he really wants to lead by example, Ryan should use his position in Congress to advocate for changing laws that force women to work within a system where they are denied equal pay, set back for starting a family, and often retaliated against for raising accusations against their male colleagues.
As ThinkProgress’ Casey Quinlan recently wrote, “sexual harassment trainings have become a legal precaution more than anything, and the data shows that they are not effective at lowering incidents of harassment.” While these trainings may make people more aware of harassment when it is occurring around them, they are not going to stop people from abusing their positions of power or change their views on how women should be treated in the workplace.
Researchers have found that in order to prevent harassment in workplaces, employers need to work towards gender balance at every level of their organization.
Not only does the U.S. Congress not have gender equality — just over 19 percent of the House and 21 percent of the Senate are women — but that inequity leads to policies that prevent gender balance in private workplaces across the country.
The majority-male Congress routinely votes against legislation that would help women achieve equality, and therefore reduce harassment, in workplaces. In 2014, the Senate GOP rejected a an equal pay bill to narrow the gender wage gap. Male Republican lawmakers called it “redundant,” despite the fact that women still earn around 80 cents to a man’s dollar.
In 2013, 138 Republican representatives and 22 Republican senators voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which provides funding toward the investigation of violent crimes against women. The law, originally signed by Bill Clinton, also funds services for victims like rape crisis centers and hotlines.
The male-dominated Congress has also blocked attempts to more overtly prevent sexual harassment and assault. In 2014, 45 Senators — 34 of them Republicans — used a filibuster to block a proposal that would have taken military sexual assault cases outside of the hands of military commanders, a move that Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said was necessary because women in the military often fear reporting sexual assault because of fear of retaliation.
If Congress really cared about leading by example when it comes to sexual assault, lawmakers could proactively pass legislation that would help protect women who come forward to report perpetrators. At the least, Congress could pass a law banning employers from using forced arbitration clauses or non-disclosure agreements, like President Obama did for federal contractors in 2014.
According to Bryce Covert in the New Republic, these clauses force employees to bring allegations of harassment in a private arbitration process “where the person making the decision is often handpicked by the employer.” Workers are far less likely to win in arbitration than they are in court. The private nature of arbitration also allows companies to get away with keeping victims silent.
“An employer can rest assured that there will be no headlines and therefore no public pressure to make any changes, while a perpetrator knows that future victims won’t be forewarned about his record of behavior,” she wrote.
The federal government doesn’t bear all of the responsibility, however, when it comes to changing workplaces to make them more equal for women and less tolerant of harassment. State governments can, and have, played an important role.
At the same time, there is still much work to be done. This week, lawmakers on the state level became the subjects of the same kind of harassment allegations leveled at their counterparts in Congress. In Florida, six woman came forward against the state Senate’s budget chairman Jack Latvala (R), who is also running for governor. They claim that Latvala inappropriately touched them without their consent and made demeaning comments about their bodies, according to Politico. In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin (R) called for the “immediate resignation” of the Republican House speaker who reportedly settled a sexual harassment case outside of court with a member of his staff.
Lawmakers in blue states, including California, Illinois, and Massachusetts have also been accused. According to Politico, in Illinois, “hundreds of women signed onto an open letter charging a pervasive predatory culture in the state capitol, prompting a public hearing that exposed a grossly neglected, nearly nonexistent reporting system.” Politico reports that a high-ranking Illinois lawmaker has been stripped of his leadership post, an ethics commission will meet tomorrow, and a mandatory training will likely become legally required.