The House of Representatives doesn’t currently require lawmakers or their staff to undergo a mandatory training about what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace — but Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) wants to change that. Spurred by a few recent controversies involving elected officials, Speier wants the House to update its policy.
“This is the House of Representatives, not a frat house,” Speier said in a statement. “It is time for all of us to get trained — elected officials and their staffs — to recognize what sexual harassment is, and how to prevent it, and what to do if it happens.”
The California lawmaker cited the controversy surrounding Rep. Vance McAllister (R-LA), who was caught on tape in a romantic encounter with a former aide, as an example of the need for a policy change. She also referenced former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner (D), who stepped down from his position last August after being accused of sexually harassing over a dozen different women. Speier pointed out that none of the women who eventually stepped forward to accuse Filner felt comfortable reporting the behavior that occurred during the years he was serving in the House, which signals a serious problem.
Speier is recommending that the House implement the type of training program that has become common in the private sector — a mandatory class that would “include practical examples aimed at the prevention of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.” Outside reviews of these programs have found that they typically help employees become more sensitive to issues of harassment, and can be particularly successful in clarifying men’s views about unwanted sexual behavior, which they sometimes see as a “gray area.”
An estimated one in four women in the U.S. has experienced sexual harassment at work. And about one in five women say that they’ve been harassed by a direct superior, which can create a situation in which their job security is in jeopardy. Even though this is an incredibly common issue for women in the workplace, the vast majority of those who experience sexual harassment — just like the women who were victimized by Filner — don’t feel comfortable reporting the misconduct.
The issue of sexual harassment famously rose to national prominence in 1991 after Anita Hill, a law professor in Oklahoma, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual misconduct perpetrated by Clarence Thomas before he was nominated to the Supreme Court. The panel of all-white, all-male lawmakers seemed to be confused about what exactly constituted sexual harassment. Working women, however, finally had a term for the realities they were facing — and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a sharp spike in the number of sexual harassment charges after Hill’s widely publicized testimony.
In Speier’s view, elected officials haven’t necessarily come very far since then. Although sexual harassment training is mandatory for Executive Branch agencies, the House of Representatives has yet to bring its own standards in line. “It is time for us to clean up our act,” she said on the floor on Tuesday.