The #MeToo movement shined a spotlight on what so many women – particularly women of color, LGBTQ people, and immigrants already knew: sexual harassment is a serious – and often silent – reality in every sector of work across the country. In the wake of a social media campaign and growing public outcry, employers and advocates have to reckon with what comes next. At best, our current laws and policies have failed to act as safeguards against discrimination. At worst, they conceal the problem, leaving victims suffering in silence in order to financially support themselves and their families.
Lawmakers are among those with the power to take steps forward to confront a culture of harassment in the workplace. In 2016, a survey found that 4 in 10 congressional aides felt that harassment was a serious issue on Capitol Hill, and 1 in 6 reported personal experience with harassment. Since 1997, the U.S. Treasury has paid $15.2 million dollars in awards and settlements for Capitol workplace violations – and those are just the cases where a violation was reported. The actual process for addressing sexual harassment in the Capitol workplace, detailed in the (more than 20-year old) outdated and ineffective Congressional Accountability Act (CAA), includes a dispute resolution process and a mandatory “cooling off” period for victims seeking justice. Harassment goes unchecked because the procedures don’t support victims, and there is a history of settlements that protect legislators.
We know that an issue affecting all of us is not an issue to draw party lines around, which is why it is encouraging to have the bipartisan support behind legislation pending in Congress. Sexual harassment is about power dynamics, and it is used as a form of control and role reinforcement across identities and party lines. In February, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bipartisan reform bill updating the CAA, aiming to ensure that the process supports victims and holds lawmakers – not taxpayers – accountable for violations. The bill eliminates the mandatory waiting periods and provides survivors with access to free legal representation; it holds legislators financially accountable for settlements that result from violations they commit.
Action in the Senate was slower, and the resulting bill has differences that make it weaker than the House version. Women took the lead in advancing progress, and after all 22 female senators and bipartisan sponsors called for the Senate to take action, they passed their version of the bill out of the Senate in May. While it includes many of the important provisions outlined in the House bill, it narrows the definition of harassment and provides victims with advisors, not legal counsel. Both bills extend the protections of the CAA to unpaid staffers, such as interns and fellows. The next step is passing a final version of the bill through conference.
And here in Ohio, state legislators are grappling with the same issues, fueled not just by the impact of the #MeToo movement, but also from personal stories about the culture on Capitol Square. The calls for action were met with new legislative measures in the House and Senate to address sexual harassment within the Statehouse. In the Senate, Senator Charleta Tavares introduced SB 270, which would require harassment trainings for state officials and employees, as well as lobbyists working within the Statehouse. The legislation would also mandate a review of current policy and create a task force to further focus on the issue and make recommendations to address and prevent harassment. State legislators have also drawn attention to the shortcomings of current policy, stating that sexual harassment in the Statehouse is is hard to quantify because many people do not feel safe to speak out against it. Because of this, the bill would also seek to shield victim’s names from public records that could cause them to fear for their career prospects in state government. And in the House, Representatives Tavia Galonski and Theresa Fedor introduced HB 532, which would require trainings on the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment for all state officials and employees and those contracting with the state. The legislation would also establish a Commission on Sexual Harassment to study and make recommendations for the elimination of sexual harassment from the workplace.
Over the last year, one thing has been clear: If sexual harassment is still an issue in the highest ranking offices of our government, it is an undeniable challenge for everyday Americans working to support themselves. The element of power involved in certain workplaces means that women (who already struggle to achieve workplace equality), and especially women of color and immigrant women, are more susceptible to harassment. Women of color and immigrant women who make up the majority of workers in the low-wage workforce, where their work is often devalued or invisible, are some of the most vulnerable to sexual harassment. In 2016, a survey found that 70% of workers who experienced sexual harassment did not report it. In many workplaces, there is a lack of protection and resources to speak out about harassment. However, victims may also be reluctant to report their harassment for fear of retaliation or because the systems in place do not allow them to hold employees accountable.
Sexual harassment is more than just a problem on Capitol Hill or Cap Square. It affects workers in every industry and sector – especially women working in the low-wage workforce, such as food services and hospitality. Employers and legislators need to establish policies that protect everyone from sexual harassment and toxic workplace culture, from Capitol Hill staffers to farm workers to servers (who are often facing sexual harassment from other employees and customers) to every job inbetween. That’s why Senators Kamala Harris and Lisa Murkowski introduced a bipartisan bill targeting one of the barriers that keeps victims silent from reporting sexual harassment. Known as the EMPOWER Act, their bill would prohibit companies from including sexual harassment in non-disclosure agreements signed by employees, which have frequently been used to coerce employees into silence about their experiences. This legislation is a step in the right direction that will impact workers in every occupation beyond the walls of the Capitol building. Systems for handling harassment work best when the power dynamics created by the harassment are no longer allowed to persist through the process; victims deserve an equitable resolution, not one that shields their harassers.
As our country continues to reckon with the cultural dynamics of sex and power, our policies need to make it easier, not harder, for employees to feel safe at work. Legislators and employers have an important role to play, advancing key policies that support transparency and accountability so that no one makes a living at the cost of silence. [Learn more about legislative solutions to address and prevent sexual harassment in a briefing from the National Women’s Law Center]