Sexual harassment is an occupational hazard for women in the Kansas statehouse.
I don’t remember what specific event prompted me to request a copy of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy. I don’t remember because it happened all too frequently. A legislator’s hand on my lower back, casually sliding downward, as I exited the House chamber. The lecherous gaze of a legislator as he inched his chair, and thus his body, closer to mine at dinner. An invitation, made by a legislator on the House floor, to sit on his lap.
What I do remember about the sexual harassment policy was how out of date it felt. The policy, which few were aware of and even fewer abided by, was last updated in 1994. The policy was vague as to whom it applied, confusing in whom to report to, and discouraging in terms of consequences. The assurance, that retaliation against a person for filing a complaint was prohibited, felt shallow. And absent from the policy was an understanding of the underlying power dynamics in the capitol and the overarching culture of disrespect and complicity.
I applaud legislative leadership for agreeing to review and revise the existing sexual harassment policy. Acknowledging the existence of the problem is an important first step. However, the next step must be to understand the pervasiveness of the problem. This process must be thoughtful, mediated not by those in positions of power to whom the policy will apply, but a neutral third party. This process must also be inclusive, elevating the voices and experiences of all women in the capitol building including interns, staffers, lobbyists and legislators alike.
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When it comes to crafting a new sexual harassment policy, the scope should be broadened to address the spectrum of abusive behaviors occurring in the statehouse including misconduct, harassment, and assault as well as more subtle forms of sexism. The resulting policy should be clear but nuanced, and fair but easy to enforce, with an emphasis on supporting victims and holding offenders accountable. Anyone experiencing sexual harassment must feel confident that reporting sexual harassment will not ruin their career, and potential perpetrators must feel confident that committing sexual harassment may ruin theirs.
To write a new sexual harassment policy is not enough. Legislative leadership must also commit to providing mandatory training for everyone who works under the dome on a recurring basis. In addition to educating people on policies and procedures, the training should focus on preventing sexual harassment, not simply handling it after the fact. Training should provide real-world examples of unacceptable behaviors as well as ways to engage with individuals of the opposite sex professionally.
Finally, bystanders who witness inappropriate behavior must forcefully condemn it. Do not turn a blind eye, do not blame the victim, and do not dismiss the behavior as a joke. To do so is to be an enabler.
Instead, call out the action as unacceptable and make clear that it will not be tolerated. Remember: Sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power. And while there is an abundance of power concentrated in the state capitol, no one should abuse their position of power in an attempt to exert control over others.
Recent revelations regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and the #MeToo movement create an opportunity for change. Changing the culture in the capitol will not be easy, but ignoring the existence of sexual harassment will no longer be either. By implementing a more robust sexual harassment policy with stronger protections for victims and stronger consequences for perpetrators, along with an increase in education, prevention, and accountability by all, sexual harassment need no longer be an occupational hazard for women in the Kansas Statehouse.
Abbie Hodgson was a speechwriter for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and chief of staff to House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs. She now works at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.