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Sexual Harassment Training Is Hard to Find in Statehouses

In most of the state capitols recently roiled by allegations of sexual assault or harassment, lawmakers have not been receiving regular anti-harassment training. But many of them will soon.

By Jen Fifield

In most of the state capitols recently roiled by allegations of sexual assault or harassment, lawmakers have not been receiving regular anti-harassment training. But many of them will soon.

Spurred by allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, women in at least 16 states have come forward in the last month to accuse male state lawmakers of sexual assault or harassment, and allegations continue to come to light. Only five of these 16 states — California, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon and Vermont — require all state lawmakers to attend regular anti-harassment training, according to a Stateline survey of legislative research and leadership offices.

In the other states — Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Washington — anti-harassment training has taken place only during new legislator training, only in one chamber, once every five years, or not at all.

In the male-dominated world of politics, it’s generally left to party and chamber leaders to make rules for required training and other procedures. Those leaders change frequently, making it hard for legislatures to set permanent requirements. And enforcing these requirements for lawmakers — who are held accountable mainly by voters — has proven difficult in many states.

But more states are going to try. Senate presidents, House speakers and other legislative leaders in at least seven of the states without regular required training have announced they will require lawmakers to participate in more comprehensive training. In others, leaders have said they are reviewing their chambers’ sexual harassment policies and procedures to see how they can be strengthened.

In Illinois, where this month Democratic state Sen. Ira Silverstein resigned from his leadership position after he was accused of harassment, the Legislature quickly passed a bill that will require all lawmakers and employees to attend annual anti-harassment training. In Washington state, House staff this week decided to offer training for representatives. In many other states, leaders say they are planning training for the start of the next legislative session.

And after women in Congress came forward with allegations of harassment, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin urged House members to complete training and require it of their staff.

While anti-harassment training has long been standard in corporate America, that’s not the case in politics. In a sector that mostly polices itself, the lack of regular discussion about what constitutes inappropriate behavior is likely to have contributed to the long-standing misogynist culture that has allowed harassment to fester, according to many female state lawmakers, as well as psychologists who study how to best prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

They are applauding the promised changes as a good first step. But many, such as Meg Bond, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Women and Work at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, say legislatures must go beyond a basic annual training if they are to prevent harassment.

“Basic training is just a really minor Band-Aid,” she said.


Making Permanent Change

This isn’t the first time a high-profile case has spurred allegations of harassment and talk of change in statehouses. In 1992, after public allegations were made against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as U.S. Sens. Bob Packwood, Brock Adams and Daniel Inouye, women in statehouses started to speak up about the harassment they had experienced. In response, many legislatures offered training or created new reporting procedures.

In more recent years, at least seven legislatures have instituted anti-harassment training after state lawmakers resigned or were expelled following allegations against them. The training often is in-person, 1 to 3 hours long, and is held annually or every other year after elections.

Earlier this year, for example, the Oklahoma House instituted an annual training requirement after accusations that Republican state Rep. Dan Kirby accepted (and at times, solicited) topless photos from a legislative assistant. Kirby resigned upon a committee’s recommendation that he be expelled.

This month in Kentucky, Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover resigned as speaker after he acknowledged he “engaged in inappropriate text messages.” Women alleged that they were harassed by three other GOP state lawmakers as well. Kentucky in 2014 mandated annual, 3-hour, in-person training for lawmakers, after sexual harassment accusations against multiple lawmakers.

In Ohio, Republican state Sen. Cliff Hite resigned last month after a staffer accused him of making repeated advances to her, including hugs and offers of sex. Now, House and Senate leaders say they will soon host required training for lawmakers.

But those policies may not be permanent. Republican House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger of Ohio is only speaker for one more year. His spokesman, Brad Miller, said Rosenberger hopes the training will become annual, but it will be beyond his control.

Ohio state Sen. Charleta Tavares said she will soon propose a bill that would make such training permanent and change how harassment that occurs in the Capitol is reported. “If you want to set a tone and a culture for everyone in the buildings that we control, then it needs to be permanent,” the Democrat said.

Another challenge is ensuring that lawmakers attend the training.

In Kansas, where a former staffer to a House Democrat recently said she was propositioned by a male lawmaker in 2015 and others have come forward with similar allegations, state Rep. Jim Ward said all House Democrats will be required to attend training in the middle of December and after the 2018 session begins. To enforce the rule, he said attendance at the training will be used “to evaluate members of the caucus when making decisions regarding committee assignments, ranking positions and other caucus benefits.”

But Tavares and other women lawmakers say training alone will not stop harassment, which she said she has witnessed since she started in the General Assembly as a staffer. The Legislature also needs to create better procedures for reporting harassment to make it clear that women will not face retaliation or threats when they come forward, she said. “They are afraid of being blackballed.”

Leaders in other states, such as Illinois, also are looking at changing how harassment is reported and how offenders are punished. Illinois appointed a legislative inspector general to investigate complaints there, and Iowa hired a new legislative human resources manager to take complaints there.


‘Daily Microaggressions’

In Vermont, where Republican state Sen. Norm McAllister was accused of sexual harassment in 2015, the Legislature in 2016 instituted a requirement that all lawmakers attend in-person anti-harassment training at the Capitol every other year. But harassment there continues, according to Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and female lawmakers who have spoken out in the last month.

“You would have to be naive or a Neanderthal to think that somehow inside the Vermont state Capitol everything is perfect,” said Ashe, a member of the Vermont Progressive Party.

But Ashe said the training helps lawmakers understand more subtle forms of harassment, the kind that would make people uncomfortable in part because of the power dynamics at play.

Examples include asking a woman about her sex life, telling a woman she looks sexy, or pressuring her to go out after work, Bond said. Repeated comments that make someone feel uncomfortable, even if the other person says he or she is joking, also count, she said.

Another example is unwanted touching — such as back rubs or touching the belly of a woman who is pregnant, she said.

Most workplace training, though, doesn’t touch on these less egregious examples of harassment, according to a 2016 report from by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, it focuses on protecting employers from legal liability. This type of training alone is ineffective in preventing harassment, the report said.

Training should touch on harassment that, while not necessarily illegal, is still damaging, such as sexist jokes, Bond said. “Not just on really blatant, crass kinds of harassment — but the daily microaggressions,” she said, using a term that refers to everyday slights and snubs that can make women feel threatened.

In Massachusetts, the Senate brings in a trainer who is certified by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a state agency, to train senators and staff at the beginning of every legislative session. Among other techniques, the training uses role play with live feedback, said Jeremy Scheiner, the agency’s training director. “Employees need to know what to do as well as what not to do.”

Both Bond and Eden King, who teaches psychology at George Mason University, say to reduce harassment in any workplace, including state legislatures, leaders should start with an assessment of the current environment and communicate regularly that harassment will not be tolerated. And training should be frequent.

In Vermont, Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, the Democratic chairwoman of the senate’s sexual harassment panel, said she is looking at how the Legislature can host mandatory anti-harassment training more often, and how to institute better reporting procedures.

For now, she said, the training isn’t resonating. Walking out of the first training session there last year, a male lawmaker made an anti-gay “crack” to her. Balint is gay.

“I thought, ‘Did you not just go to that training?’ ” 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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