In the first two weeks of this year, Wyoming’s Legislative Services Office received two sexual harassment complaints. That comes on the heels of three filed last year and one in 2016.
That spike in harassment reports – there were no complaints filed from 2012 through 2015 – suggests people are becoming more aware of the issue and less likely to suffer in silence.
That’s no surprise given the national discussion concerning sexual harassment that’s taken place since Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault last fall. In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, scores of powerful men in entertainment, media and politics have been outed as harassers and predators.
This reckoning is long overdue. Woman have for too long suffered harassment and worse while simply trying to do their jobs. We think of the physical and emotional toll of harassment, but there is also the economic and professional costs when women have to expend time and energy navigating the inappropriate sexual behaviors of their male colleagues rather than focusing on their jobs and careers. The recent spike in harassment complaints received by the Legislative Services Offices demonstrates that more should be done to prevent future incidents of harassment in our Legislature.
There is good news to report on this front. Leadership is revising its harassment policy to include people who work with lawmakers but are not technically employed by the Legislature. That would include lobbyists, members of the executive branch and journalists.
Expanding the policy to include people who work with lawmakers and their staff on a regular basis is critical. It’s easy to see, for example, how a lobbyist would have a difficult time pushing back against a lawmaker harasser who decides which groups receive funding – and which will be left holding the bag. Or consider a representative of an advocacy group who worries about coming forward because it might cost a key vote on an issue she backs.
Leadership is working on other changes that should help. That includes the creation of a process for an outside investigation of a complaint if the entities who normally perform investigations have a conflict of interest. Another change would specify what types of “corrective actions” could be taken for valid complaints.
But legislative leaders should keep in mind one of the most important weapons at their disposal: sunshine. The conversation about sexual harassment did not begin until women began bravely coming forward and media organizations began publishing their stories. Pushing these issues out into the open has forced companies and government agencies to take them seriously. It’s led to the downfall of men who for too long used their power for their own sexual ends.
The Legislative Services Office has a blanket confidentiality policy on harassment cases that makes it difficult for journalists to report on the issue. While the privacy of victims should always be protected, legislative leaders should consider releasing aggregated data annually, so the public is aware of the situation and can respond to any concerning trends.
When an incident of harassment happens, there is a tendency for an organization to recoil, to burrow into its shell until the worst passes. But if true change is going to happen, it will require honest, open conversations about what has happened and the steps taken to address the issue. True change can’t happen in the dark.