America is in the midst of a cultural reckoning, as women call out inappropriate behavior they have endured in workplaces from coast to coast. That includes statehouses, places governed by power and status as well as civic will. Complaints about harassment have emerged in capitals from Minnesota to Oregon, and on Tuesday, lawmakers in California will grapple with allegations of misbehavior that have been plaguing Sacramento.
A committee, led by Assemblymember Laura Friedman, will hold the first of what will likely be several hearings on sexual harassment and current procedures for reporting problems that workers encounter in the capitol.
“We’ve heard from a lot of women that they’re afraid to come forward,” says Friedman, a Democrat representing the Los Angeles area. “It’s important that the committee gets to the bottom of why.” Many have said they fear retaliation or the loss of their jobs, or that they don’t have faith in the reporting mechanisms available to them now.
In October, more than 140 women signed an open letter describing a government culture where “dehumanizing behavior” is pervasive. The signatories include lobbyists and legislators and other women who work in a building where more than three-fourths of lawmakers are men. Among their listed grievances are groping, inappropriate sexual comments and threats about their jobs that forced “compliance.”
Men have “leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like,” they write. In the wake of the letter, individuals have shared stories that range from unwanted kissing to a male lawmakers exposing their genitals to women. One male lawmaker has said he will not seek reelection in the wake of allegations about unwanted sexual advances. Another is under investigation for misconduct.
While the hearings will be focused on the Assembly, the Senate side is also working to assess and revamp its own policies. Here are excerpts from TIME’s interview with Friedman about what to expect as the legislature tries to reckon with its past and ensure a healthier working environment in the future.
What kind of behavior have you personally witnessed that led you to sign the letter?
I signed it in solidarity because a lot of women who had signed onto that letter are women that I know personally and were willing to share their experiences, and I’ve heard directly from women that have had really unpleasant and uncalled-for experiences in Sacramento. I personally have not had that kind of harassment. I’ve only been there for 11 months. But when I was younger — I was a film executive for twenty years — I certainly had my share of events that I would say crossed the line. And I think it’s important that women are willing are stand up for each other.
What will take place at the hearings?
For the first hearing, I think it’s really important for us to have an overview of what our current procedures and policies are. [That may involve bringing in someone from outside] to do a detailed audit of the past few years of complaints to really look at how they were handled, what happened to the people who made those complaints. Was there any retaliation? Were there thorough investigations? We’ve heard from a lot of women that they’re afraid to come forward, that they don’t feel the process is fair for them, and I think it’s important that the committee gets to the bottom of why. Is it more of a perception or is it a reality? Is it a blend of the two?
Why is it important to do this now?
We have a particular moment in time where there’s a lot of focus and a lot of will to change things, and this may not happen again. People may not look at the rules for another 10 years, so it’s really important that we seize on that moment and set up a better system, a system that’s a lot more protective for people who come forward, that investigates independently and has clear policies and clear guidelines for people who come in contact with the legislature: with the members, with the staffers, with the lobbyists, with everybody else, so everybody knows what’s expected.
Will women testify about their experiences, the kind referred to in the letter?
If they want to, but this is not a tribunal. It’s not about investigating any particular claim … This is a committee looking at what our procedures are for lodging those complaints and how they’re dealt with and whether or not people are truly protected, because there’s a lot of fear from people in Sacramento that if they report these incidents, they’re gonna be blackballed, they’re gonna be labeled a troublemaker, their careers are going to suffer, and that’s complicated. How do we truly protect everybody who comes forward?
We need to look at our culture. Why has this been going on for so long? What is it about the culture in the capitol that allows this kind of behavior and how do we address that? So that’s what these hearings are for. If somebody feels that sharing a particular experience – whether confidentially, privately, or publicly – would help us do that, we absolutely welcome it.
Based on what you’ve learned so far, what are those cultural factors and how pervasive is the problem of sexual harassment in the capital?
First of all, we’re talking about a small percentage of individuals. There are enough people that are engaging in bullying and harassing behavior that there’s a problem. It’s certainly not isolated examples, but it’s certainly not the majority of people who work in the capitol. However, it’s still way too much.
Any time you have an environment where there are people who have a lot of power and where accountability is difficult, you can give rise to these kinds of problems, which is why you see it in Hollywood as well. Where discipline is difficult, where some people are considered to be more valuable than other people, so maybe their behavior is tolerated more, where you have people who are staffers who work at-will, where you have young people who are very interested in getting into a highly competitive field that has a lot of rewards down the line — you have a system that’s ripe for exploitation. I certainly saw it in the film business, and I see a lot of the same dynamics at work in Sacramento.
Why do you think this is a problem coming to the fore in so many state capitals?
There are people, a lot of men, that think it’s okay to treat women in ways that women find degrading and dehumanizing and demeaning. And it’s done publicly and it’s done privately and it’s been accepted for far too long. And a lot of us just don’t want to put up with it anymore. There’s no reason you should have to come to work in an environment where people are allowed to demean you.
Some people say more female lawmakers, more female leaders, is a key part of the solution.
One of the problems with the capitol, with Sacramento, is that it’s been a boys’ club for many years. Men have been the ones in power primarily, and I think that if we make it a boys and girls club, we will change a lot of the culture … Women need to be seen as having as much power as men. They have to take the power back. They can’t always be asking for protection from men. Men have to police themselves and police each other and we as women have to make sure we support each other and support women that are in positions of authority, and tilt that balance.
There are times when it’s hard to tell, as a woman, if something crossed a line. And even when it’s obvious that a line has been crossed, it can be hard to know when it’s worth reporting or going public. How do you help make those issues clearer for women?
It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But I can tell you what doesn’t work, having been through it, is having to watch an hour-long video with Bill and Bonnie at the water cooler. [There needs to be] more of a dialogue where you actually think about the power dynamics at play. Because a young male legislator hitting on a woman at a bar is different from a young male legislator hitting on a woman at a bar who is also a staffer working in the building, who might feel pressured or intimidated or have a different understanding about what is happening than the man. That’s something that might not be illegal but probably crosses an ethical line, and those situations are things we need to discuss.
There are things that just flat-out shouldn’t happen: people groping people or people taking advantage of people where I think the bright line is already there and established. But there are a lot of things that, as women, we think “I don’t like that. That’s icky. I don’t like that that person touched me that way but maybe I’ll just stay away from them. I’m not going to go file a claim over it.” So what do we do as women in those situations? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but hopefully we can reduce the behavior before it even happens.
Is there something particularly telling about this being a problem in the capital of California, which so prides itself on being progressive and inclusive?
We should be walking the walk, not just talking the talk. My guess is that this happens in every statehouse in the country, but maybe we’re one of the only ones who are willing to have the discussion and talk about it.