The Legislature’s sexual harassment policy is better now — but it’s not good enough

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

Since Harvey Weinstein’s abrupt downfall following accusations of sexual misbehavior, the #MeToo movement has come screaming out of the historic shroud of silence and demanded attention. The unending stories of males gone wild have forcefully generated long overdue discussions about finding our equilibrium in the new normal of acceptable workplace behavior — including within the hallowed halls of government.

Across the country, allegations of misconduct have resulted in at least 18 male state lawmakers announcing their resignations or being stripped of leadership positions, and there are more than a dozen additional cases pending. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the Texas Legislature is not immune.

Following reporting by The Daily Beast and The Texas Tribune, stories of sexual harassment, abuse and its own cultural tolerance of it forced the Legislature to do some navel-gazing. To its credit, the Texas House quickly took action.

After the accounts brought to light glaring deficiencies in the policy of the House — such as inaccurate information about whom to call with a complaint — Speaker Joe Straus charged the House Administration Committee with reviewing and updating the guidelines. A December hearing was held to make necessary revisions following input from House members, including recommendations from a majority of women members who collectively pushed for greater transparency and accountability. Though it was fruitful, everyone involved recognized that this hearing was just the beginning; a special interim committee is expected to determine additional recommendations prior to the beginning of the 86th Legislative Session, which convenes in January 2019.

The freshly revised House policy meets many of the recommended elements shared by the National Conference of State Legislatures — a vital, bipartisan resource for lawmakers — such as providing specific examples of inappropriate behaviors and potential disciplinary actions, as well as involving an independent investigator. It also specifies where to report legislators and others who violate the policy, and indicates that all complaints “will be promptly and thoroughly investigated by impartial individuals.” It still lacks details regarding the specifics of the investigation or enforcement.

Another outstanding concern is how to hold elected legislators accountable for harassment, when they have no supervisors or employers — other than the constituents who elected them. Unfortunately, the closest the current policy comes to any accountability for House members is a requirement that they view a sexual harassment training video and that the public can see who has completed the training. Though training is certainly important in terms of conveying information, its primary purpose has been litigation avoidance rather than prevention of harassing behavior, and there is little evidence to support its effectiveness.

Moving forward, we will continue to look at best practices in other states. But I would argue that the single most effective way to decrease sexual harassment is to increase respect for women in the workplace. Research has shown that the more women there are in decision-making positions within an institution, the less harassment occurs. In fact, a 2016 EEOC report concluded that traditional training should be replaced with respect-based instruction.

If we truly want a policy that “is committed to creating and maintaining a work environment free from sexual harassment,” we need a process that complainants can trust will objectively and respectfully respond to reports of sexual harassment in a timely manner, and that has a rational and responsible procedure for investigating and enforcing discipline without political interference. In recent weeks, the Texas House has taken baby steps toward meeting these goals. But major questions remain: Who chooses an independent investigator? Will lawmakers be required to follow recommendations? What are appropriate disciplinary measures for different levels of harassment? Is there any time limit after which a complaint of an event would not be investigated? What information should be made public and at what point in the process?

I’ll be working with my colleagues to get sufficient answers to those questions, and to write a policy that provides safety and accountability for everyone at the Legislature.

With the encouragement that comes from shared voices exposing dirty secrets, the #MeToo movement will not be silenced. And its collective outrage may finally bring an end to the good ol’ boys club at the Texas Capitol.

Donna Howard

State representative, D-Austin

@DonnaHowardTX

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The Legislature’s sexual harassment policy is better now — but it’s not good enough Show All