Students who have interned in Congressional offices welcomed efforts to boost sexual harassment training on Capitol Hill.
After a spate of sexual harassment allegations against men in media, entertainment and politics – including on Capitol Hill – the House voted Wednesday to mandate workplace rights, sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training for all members and staff. The bill comes on the heels of a similar measure in the Senate earlier this month that required Senate members, staff, interns and fellows to complete anti-sexual harassment training no more than 60 days after starting work.
For students who interned in Congressional offices – a rite of passage for many politically-minded students – the bills were a welcome development. Six current and former GW interns on Capitol Hill said sexual harassment is a pressing issue in Congressional offices because power dynamics leave interns and lower-level staff vulnerable to established superiors.
Anna LaRocco Masi, a senior studying political science and sociology, said fellow interns told her that a current male staffer acted flirtatiously by trying to “hook up” with interns or asking them to send inappropriate pictures or texts after their internships ended.
“It puts interns in compromising positions because, what if they want a letter of recommendation or something after they leave?” she said.
Masi said everyone in the office where she interned took an hour-long anti-sexual harassment course two weeks ago, but the topics in the training could be improved.
“I think there should be discussion, education and bystander prevention incorporated, reflection and more support services for survivors,” she said. “There are not enough services.”
Sexual misconduct allegations against Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., have highlighted the prevalence of the issue in the halls of the Capitol and the secretive process that Congressional offices use to confidentially resolve allegations, The Washington Post reported.
The Congressional Office of Compliance confirmed last week that it paid more than $17 million in more than 260 settlements to victims since 1997, according to Yahoo News.
Gabe Murphy, a junior who interned for a Democratic senator, said he hasn’t witnessed sexual harassment, but it was a problem that deserved greater attention.
“It is important to be educated about what harassment means, especially in the workplace when it comes to things like creating a safe and comfortable work environment,” he said.
Murphy said he plans to work on the Hill again and the training may change the office culture. He said he’d like to see bystander intervention training – knowing when and how to step in when someone acts inappropriately – included in the program to prevent incidents in the future.
“I don’t believe it will impact my work on the Hill in a significant way, but it may change the atmosphere in the office to one where coworkers think more before they say anything and are a bit more sensitive to their surroundings,” he said.
Members of Congress have introduced a slew of legislation in recent weeks in hopes of further addressing sexual harassment.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced a resolution earlier this month that would implement a biennial anonymous survey to gather information about sexual harassment incidents.
Grassley said in a statement that anti-harassment training already exists through various Congressional offices, but every office should receive uniform training to enforce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment.
“Trainings like this are important for cultivating the right kind of working environment and setting the baseline standards that any place of work should have,” he said in the statement.
Experts said the allegations against Franken, Conyers and Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore drove the push for better training on Capitol Hill. Conyers stepped down as a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee Saturday amid allegations that he sexually harassed female staffers, which he denies, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Andrea Johnson, a senior counsel for state policy at the National Women’s Law Center, said when people share experiences about harassment, they show that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.
“That has kicked a lot of people into high gear,” she said. “There’s fear of retaliation for speaking, so it hasn’t been as public in the past as it is right now.”
The trainings should be in person, frequent, interactive and mandatory, with opportunities for participants to role play or problem solve, she added.
Kristin Nicholson, the director of the Government Affairs Institute, and Travis Moore, the founder and director of TechCongress, gathered 1,500 signatures for a letter pushing for anti-harassment training that was sent to the House and Senate. Nicholson said their original goal was to obtain just 100 signatures from former staffers.
“Staff feel constrained when speaking on their own behalf or advocating,” Nicholson said. “We wanted to take some of that pressure off.”