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Women Call Capitol's Sexual Harassment Complaint Process Flawed

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio File

The California State Senate.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio File

This week, Sacramento women shared some of their darkest stories about sexual harassment in and around the Capitol.

More than 140 women in California politics signed a letter calling out systemic harassment at the Capitol. They talked about physical advances in bathrooms, inappropriate comments at work functions and unwanted attention from their own supervisors. But few have made a formal complaint about their experiences.

The Senate, the Assembly, the Office of the Governor and the Office of the Lieutenant Governor each have their own systems in place for handling allegations of sexual harassment and assault. But women in and around the Capitol say those systems are flawed.

Tam Ma, a legal and policy director with the advocacy group Health Access, says she experienced harassment during her early years in the Capitol. She never took her complaints to her superiors because she didn’t want it to be held against her later on.

“It’s hard for people to report problems if they don’t have the confidence that it’ll be handled fairly, or that they won’t be punished for speaking out,” Ma says. “People in this business, in and around the capitol, really value loyalty and discretion.”

In the Senate, employees who believe they’re experiencing harassment are encouraged to speak with the Deputy Secretary for Human Resources. In the Office of the Governor, they can see the Equal Employment Opportunity Officer.

In the Assembly, they can take it to the Rules Committee. Debra Gravert is its Chief Administrative Officer.

Gravert says the committee thoroughly investigates every incident that comes to them. They often bring in an outside firm to interview the accused and the accuser, she says, as well as anyone else who may have been involved in the harassment.

They’ve handled just 11 cases since 2013. The Senate did not provide numbers on harrasment complaints.

Gravert says she’s not sure how to get more people to use the system.

“I’m not saying our system is perfect,” Gravert says. “I think everything across the board, in life in general can be better, and we can do things better.

"I do think we have a good process in place as far as how seriously we take any type of issue when it comes to harassment — whether it be sexual harassment, whether it be bullying, whether it be gender discrimination, hostile work environment, you know, on and on and on."

Still, many letter signers say they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about sexual harassment with anyone in the Capitol because they wouldn’t want word to get around that they filed a complaint.

“I definitely know women who have used the process and felt that it came to a resolution that didn’t advance their careers, didn’t make them feel safer and didn’t make them feel protected,” says Adama Iwu, one of the organizers of the letter and the accompanying “We Said Enough” campaign.

Mary-Alice Coleman, an attorney in Davis, says she works with lots of women who faced harassment at the Capitol and chose to take their cases all the way to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“In my experience, the power dynamic where you have legislators and so many persons within the system who are indebted to those powerful people, it’s very difficult sometimes to get the focus on individual employees in the manner that they should be looked at,” Coleman says.

Letter writers say the flawed process is just a small part of the larger problem - a Capitol culture where women are regularly objectified, bullied and assaulted.

“Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands. They are bosses, gatekeepers, and contacts. Our relationships with them are crucial to our personal success,” the letter reads. “We don’t want to jeopardize our future, make waves, or be labeled ‘crazy,’ ‘troublemaker,’ or ‘asking for it.’ Worse, we’re afraid when we speak up that no one will believe us, or we will be blacklisted.”

Find more stories from the “We Said Enough” campaign here.

Nick Miller and Ben Adler contributed reporting to this story.

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