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The Workplace Culture In Congress Fuels Sexual Harassment

The wave of sexual harassment allegations that has rippled across industries — implicating Hollywood producers and stars, chefs, Olympic coaches and officials, journalists, state legislators and comedians — is now hitting Congress with a vengeance.

Even before news of accusations against Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken, a female member of Congress spoke out about her own experience with harassment. Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a Democrat, said that Congress “has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long.”1

Speier is right to point to workplace environment as a key predictor for harassment; research shows that Congress has many of the ingredients for a work environment where sexual harassment is tolerated or even encouraged.

Louise Fitzgerald, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who developed a widely used model for measuring sexual harassment in the workplace, said that there are two major environment conditions that indicate harassment may be prevalent: the “gender context” and the organizational culture.

To measure the gender context, or balance, “We look at the ratio of men to women in the organization and the number of women in a position of leadership,” Fitzgerald said. Male-dominated organizations with fewer women overall — or few women in leadership roles — are likelier to enable an environment where sexual harassment can flourish, although a gender-balanced or majority-female workplace isn’t guaranteed to be free of sexual harassment either. A 2008 study found that women are less likely to experience certain kinds of harassment (such as sexually oriented jokes, overly personal communications, sexual solicitation or forced sexual contact) in workplaces where they’re in the majority, but they still experienced harassment in the form of sexist but nonsexual comments.

Research has shown that this is true even when there are women in prominent positions of power. Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, was a co-author of a 2012 study that found that female supervisors were likelier than female non-supervisors to say they’d experienced harassment. McLaughlin chalked this up to harassment as an “equalizer.” “It’s a way of undermining a powerful woman’s credibility,” she said. “Instead of your boss, she’s just some woman on a power trip.”

Congress doesn’t score well for gender context: Only about 20 percent of members of Congress are women, and although nearly half of congressional staffers are female, analyses have shown that women are far more likely to hold lower-ranking roles as office managers or constituent representatives than to serve as chiefs of staff or legislative directors.

“The power disparities in Congress are enormous,” said Debra Katz, an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment and has represented congressional aides. She pointed to a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that highlights the problem of “superstar harassers,” i.e. employees who are especially powerful or valuable to an organization and therefore believe they are above the rules. “Members of Congress are by definition superstars,” she said. “And many believe the rules do not apply to them.”

On organizational culture, the other major indicator of a workplace where sexual harassment is tolerated or encouraged, Congress does poorly too. In particular, there’s the problem of what happens after an incident occurs. A lack of clear and transparent procedures for reporting sexual harassment coupled with the belief that harassers will not be punished, or that employees who report harassment will face professional repercussions make for a negative organizational culture, according to Fitzgerald.

Currently in Congress, after an incident but before filing a complaint, victims are required to undergo two months of counseling and “mediation,” then wait an additional 30 days before filing their complaint.2 The length of the process, and the process itself, have been criticized, and lawmakers such as Speier are trying to change both. The convoluted procedure for investigating misconduct, Fitzgerald said, can create the impression that harassment claims aren’t taken seriously.

Congress has a number of other markers that could contribute to a hostile organizational culture, too. A young workforce is a risk factor, according to the EEOC report — and a clear red flag for Congress, where 42 percent of staffers are between the ages of 21 and 24. Another problem in Congress is that the workforce is largely decentralized: Each congressional office is its own fiefdom with little accountability for members or their senior aides.

Then there’s the fear of retaliation. The competition for positions on Capitol Hill makes employees especially afraid to lose their jobs. “It’s not like you can walk down the street and get another job with a senator,” Katz said. “People who work in Congress correctly perceive that making these accusations can completely derail their careers.”

All of these environmental factors matter — not only for whether sexual harassment is tolerated, but also for how victims recover after experiencing harassment and for the wellbeing of employees in the environment as a whole. According to Fitzgerald’s research, victims are less affected by negative professional and psychological effects related to harassment if they feel satisfied with the reporting process, compared to victims in hostile workplaces. Watching co-workers experience sexual harassment can also have a damaging impact on employees, even if they’re not victims themselves.

“It’s like secondhand smoke,” Fitzgerald said. “A workplace environment that encourages harassment hurts everyone.”

Footnotes

  1. A 2017 Roll Call survey of congressional aides backs her up: Four in 10 women who responded said that they believed sexual harassment was a problem on Capitol Hill, and one in six said they had been a victim.

  2. The process, which is mandated by the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, applies only to congressional employees, not interns, fellows or pages.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a writer and reporter living in Chicago.

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