For Congress, corporate world holds important lessons on sexual harassment

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The U.S. Capitol is pictured on the opening day of the 112th United States Congress in Washington, January 5, 2011. -- REUTERS

WITH ALLEGATIONS of sexual misconduct swirling on Capitol Hill, US lawmakers are poised to make anti-harassment training mandatory in their ranks, following in a path taken decades ago by the business world — to what experts say are mixed results.

Harassment claims have ensnared several high-profile US lawmakers, most prominently Senator Al Franken who has apologized after being accused of unwanted kissing and touching, and Congressman John Conyers who quit a leadership post over claims he sexually harassed staff.

Spurred to act by the allegations surfacing on Capitol Hill and in more than a dozen state legislatures around the country, the Senate recently made anti-harassment training compulsory for lawmakers and staff alike, with the House of Representatives to vote on a similar measure Wednesday.

But experts — pointing at the experience of the private sector — warn that real progress may require a cultural shift.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal anti-discrimination agency, sexual harassment has long been widespread in the US labor force — ranging from degrading remarks, to unwelcome advances and demands for sexual favors in exchange for preferential treatment or under threat of dismissal or demotion.

“We have seen it everywhere for more than 30 years,” said Christine Saah Nazer, an EEOC spokeswoman, citing examples in all sorts of industries, from factories and retail to the white-collar sector.

The American business world has long tried to raise awareness of the persistent problem, using online questionnaires and videos and inviting lawyers to explain where victims and harassers stand under the law.

The aeronautics giant Airbus in the United States, for instance, has instituted what it calls a “zero tolerance” policy with online training that tests employees on case studies and examples of what constitutes harassment.

But Eden King, professor of psychology at Rice University, said teaching workers about the law was not enough.

“They have to change the organization’s culture,” she told AFP, noting that hyper-masculine work environments often exacerbate the problem of harassment and abuse.

“I think we have to change men’s and women’s roles in society.”

Saah Nazer of the EEOC likewise acknowledged that harassment training programs adopted in past years had failed to stem the phenomenon.

She said her organization was now focused on promoting “a more civil workplace… instead of saying this is illegal and that is not illegal.”

The problem is most serious, she told AFP, in industries with the greatest disparities in power and pay between men and women, where senior male staff may feel empowered to take advantage of underpaid women.

An aggravating factor, she said, was that very high earners may enjoy a degree of impunity with regard to sexual misconduct — because they are such a financial asset to their employer.

Work environments where day-to-day business can involve a degree of wining and dining — such as law, PR firms and the financial industry — appeared particularly prone to harassment, she said.

According to a study conducted by her agency between 2015 and 2016, sexual harassment in the workplace is not only persistent but also likely to be under-reported, as many victims fear retribution for coming forward to complain, she said.

That is something Congress is moving to address, with a bill under examination that would overhaul the antiquated process for filing harassment complaints to allow for greater transparency, accountability, and victim support.

Under current congressional rules, accusers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to initiate complaints, and any financial settlement reached is secret and paid for by US taxpayers.

The bill would do away with such requirements, and force a lawmaker who settles such a claim to reimburse the government. — AFP