For Congress, corporate world holds lessons on harassment
WASHINGTON – Agence France-Presse
With allegations of sexual misconduct swirling on Capitol Hill, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 on Nov. 29.
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, a federal anti-discrimination agency, sexual harassment has long been widespread in the U.S. 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.”