Within the last few months of 2017, the social media #metoo campaign gathered momentum following accusations of sexual harassment within Hollywood. Since then, the Time’s Up campaign and a national conversation regarding sexual harassment—and what constitutes harassment—has continued in 2018 within circles of celebrities, journalists and politicians. Idaho’s legislature is not exempt from the conversation. On Jan. 9, the Idaho State Legislature will hold a mandatory harassment training session required for all lawmakers. Pages, lobbyists and capitol journalists are encouraged to attend.
A letter calling for the addition of anti-harassment training at the start of the legislative session was written by Representative Caroline Nilsson Troy and emailed to all the women in the legislature, according to Assistant Minority Leader, Senator Cherie Buckner-Webb. The letter has since been signed and gathered the support of both men and women across the aisle.
According to a USA Today Network analysis, lawmakers in nearly two dozen states are facing accusations of sexual harassment, and a majority of legislatures, including Idaho, do not have any form of anti-harassment orientation or training in place.
Anti-harassment training is often found in many other areas of employment, however not within state capitals—making this new training a proactive measure, according to Representative Melissa Wintrow.
Both Buckner-Webb and Wintrow agreed the legislature does function in incomparable ways to other forms of conventional employee settings. Wintrow explained the legislatures are run by whoever is elected into office, and what happens within is dictated by those who are placed in leadership—primarily the President pro tempore and the Speaker of the House.
“Politics have also long been a male power and when there were few women present, their voices have not been heard,” Buckner-Webb said.
Wintrow published an op-ed titled “Beyond Sexual Harassment,” in which she advocates that an acknowledgment of the root causes of sexual harassment within the workplace as well as a voice to survivors has to exist.
“Any time you can be open and transparent in government, the better. We need to make sure that there is an open environment,” Wintrow said. “We need to be more proactive, this is a positive direction.”
The big idea, according to Wintrow, is to open up channels for those who may be missing from the mainstream picture and go beyond training to examine the root causes of violence against women, girls and others who may not conform to traditional gender roles.
“There are mechanisms in government to address this issue—but particularly in this body—I don’t believe we have ever addressed it in this kind of training for us legislators,” Buckner-Webb said. “One of my concerns—which I brought up a few years ago—was what are we doing with those in a position of responsibility? We need to be taught and reminded.”
Wintrow has been using her position in the legislature to propose pieces of legislation that reduce systemic barriers faced by survivors of sexual assault.
“When I entered the legislature, I thought ‘what a gift.’ Now I am in a position to inform policy to improve how we handle these situations,” Wintrow said. “It is our responsibility to reduce barriers, not create them.”
President pro tempore of the Idaho State Senate, Brent Hill, explained the original letter written by Representative Troy had no effect on the proposal for workplace harassment training, which had been in development prior to its distribution.
“We have very strict overall ethical standards,” Hill said. “We have addressed this issue, but its been behind closed doors, in conference meetings and with the attachés, pages and interns—not this formally.”
Hill explained that a member of the Division of Human Resources, as well as the Deputy General, will hold two 60 to 90-minute sessions for the lawmakers and Capitol workers. There will be coverage of what is deemed sexual and workplace harassment, legal definitions and how to communicate with one another when someone is uncomfortable.
“We also want to provide more reporting outlets for victims and make sure that there is more than one option,” Hill said. “Right now the choices are to go to a supervisor or the pro tempore, but they might not be comfortable with that. We are setting up more formal avenues.”
All three lawmakers agreed this is a crucial issue that should have been addressed formally sooner.
“Knowing what harassment is, being aware of its nuance, knowing folks will be held accountable, knowing reporting is critical and having a mechanism set up to address complaints without fear of retribution and creating the safety should be priorities,” Buckner-Webb said. “I hope that this is only the beginning.”