The leader of the California Senate announced Monday he has hired an independent law firm to look into allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
An outside human resources firm was also hired to review the Senate’s policies on harassment, discrimination and retaliation. In a statement, Senate leader Kevin de León says everyone deserves a workplace free of harassment and sexual misbehavior.
More than 300 women working in politics have now signed a letter condemning a culture of sexual harassment, and in some cases assault, in Sacramento. The women have declined to name the men involved.
Adama Iwu, senior director of state and local government relations for Visa, was one of the women behind the letter. Iwu says while she’s glad the Senate is taking action, she questions whether it’s part of the problem.
“This is basically a self-investigation," she says. "That’s tricky, and that’s risky for women who’ve already said they don’t want to come out.”
The hierarchical structure of the Capitol seems to provide little incentive for women to take action when there’s a problem.
Attorney Mary-Alice Coleman says she has spoken with many women about possible harassment claims around the Capitol over the years. But she’s only been involved with litigation for three. She says the power dynamics prove too intimidating for most women.
“If an Assembly member or a senator is involved, that complicates the accountability a hundred fold," she says. "And it makes the situation much more difficult and perilous for the victims.”
And women don’t seem to be reaching out to their HR departments either. Debra Gravert is the chief administrative officer of the state Assembly, which oversees about 1.200 employees. She says the Assembly investigated three sexual harassment claims last year.
“But then you have this letter that says it’s prevalent. So it doesn’t equal what we we’ve seen," she says. "It’s frustrating and disheartening.”
Still, Gravert says she believes the Assembly has a good process in place for responding to the complaints it does receive.