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What’s Missing from Springfield’s Response to Sexual Harassment?

More women, according to political players who say the male-led efforts risk not having input from those who are most affected.

Illinois lawmakers debate sexual harassment bills in Springfield.   Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

Illinois lawmakers are scrambling to contain scandal in the capitol more than a week after 200 female legislators, staffers, and lobbyists signed an open letter calling out the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in Springfield.

The explosive letter details the myriad ways men have harassed women in the legislative sphere, including lewd comments, inappropriate touching, and unwanted advances made under the guise of business meetings or mentorship.

“[Harassment] looks like a committee chairman, with the power to kill her bill, telling a female staffer ‘nice ass’ as she walks through the hotel hallways fresh from her morning workout, the forced intimacy of staying in the same hotels leaving little room for privacy or refuge,” the letter reads, among many other examples.

On Tuesday, lawmakers passed two emergency bills, both by unanimous votes. One of them will establish an anonymous hotline to report sexual harassment in public and private workplaces; the other mandates the creation of anti-sexual harassment task forces to further ponder solutions. (A third bill, related to the Legislative Inspector General’s ability to investigate harassment allegations, also passed.) Capitol employees will undergo new training about sexual harassment.

But these bills were spearheaded by men, and while some women in the political scene are relieved something’s being done to address the issue, others worry that the measures aren’t driven by the people who understand harassment best—the women who face it.

The most obvious and effective fix, meanwhile, has been almost entirely overlooked, according to Jennifer Drobac: "The best way to ensure change is to get women into jobs that matter,” says the Indiana University law professor and sexual harassment expert.

Women make up a little more than a third of the Illinois General Assembly. The figure is on the high end compared to many other states; on average, women make up less than 25 percent of the lawmakers in state legislatures nationwide.

Kady McFadden, who oversees the Sierra Club Illinois’s political operations, recently told The Hill of her experiences in the capitol: “I’ve had hands up my skirt. I’ve had my hair pulled.”

Sexual harassment is just one symptom of a much deeper problem in Springfield and in the halls of power, McFadden tells Chicago.

“Anything beyond true gender and racial parity won’t achieve results,” McFadden adds, underscoring the need for more women, LGBTQ representatives, and people of color, in positions of power. “There’s never been a female governor of Illinois. There’s never been a woman of color as a governor in any state, ever. And it’s not about just harassment: When we have female lobbyists in meetings with 20 other male lobbyists, what are the power dynamics there?”

Political consultant Joanna Klonsky noted via Twitter last week that some of the “notorious harassers in [Illinois] politics have been weighing in with abandon” and feigning surprise about the issue.

“There are certain men in this sphere who have a reputation among women—and we know to watch out for them, and we warn each other. Stories will get around,” Klonsky tells Chicago.

Klonsky observes that when she and female political activists, aides, and consultants watched Wednesday as the Chicago City Council took up anti-harassment measures similar to those in Springfield, they questioned why men were “driving the process forward without actually talking to the women in the room.”

She concedes that plenty of male policymakers are not as looped into to the discussions of who are the notoriously bad sexual harassers in Illinois politics.

“I do believe a lot of men when they tell me they’re flabbergasted to learn the depth of this problem… but they weren’t aware of the degree of this. And I take them at their word,” Klonsky says. She describes some male colleagues admitting to “seeing things at the bar here and there,” where men were too touchy or too aggressive toward with their women colleagues while socializing, but lacked the awareness that the behavior also manifested itself in pervasive and even more intrusive ways, like late-night phone calls and messages, lewd comments, or touching.

Drobac, the Indiana University law professor, says it’s crucial that existing power structures change in order to make progress: If they don’t, men remain the gatekeepers and arbiters and women remain in the vulnerable position of risking retaliation, ridicule, and disbelief for speaking out, she says.

Drobac noted the importance of women like former Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson speaking out against a powerful boss and being believed (though both women faced plenty of detractors as well). Their accusations against the powerful Fox News founder, Roger Ailes, led to his ouster. 

“The thing that will change behavior? Consequences,” says Drobac. “The best way to get at them is to remove them from positions of power.”

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