TOPEKA — A Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation that promotes gender equality will review the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy and make recommendations for improvement amid accusations of mistreatment in Kansas politics.
Attorneys for the Women’s Foundation will work with legislative counsel to review the policy and make recommendations at the next meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Council in December, Senate President Susan Wagle announced Monday. The organization also assisted Missouri’s Legislature in 2015.
“Sexual harassment is unacceptable, and it presents a barrier for women to advance professionally and to lead in the future,” Foundation President and CEO Wendy Doyle said in a written statement. “It must not be enabled or tolerated inside or outside the State Capitol.”
The announcement comes after several women last week complained they were harassed or assaulted and legislative and political party leaders responded inadequately. Former Democratic Statehouse staffer Abbie Hodgson sparked the controversy when she told the Hill newspaper she was propositioned, touched inappropriately and harassed during her time as chief of staff for then-House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Democrat. Hodgson did not say who harassed her.
Hodgson said she also told Burroughs legislators were using their interns as designated drivers, and he said nothing would change. Eventually, she said, that poisoned their working relationship and the two decided she should leave.
Former Planned Parenthood lobbyist Elise Higgins said she, too, experienced harassment at the Statehouse. She said she did not report the problem.
Kelly Schodorf, daughter of former Sen. Jean Schodorf, said she was assaulted when she was working on a Congressional campaign in 2010. She told Kansas Rep. John Carmichael, who was Fourth District chair for the Democratic party at the time. She contends Carmichael’s response was insufficient.
Wagle did not say whether she thought sexual harassment was a significant problem in state politics, but she would like to find out more. She said the complaints made public last week are difficult to investigate because the women have not identified their alleged harasser, unlike the women who complained of unwanted advances by Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein.
“In order to investigate, people need to be very forward about the incidents they experienced, and they need to allow us to investigate them. And we need to do it by name,” Wagle said. “Weinstein — We would have never found out about the behavior of Weinstein behind closed doors unless one women told what happened.”
Wagle has said she has not received reports of sexual harassment as Senate president but would have taken seriously and addressed any allegations that did arise. She said she would do the same going forward.
Doyle said in an interview she could not yet speak to potential problems in the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, which Wagle said was written more than 20 years ago.
“This is a timely issue with everything that’s happening nationwide, so we should use this time to just pause and review all of the policies,” Doyle said.
The Legislature’s sexual harassment policy dictates that employees report their harassment to their supervisor. If that person is part of the problem or responds inadequately, they can take their complaint to Legislative Administrative Services, led by director Tom Day.
Day said he has had only one formal complaint filed since he took over the department three years ago. He said would-be reporters of harassment could be deterred by a policy provision that requires LAS staff to tell an alleged harasser who reported him or her.
“First, we must empower women and men to report their sexual harassment encounters,” Doyle said in her statement.
Citing a 2015 survey, Doyle said 71 percent of women said they did not report their workplace harassment experience and 75 percent were targeted by a male-coworker.
“These numbers show us two things: Survivors fear speaking out against sexual harassment, and sexual harassment remains a real and urgent problem in our workplace,” Doyle said.