New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Confronts Sexual Harassment

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tackles the tough topic of sexual harassment, which is pervasive across our society, regardless of industry, political ideology, age or gender. While addressing her backyard, Congress, Gillibrand reminds of us of the rules of engagement all work environments should employ, and the bill she hopes to set in motion.
Senator Gillibrand with her sons Henry (left) and
Theo. Photo from

All of us rely on extraordinary staff members to help us accomplish the work that our constituents elected us to do. They are talented, they are passionate about public service, and many of them are just beginning their careers. But over the past few weeks, more and more current and former congressional staffers are coming out and bravely telling their stories about how they experienced sexual harassment while working here. This is shameful. There is a serious sexual harassment problem in Congress—and too many congressional offices are not taking this problem seriously. The inadequate policies that are in place today about sexual harassment in Congress make it very difficult for victims to come forward, report the incidents and seek justice. The system to address this problem is virtually unknown to most staffers, it is confusing to navigate, and it is tilted against victims. We have to fix this.

Congress should never be above the law. Congress should not play by their own set of rules. As elected officials, we should be held to the highest standards—not the lowest. This needs to change. We need accountability and we need transparency. We need reform, and we need it now. Congress should treat every person who works here with respect and dignity—and that means creating a climate where there is accountability, fairness, respect and access to justice if sexual harassment takes place. Our staff members should be able to feel safe reporting sexual harassment if it happens, without fear. If sexual harassment happens in one of our offices, we must immediately act to stop it, and show leadership, and make it clear that we won’t allow it to continue to take place.

We should never tolerate a climate in our offices where our staffers face sexual harassment, whether it’s from a member of Congress or by a fellow staff member. We should never tolerate a climate in our offices where staffers feel uncomfortable reporting incidents that have happened to them. We should never tolerate a climate in our offices where staffers feel that they can get away with sexual harassment against their colleagues. The entire Congress—every one of our offices—should be held to this high standard, and anything less is unacceptable and inexcusable. There are real costs to sexual harassment in the workplace. We now know that many people quit their jobs because of it, which can throw off the entire trajectory of their careers. They lose out on promotions. They lose out on raises. What we are seeing from the powerful #MeToo campaign is that sexual assault and sexual harassment are pervasive across our entire society, regardless of the industry, regardless of political ideology, regardless of age, and regardless of gender.

What we are seeing time and again in institutions all around the country is a culture where power and fear keep sexual assault and sexual harassment in the shadows. Congress is not immune to this scourge. We cannot just wish it away, and we cannot simply train our way out of this problem. We must go further, and act now. The women and men coming forward are an inspiration, because they are changing our society in a way that is making it unacceptable for people to turn a blind eye to sexual violence and sexual harassment. They are showing that we can build a more just society for ourselves, our families and future generations, by shining a light on injustice and saying we will not accept it anymore.

So we must ensure that Congress handles complaints to create an environment where staffers can come forward if something happens to them, without having to fear that it will ruin their careers. And we have good legislation ready to go that would bring us much closer to that goal. Our bill would modernize and streamline the process for sexual harassment victims to report within the Office of Compliance. It would create a designated person within the Office of Compliance to serve as a confidential advisor for victims of harassment. It would require mandatory annual anti-discrimination and harassment training for both members and staff—because there should be no excuse for any of us to not know how to deal with harassment in our offices.

The bill would remove the current daunting requirement that victims go through mediation before filing complaint against an assailant, which no doubt has discouraged victims from filing a complaint. It would require a climate survey to give a comprehensive analysis of the scope of this problem in Congress. It would give the interns in our offices access to the same resources as staff members. And it would require that every office post notices that detail the rights and protections of our employees—so that there is no ambiguity about what is allowed, and what isn’t, when it comes to discrimination and harassment.

So I urge all of our colleagues to join us in this fight. We must create a workplace climate where our staff members can come in and do their jobs without having to worry about being harassed. And when it does happen, they should be able to report the incidents without fear of retaliation, and without having to fear that it will ruin their careers. This is an important fight, and Congress needs to set a better example.

Photo by Norman Jean Roy