Sexual Harassment on Capitol Hill

A reflects on their personal experiences with sexual harassment at the Capitol.

Last Friday, the Capitol Hill newspaper read by every member office, Roll Call, released an article revealing that many night shift custodians encounter sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior from members of congress. To most of the people I work with, this was no surprise.

The Inspector General (IG) recently sent out an anonymous survey within our agency regarding sexual harassment and how instances of inappropriate behavior are handled and reported. Long story short: they are not.

It is nearly impossible to report on a member of congress, and equally impossible to ensure your identity will be protected. Most departments within our agency are only equipped to handle claims of harassment by peers within one’s own department. Even then, reports are rarely recorded, and there is no streamlined and universal process for keeping track of individual cases.

When I read the IG report, I was stunned to find that only nine cases had been tracked within my department in the last ten years, especially since I have come forward to my supervisors to formally report two instances, and I have encountered three more instances of overt harassment that bothered me enough to create a hostile work environment. I didn’t report these other incidents out of fear that I would be seen as a problem child.

On one occasion, our department was required to take training on how to avoid harassment (as if it is our responsibility, rather than the assailant’s) and my manager asked us to share examples of situations we were uncomfortable with so he could advise us how to handle them.

I told him that I had been giving a tour to a congressman’s friends, a bunch of rich couples who had donated to the campaign. We were standing at the top of the Capitol dome and they wanted to take a group photo. They encouraged me to join in since I had been a part of their experience, and as we posed the man behind me yelled “Show some cleavage!” His mortified wife tried to laugh it off, and I struggled to comprehend what had just happened. I spent the rest of the tour literally trapped with them until we reached a public part of the building.

I told my manager that this had just happened the day before and that I didn’t know what I should have done, because it didn’t seem like a big enough reason to call the police, and it was already over by the time it began. Not to mention, if I called further attention to it I would embarrass the congressman, and would probably lose my job or be blacklisted from giving private tours. I doubted my word would even be believed, and the man who said this wasn’t even an employee so he would be gone by the time the ink dried on any paperwork I would have to sign.

“My manager recommended that next time [I experience harassment at work] I should make a joke to dispel tension”

My manager literally replied that with situations like this, no one would back me up and they would just say “Boys will be boys.” He recommended that next time I should make a joke to dispel tension. He said this to all of us in an official training. I was pleased to see that his words made it into the Roll Call article. He has been reported for inappropriate behavior multiple times and has simply been “re-trained” and made to apologize.

The Building Superintendents of the House and Senate have also been placed on leave for inappropriate emails discovered by the IG. Still, as vindicating as this report has been, our agency has not changed the way it operates, and will continue to promote a culture of permissibility as long as our elected officials continue to perpetuate a hostile work environment themselves.

You can make your voice heard, though.
If you believe that no one should have to work in fear of being harassed, call or message your member of congress. If you’re not sure who represents you or how to contact them, follow this link, and type in your ZIP code.