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Md. sexual harassment commission 'ridiculous'

Sights and sounds from the first day of the Maryland General Assembly. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

The leaders of the Maryland General Assembly recently announced their intention to form a new commission devoted to studying how sexual harassment allegations arising in the state legislature can best be handled — and better still, how such behavior may be ended before it begins.

I don’t question the lawmakers’ good intentions, but this approach to the matter is ridiculous and likely to result in a lot of grand-standing, wheel-spinning and other time-honored ways of looking busy without accomplishing much of substance. Pledging to put only women on this commission, as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller did, not only fails to increase its credibility but rather seems like a cynical ploy to stave off criticism.

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I give you Exhibit A: The Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which has been grinding along for years now and has yet to put forth any meaningful solutions to the exceedingly well documented problem of inequitable funding among Maryland’s public schools.

Maryland lawmakers were supposed to debate next year how much to increase funding to schools. Now, they'll discuss it after the 2018 election.

Likewise, a commission to further study sexual harassment seems unlikely to tell us much we do not already know. As The Sun recently noted, it’s common knowledge that many lawmakers and political operatives treat the annual legislative session in Annapolis “like Vegas on the Severn.” The legislative leadership’s decision in December to begin tracking allegations of harassment and to release an annual scorecard may sound like a win for fact-based transparency. But this bureaucratic parlor trick will occur after the fact and is not remotely related to any preventive strategies. Publishing a tally sheet won’t change a “Vegas” culture, especially since lawmakers intend to keep the details quiet — meaning that bad actors will not be publicly outed in most circumstances.

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If one goal is to improve how the state handles allegations arising in the legislature, then comparing Maryland’s protocols against other state and federal policies and guidelines is a sensible starting point. You don’t need a commission for that. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published guidelines already familiar to our lawmakers. The National Conference of State Legislatures conducted a survey of its members in October, culminating in a basic list of anti-harassment policy components and online links to other states’ anti-harassment policies. It’s highly instructive to look at what other states are doing.

Leaders in the General Assembly are taking steps to try to reduce inappropriate sexual behavior in Annapolis. They've got a lot of work to do.

For example, Oregon’s eight-page legislative branch statement on a harassment-free workplace is more than twice as long as Maryland’s and contains some ideas we might well consider. Unlike Maryland, Oregon explicitly offers members and employees both informal and formal options for correcting harassing conduct “before it rises to the level of severe or pervasive harassment or discrimination.” The informal process is intended to assist a person who “simply want[s] particular conduct to stop, but may not want to go through a formal complaint process or legal proceeding.” The complainant still has the right to lodge a formal complaint at any time. Oregon also does a good job of spelling out specifically who should be informed of a harassment allegation based on the rank and title of the alleged accuser. So, for example, if the accused is a member of the Legislative Assembly, then the highest ranking member of the same caucus should be notified. If the accused is a member of nonpartisan staff, then the agency head or parliamentarian of the agency should be notified and so on. This approach potentially takes much of the guesswork out of an otherwise fraught and difficult circumstance from the point of view of the individual reporting the behavior.

If another goal of the new commission is to come up with ways to root out harassing behavior altogether, I cannot think of a less appropriate mechanism for doing this than a commission. Holding public hearings for this purpose is sure to provide a cathartic outlet for many victims of sexual harassment who long to be heard and taken seriously. And it’s an opportunity for experts in the field to share their theories. But sharing experiences and theories, while educational, are not necessarily agents of change.

Baltimore County employees will be required to undergo sexual harassment prevention training every three years under a policy change announced Wednesday by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

I also fear that this commission, once it gets going, will not resist the temptation to fall back on one of the easiest recommendations of all, which is to suggest that more training is needed. There is mounting evidence that sexual harassment training does not change culture or behavior and may, in fact, make an organization even less receptive to implementing a positive climate. In a recently published and widely read research paper — Understanding Employees’ Reactions to Sexual Harassment Training — author Shannon L. Rawski, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, notes that if employees feel they are being criticized for being themselves “during sexual harassment training, they will be less motivated to attend future sexual harassment training sessions and they will harbor negative attitudes about sexual harassment training weeks after the training was administered.”

So what’s the right next step for lawmakers, if not a commission? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m not above suggesting that public naming and shaming of individuals who are proven to have engaged in sexual violence or harassment in the workplace may do far more to promote change than a paper tiger commission ever could.

Amy L. Bernstein (Twitter: @BraveNotYoung) is a writer and communications consultant in Baltimore.

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