Women in California Capitol speak out against sexual harassment

By KATHLEEN RONAYNE
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Women lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers in California's Capitol are encouraging each other to share stories of sexual harassment in the workplace in an effort to show its pervasiveness and to ensure more men stand up against it.

"As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different," reads an open letter from nearly 150 women posted online Monday.

"It has not."

The two-page letter adds to a growing chorus of women posting about harassment and unwanted advances from men following the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The letter does not accuse any men in the California Legislature by name, but decries a wider culture that encourages women to stay silent over fears of professional and social repercussions. The signers also created a website called "We Said Enough" for women to tell their stories.

"It was just really important that we start to talk about a culture and a change in culture," said Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, a Democrat who signed the letter. "When you make it about one person it loses sight of how pervasive the problem is."

Burke is one of at least six female lawmakers who signed the letter started by Adama Iwu, a lobbyist and head of government relations in California for Visa. Other signers include current and former legislative staff members, lobbyists and state government employees from both political parties. Iwu did not immediately respond to a call requesting for comment.

Burke said she once watched a male colleague do nothing as another man in the Capitol pushed up against her and made inappropriate comments. She told him to stop and confronted her colleague, who warned her not to "be that person" who can't take a joke, she said.

The male leaders of California's legislature -- Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon -- highlighted efforts to combat sexual harassment in the Legislature, including mandatory training. The Senate is reviewing policies to "promote a safe workplace and culture of respect," de Leon said.

"That being said -- as we've learned in recent days -- there's always more employers can do to protect their employees," he said in a statement.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who also signed the letter, said the work in the Legislature is far from completed.

Garcia described a male lobbyist once grabbing her and a male colleague she confided in encouraging her not to say anything because the lobbyist was politically powerful.

Garcia and other women in the Capitol have become a support system for each other; with book clubs and office gatherings often turning into venues for discussing how best to fight harassment, long before the Weinstein allegations broke open.

With the letter, the women hope those conversations will now happen out in the open -- with men, too.

"When you see -- or experience -- inappropriate behavior, don't sweep it under the rug," the letter concludes. "Speak up, speak loud, and know there is a community of people who will support you."

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