The barriers women in politics face – from sexual harassment to tokenization – are unmistakably demonstrable.
But one common thread between the dozens of women and experts MLive spoke to about their experiences navigating Michigan’s political culture is that there’s no silver-bullet solution that will immediately fix the persistent, systemic issues at play.
Related: Butt pinches, threesome requests and a glass ceiling: sexism is systemic in Michigan’s political culture
Over a two-week span in April, MLive surveyed 40 women who work or have worked in the state’s political arena, and found 32 had experienced sexual harassment.
Only seven chose to formally report the harassment. Many respondents who did not file an official complaint cited concerns about career repercussions or a lack of faith that reporting would address the issue as factors in their decision. But 93% of respondents said they informally relayed concerns about another person’s conduct to friends or colleagues.
While many women have said they appreciate the issue being brought to the fore and respect those who have spoken out publicly about the sexism and sexual harassment they’ve encountered, true progress, they said, toward an environment where sexual harassment and discrimination are not tolerated will take a lot of work and significant buy-in from men, especially those in the highest positions of power.
Some had concrete ideas about how to change the experience for future generations of women in politics. Some have policy ideas at the ready. Others said men who say they’re allies need to recognize and call out inappropriate behavior from their peers when they see it.
But at the end of the day, the whole culture has to change, many said, and part of the process is talking openly about it. Below are some of the suggestions brought forth by those who spoke out about issues facing women in Michigan’s political sphere
Elect more women
In nearly every state in the U.S., women remain underrepresented in elected office, particularly in leadership roles where they’re helping set the legislative agenda.
Michigan and the nation have made big strides on that front in recent election cycles. The number of female lawmakers peaked in 2020, with 54 — 36.5% — of the state’s 148 House and Senate seats filled by women. Currently, 53 women are serving in the Michigan Legislature, 11 in the state Senate and 42 in the state House, and all three statewide elected positions are currently held by women.
But there’s still never been a female House speaker or Senate majority leader. And despite recent gains by women in both major parties, it takes a while for women, once in the political sphere, to build power and enact meaningful change, said Kelly Dittmar, the Center for American Women in Politics’ director of research.
In 2019, Nevada became the first state in U.S. history to have a female-majority Legislature and remains the only state where that is the case. Nevada lawmakers and political science experts have said that’s had a direct impact on the issues being addressed, including legislation related to domestic violence and sexual assault, equal pay and paid leave for employees.
It’s not just policy that’s impacted by having more women around Congress and statehouses, Dittmar said — it results in institutional changes like building out women’s restrooms, amending dress codes, and making both formal and informal political gatherings more accessible to women.
“Women have pushed back against late-night meetings and weird schedules, have brought their kids to the floor, pushed for better policies for staff if they have staff, depending on the state,” Dittmar said. “You see women doing that sort of institutional work.”
Historically, Democratic women have made more gains in state legislatures than Republicans, although the number of Republican women serving increased in the last election cycle. Laura Cox, former Michigan Republican Party Chair and the only woman ever to have chaired the House’s powerful Appropriations Committee, said she and other Republicans in Michigan have made significant efforts to recruit experienced women who may not have otherwise seen themselves in a political role.
“As an elected official, I always tried to encourage women to get involved… to make positive change, get that confidence,” she said. “(Electing more women) is something we’re going to continue to work on as a party, and that’s something that’s important to many people. And we want to continue to have those voices heard in our caucus as well.”
Addressing the “old boy’s network” that in many ways remains in place in Lansing and taking women’s concerns seriously is crucial to convincing future generations of women to dive into politics, said state Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor.
“We need to be forthright and honest about these conversations,” Geiss said. Otherwise you’re going to have women who are going to make decisions to not be in these spaces.”
More direct support from men
Many women who spoke with MLive said true change ultimately relies on whether men — particularly those in powerful positions — reflect on their own behavior, take meaningful steps to address it, take women seriously when they come forward and recognize and call out inappropriate actions when they witness it.
Ashlea Phenicie, one of the women who recently came forward publicly with a story about sexual harassment involving former employer TJ Bucholz of Vanguard Public Affairs, said keeping a record of personal experiences and confiding in other women is helpful for individuals looking to get out of a bad situation.
Related: CMU suspends staff, launches investigation after students it sent to Lansing PR firm report sexual harassment
But when it comes to ending sexual harassment, men need to step up, she said.
“I think that’s on men to hold each other accountable,” Phenicie said. “Women can also perpetrate sexual harassment. But I think that it’s men being willing to step up and challenge people, say, ‘That’s not okay, that is not an acceptable way to treat people, it’s not funny, and you really need to think and change your behavior.’”
Emily Dievendorf, a Lansing-based political consultant whose Facebook post about her experiences with Bucholz kickstarted current conversations about sexual harassment in Lansing, said male allies need to take active steps to acknowledge when they’ve been complicit in allowing inappropriate behavior, as inaction on the part of bystanders is part of the reason the culture persists.
She said she’s directed men who have asked her what they can do to resources provided by the National Women’s Law Center and other research on sexual harassment in the workplace. But to see meaningful change, men need to be learning about the issues and changing their workplaces to better hold staff and leadership accountable if harassment is taking place.
“I don’t need them to be swooping in and taking over the conversation… but we do need them to acknowledge this,” Dievendorf said. “If we don’t hear that, then there’s no reason for us to think that this is anything but throwing our souls on the floor and being there for each other. They still have the power. We have power collectively to support each other. They still have the job and the leadership positions.”
Another factor that would help improve the culture is men being mindful of the language they use to describe women in office, said Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, citing recent comments made by lawmakers about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other women in office she said were inappropriate.
Related: Few have faith in the Michigan Legislature’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies. Can that be fixed?
Invest in transparency with reporting systems
A common thread among women MLive spoke with were concerns about the efficacy of reporting systems in an environment where the work involves many offsite locations, late nights and interaction between groups of people who don’t work for the same employers, including legislative staff, lobbyists, special interest groups, media and members of the public.
In the Legislature, lawmakers also can’t be fired outright even if they’re found in violation of policy. Because they’re elected by voters, not hired, the only way they can be removed is if fellow lawmakers vote to expel them or if they’re recalled by voters. Both are rare occurrences.
Tight windows on statutes of limitations for harassment and discrimination complaints and lengthy investigations can make filing a complaint with the MDCR difficult, and internal investigations by an institution can be problematic due to a lack of incentive to be objective, said Liz Abdnour, a Lansing attorney who specializes in Title IX and civil rights cases.
Greater transparency around the policies and what happens after a complaint is filed would go a long way toward building trust in the system, she said, as would easing the statute of limitations for sexual harassment and discrimination. She also suggested more financial investments in MDCR and other institutions investigating claims could help decrease the length of time it takes for people filing complaints to see a resolution.
“There’s not a lot of transparency anywhere in any of these systems, and that facilitates perpetrators being able to get away with stuff,” she said. “I think that a lot of these folks in that realm are just resting on the fact that they know nobody’s really going to ever figure it out.”
In the Senate, a bipartisan workgroup made up of lawmakers and staff led by Chang and Lana Theis, R-Brighton, met virtually over the course of nine months to craft recommendations on improving the Senate’s harassment and discrimination policy, the bulk of which were approved and are set to go into effect April 26. Mandatory virtual training sessions for all senators and employees under the updated policy will take place in May.
Chang said the goal of combing through the Senate’s policies and offering recommendations was to “try to move towards a culture where harassment is not tolerated, and also where people feel more comfortable reporting.”
Workgroup members reviewed existing policies, heard from experts and used results of the Senate survey to suggest a number of changes. The vast majority of the workgroup’s recommendations earned approval from the Senate Business Office and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and others are expected to be implemented with minor tweaks. Those changes include:
- Increasing communication, both at an internal office and Senate-wide level, about harassment prevention and protections for employees subject to inappropriate behavior.
- Encouraging caucus leadership to develop internal repercussions and remedies for members found in violation of the Senate’s anti-harassment policies.
- Requiring staff to sign an anti-retaliation pledge and encouraging members to do so.
- Distributing information about the policies, procedures and relevant educational tools on harassment prevention more frequently.
- Tailoring trainings to suit the needs of varying levels of power among lawmakers and staff, as well as incorporating clear directions about who a person should report to, real-world stories and bystander intervention techniques into training content.
Dievendorf said she’d like to see concrete policy changes that put more teeth into holding people in power accountable and get rid of loopholes that currently exist, establishing baseline standards that protect people coming forward and reducing the difficulties and potential harm associated with filing a formal complaint.
To make any policy change successful, lawmakers and others in positions of leadership can no longer be treated as exceptions to the rule when it comes to enforcing sexual harassment and discrimination policy, Dievendorf said, adding, “power and privilege does not check itself.”
“How would any of this change, really, if the people who have the most power are having it left to their discretion whether they are going to act on a bad actor’s harm? Because that has been the problem this whole time,” she said.
Related: Women face sexism in Michigan politics. But the political system desperately needs them.
Keep talking about it
While structural barriers and institutional inequities remain for women, the public has, on the whole, become more aware of it and are more willing to call it out, said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonpartisan organization focused on research and advocacy for women in politics and contemporary art.
Since the #MeToo movement, younger women voters and voters of color have become especially outspoken about sexual harassment in the workplace being a serious problem, although the concern is shared among other demographics as well, Hunter said.
An April 2018 nationwide survey of voters conducted by the foundation found 81% of voters see sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious problem, and 87% of voters believe it needs to be easier for women to safely report sexual harassment in the workplace. Before #MeToo, many women felt lucky just to be in the room, Hunter said.
Now, younger generations are motivated to disrupt the pattern of sexist behavior.
“Our research has shown that that sexual harassment in the workplace is not a niche issue, and it’s not a partisan issue,” Hunter said. “This is something that is important to voters, and they don’t want to see it trivialized or diminished.”
Dievendorf said the whisper network isn’t cutting it, anymore.
“We are told, even by each other, that the solutions are things like whisper networks, where we just, we just quietly tell each other where not to go to avoid being harmed. And that’s not really the way to do this. I think that is, that is a very gentle way to approach this, to keep those people who are our friends away from the big bad wolf.
“So, the only good solutions are the ones where we can weed out the bad actors and shift the culture so that we no longer make it acceptable for sexual harassment to happen.”
Butt pinches, threesome requests and a glass ceiling: sexism is systemic in Michigan’s political culture
Few have faith in the Michigan Legislature’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies. Can that be fixed?
Women face sexism in Michigan politics. But the political system desperately needs them.
Video: Women share what it’s like facing sexism in Michigan’s political sphere