A female lawmaker's description of sexual harassment by a more powerful colleague has sparked a change: starting in January, Rhode Island lawmakers and General Assembly staffers will be expected to take part in sexual harassment training.
In a statement Tuesday, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he will be contacting a human resources professional "to provide [sexual harassment] training to House members and staff at the beginning of the next legislative session."
Senators and Senate staffers will also be expected to take part in the training, according to Senate spokesman Greg Pare.
Mattiello said he commended Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstow) for coming forward in a report published in The Providence Journal "and discussing this troubling issue. I know it was difficult for her and it took courage."
Tanzi, who was first elected in 2010, spoke out after the Harvey Weinstein case sparked a national discussion about sexual harassment. "I can say that as an elected official, as a state representative I have experienced this first-hand,” Tanzi told the ProJo. “I have been told sexual favors would allow my bills to go further.” She declined to identify the person who told her that, but said, "it was someone who had a higher-ranking position."
Women represent less than one-third of the General Assembly, holding 12 of 38 seats in the Senate, and 23 of 75 in the House of Representatives.
According to Mattiello, "The overwhelming majority of members of the House conduct themselves appropriately at all times. However, sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
Lawmakers have not previously been required to take part in training or education about sexual harassment, according to House spokesman Larry Berman, although a legislative employee manual includes this language: “The General Assembly is committed to maintaining a work environment free from threats of violence, harassment and intimidation .... In some cases, sexual harassment constitutes unlawful sexual discrimination for which legal remedies are available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.”
"It would be our intentions that everyone will participate" in the new training, Berman said. "We will make it mandatory for staff."
According to state Department of Administration spokeswoman Brenna McCabe, the affirmation action plan of every state agency includes policies and practices meant to prevent discrimination and sexual harassment, although the legislature is not required to file a plan.
The state policy appears to stem from an executive order issued in 2010, when Don Carcieri was governor.
Mattiello said he supports “Representative Tanzi’s efforts to introduce legislation in January to create a commission to review Rhode Island’s policies on sexual harassment."
In a statement distributed by the speaker's office, Tanzi praised Mattiello.
“Speaker Mattiello is committed to working with me and all women to ensure a better environment moving forward and I commend him for that," she said. "He has asked me to chair a commission studying the issue of workplace harassment and assault, and I am grateful that he will also be providing training on this issue at the State House. The only way to stop this is for all of us to work together. I know this will not be changed in a day, or even a year, but the willingness of the House leadership to tackle this head-on gives me confidence that the chance I took in disclosing my experiences will result in significant change.”
While some view study commissions as a place where good ideas go to die, Tanzi said she views a commission on harassment as a way to make a meaningful impact. She said a key is involving the majority of men not involved in harassment in taking a stand against it. "Men have a very important role to play in this," Tanzi said.
Prior to speaking at a groundbreaking at a Providence development, Governor Gina Raimondo told reporters she has not experienced harassment, and that she's not aware of alleged episodes of harassment at the Statehouse, beyond the description offered by Tanzi.
"I would say it's on all of us to call it out if we see it, and it's also we need to continue to have women in positions of leadership," she said.
"That's her decision," Raimondo said when asked whether Tanzi should identify the person who she said harassed her.
While harassment is against official policy, the governor said, "The reality is this stuff happens every day and it often gets swept under the rug. It's easier to turn a blind eye and that's what has to stop. I'm actually very happy to see that people are speaking out against it, because it's on all of us to fix it, and it's an everybody issue. And it's about having the courage to say, 'I saw what you just did there, and it's not right,' and that's what we need to start doing."