When the California Legislative Women’s Caucus sent out a survey earlier this year to gain insight into the issues facing women who work at the Capitol, it had an overarching question: Is the place one big “boy’s club?”
The answer was a resounding “yes.” The more than 200 women staff members who filled out the survey on average gave a seven out of a possible 10 on the boy’s club question. Also telling, the women gave a flat five (indifference) when asked if they were comfortable reporting harassment transgressions to human resources officials in the Assembly or Senate.
The caucus disseminated the online survey in February to 1,500 female staff members months before hundreds of women in the Capitol community turned a spotlight on the political culture in Sacramento this week and called for an end to men leveraging their powerful positions to degrade and mistreat them. Over 300 women have joined the “We Said Enough” campaign since Tuesday.
The survey provides rare data to back up a culture at the state Capitol many criticize as the result of a Legislature with just 26 elected women out of a total 120 seats. The survey’s results about reporting incidents also track with statistics in the Assembly, where only nine complaints have been filed in the last four years.
“It didn’t surprise me,” said Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino. “It made me realize we had to establish the mentoring program so women feel they have a safe place to go.”
Leyva, vice-chair of the caucus, said the mentoring program, which was in the works before the survey went out, began with a mixer in May and a lunch in June for staff members. Following the recent explosive outcry from women in the Capitol, she said the caucus is planning a third event in December to focus entirely on sexual harassment and ways for women to address it.
Many are calling for the Legislature to establish a neutral third-party not beholden to the institution to investigate all complaints from lobbyists, staff members and others who work in and around the Sacramento political establishment to ensure that people feel safe blowing the whistle. Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens and members of the women’s caucus originally made a similar request to legislative leaders for an ombudsman to investigate all complaints to the Legislature more than a year ago.
Last April, members of the women’s caucus asked former Assemblyman Roger Hernández to take a leave of absence after a judge ordered him to stay away from his wife over domestic violence allegations. Hernández, D-Baldwin Park, declined, and months later Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Los Angeles, removed him from his committee post once a judge granted the estranged wife a restraining order. Hernández took an extended medical absence, but returned to the Assembly before he termed out at the end of 2016.
Garcia said the request prompted women to flood her office to share their own uncomfortable experiences with lawmakers, lobbyists and other Capitol employees. The conversations led Garcia and other members of the caucus to approach leaders of both houses to discuss ways to address the problem, including the idea of an ombudsman, she said.
Garcia said Rendon has actively worked to give women more committee posts and put them in positions of power, which she flagged as a key to achieving parity in how women are treated at the Capitol. In June, the Assembly also established a subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response tasked with evaluating the house’s policies and seeking ways to improve upon them, according to Rendon’s office.
The Assembly already hands “serious” complaints off to an independent third party investigator, the speaker’s office said.
Senate complaints are handled by the deputy secretary for human resources or a designee. The pro tem’s office said the house also has an in-house ombudsman, a lawyer for the ethics committee, who works in the interest of whoever brings forward the complaint.
The pro tem’s office is expected to make an announcement this week about hiring a third-party investigator to handle cases of assault and harassment.