California Forum

California can lead the way to end sexual harassment and assault

Gov. Jerry Brown reviews a measure with his wife, Anne Gust Brown, second from left, and staff members Camille Wagner, left, and Graciela Castillo-Krings, right, in his Capitol office on Sept. 30, the last day to approve or veto bills passed by the Legislature this year. Among the bills were several dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.
Gov. Jerry Brown reviews a measure with his wife, Anne Gust Brown, second from left, and staff members Camille Wagner, left, and Graciela Castillo-Krings, right, in his Capitol office on Sept. 30, the last day to approve or veto bills passed by the Legislature this year. Among the bills were several dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. AP

What is California’s role in moving beyond the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris both voted against the nomination and are on record as being fierce supporters of federal legislation to work toward ending sexual harassment and assault. If polls hold, California’s next governor will be Gavin Newsom, who is clearly on the record as supporting similar legislation and whose wife has been a champion on these issues.

But given California’s role in setting the debate on such issues as climate change, sanctuary cities and gun policy, do we have a greater responsibility to go beyond a handful of bills and champion what is truly game-changing?

Gov. Jerry Brown signed several bills on his way out of office that will help prevent workplace harassment and help victims of sexual misconduct seek justice. Among them is Senate Bill 820, which will prevent perpetrators from keeping their identities confidential and will prevent secret settlements, a process that Harvey Weinstein and others like him have used to avoid public accountability.

The governor also signed Senate Bill 1300, which forbids companies from requiring their workers to sign releases of liability as a condition of continued employment or bonuses – another way women are forced to keep silent. And Senate Bill 419 prohibits the Legislature from firing or discriminating against an employee or lobbyist who files a harassment complaint, a needed change after so many staff members and legislators came forward this past year with harrowing stories of assault and harassment.

While advocates for ending sexual harassment in the workplace cheered those bill signings, there were other measures that Gov. Brown vetoed, including a high-profile bill that would have banned forced arbitration agreements. I supported that bill, but recognize that for some companies it didn’t strike the right balance between worker and corporate protections.

California has moved several steps forward with these bills, but what more can we do to be the leader the nation needs on these issues?

Advocates should feel emboldened to press the new governor to work with them to strengthen bills that expand recourse for sexual harassment victims and that end forced arbitration agreements, which all too often protect the company over the employee. I’d like to see Newsom as governor convene a group – including Feinstein and Harris, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and champions of sexual harassment policy in California – to create a bold agenda that goes beyond what was brought forward in this last session.

This group’s mission would be to imagine what it could mean for women – especially women of color, who suffer the worst rates of harassment – to live in a state where they can jog, go to work and school, or celebrate in a dance club without fear of assault or harassment. And then pass the laws to make that dream real.

The #MeToo movement and the creation of Time’s Up and its partner efforts have united women and men in outrage and determination for change. We watch as the president jeers and belittles victims of assault and harassment.

Will California lead the way to shine a light on this issue? Golden State sunshine may be the disinfectant this whole country needs to end a shameful scourge that has been allowed to fester for far too long.

Lara Bergthold is principal partner at Rally communications, former executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. She can be contacted at larab@wearerally.com. Find the series (with more Monday on California’s high-speed rail project) at sacbee.com/influencers.

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