Congresswoman Jackie Speier puts spotlight on sexual harassment

Congresswoman Jackie Speier puts spotlight on sexual harassment

PanARMENIAN.Net - Jackie Speier was a 23-year-old congressional staffer excited about her new job on Capitol Hill when her chief of staff got her alone in a room. The 50-year-old grabbed her face and stuck his tongue down her throat.

Now, four and a half decades later, the Peninsula congresswoman is leading the charge in Congress to clean up what she calls a culture of sexual harassment in the Capitol, The Mercury News says.

Speier is the daughter of Nancy (née Kanchelian) and Manfred "Fred" Speier. Her mother (a survivor of the Armenian Genocide) was of Armenian descent, while her father was an immigrant from Germany.

Since she went public with her story in late October, she’s been thrust into the national spotlight, introduced legislation to streamline harassment reporting procedures, testified at hearings on the topic and shed light on the big settlements paid out with taxpayers’ money to silence harassment complaints.

“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I think Congress has been an enabler of sexual harassers for a long time,” Speier, a Democrat who represents San Mateo County, said in an interview this week.

Speier has worked on sexual harassment policies for decades, beginning in California’s state Capitol. But when she was accosted in 1973, there weren’t any official channels to report what had happened — and even the term “sexual harassment” hadn’t entered the vernacular.

“There was nowhere I could go,” she said.

As wave after wave of sexual harassment revelations hit Hollywood and the media this fall, Speier shared her story in a YouTube video. She looked directly into the camera, urging other congressional staffers to come forward with their experiences with harassment and blasting the “breeding ground for a hostile work environment” that she says Congress has become.

Speier is now the lead sponsor of a bill that would reform the Office of Compliance, the obscure congressional office that investigates — and, activists say, often covers up — sexual harassment.

Victims of harassment in Congress who want to report their experiences have to go through a byzantine process, submitting to mandatory counseling, signing a nondisclosure agreement and waiting months before an investigation into their claims even begins. And interns and fellows still have no official channels to report sexual harassment.

From 1997 to 2016, the office paid out $15 million to settle sexual harassment complaints and other discrimination cases, without any real transparency or accounting of the claims.

The office “was really created to protect the harassers,” Speier said.

Her legislation would shake that up, prohibiting nondisclosure agreements as a requirement to start an investigation, speeding the process and including interns and fellows. It would also require members of Congress reimburse the federal Treasury for any sexual harassment settlements paid out because of their actions going forward.

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