Roughly 80 politicians gathered Wednesday for an early morning meeting at the Kansas Statehouse.
The session wasn’t technically mandatory, more encouraged by legislative leaders determined to be seen as doing something in response to the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations.
Several of the women in attendance nodded at what they heard — that four in five women and one in five men have suffered some form of sexual harassment.
Most of the men wore studied looks of concentration. A few appeared less receptive, arms folded across their chests, as the instructors talked about the power imbalance — typically a male boss and female subordinate — responsible for the pervasiveness of harassment.
Legislative leaders organized the session in response to both the national #metoo movement and allegations made by Abbie Hodgson, a former Kansas legislative staffer who has said harassment was “rampant” during her time — 2014 to 2016 — at the Statehouse.
Rep. Cindy Holscher, a first-term Democrat from Olathe, said she hasn’t seen evidence of widespread harassment. That may be, she said, because she commutes to Topeka and doesn’t attend many after-hours events.
“But I would also think that staff members and interns may be the more likely targets because of the power hierarchy,” Holscher said.
More than 100 of the 125 members of the Kansas House attended one of two Wednesday training sessions. Senators will get their opportunity on Thursday.
Many called the training a good first step toward addressing whatever harassment problem exists. But Rep. Susan Humphries was disappointed, calling it “shallow.”
“I feel like in a way it was [just] checking a box,” Humphries said.
In particular, Humphries said the instructors’ overly broad definition of harassment prevented a more meaningful discussion.
“I would love to have gone deeper,” she said, arguing that any discussion of harassment should explore the differences between boorish and predatory behavior.
“Let’s make a distinction between an inappropriate comment that makes me uncomfortable versus a woman who has truly been abused,” she said.
Given more time, instructor Michelle McCormick, program director at the Topeka YWCA’s Center for Safety and Empowerment, said she would have prompted a discussion about how to more effectively deal with those guilty of harassment. She said holding them accountable doesn’t mean banishing them from the workplace.
“We can’t just ship people off to the moon,” McCormick said.
Several lawmakers who attended the training credited legislative leaders for starting a long overdue conversation.
“We still have a ways to go, but I think this will be helpful to a lot of people,” said Rep. Stephanie Clatyon, an Overland Park Republican.
Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican, welcomed the discussion about harassment but said he believes “sexism” is a bigger problem at the Capitol.
“It’s been really eye-opening that we’re now in 2018 and that’s still happening,” Cox said. “But I’ve seen it. Whether it’s a [female] lobbyist, a legislator or a staff member, they have to work a little harder to be taken seriously and get seat at the table.”
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.