Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Don’t just change the rules. Change the culture

Cambridge 06/0514- Fog shrouds the Boston skyline as the State House dome stands out amidst the buildings on Beacon Hill as seen from Cambridge. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (metro)
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

I hope they’re terrified.

I hope that every single man in Massachusetts politics who has objectified and harassed women is losing sleep at night, worrying his names will come out. Only if they believe that inexcusable behavior has consequences will they stop behaving inexcusably.

Since I wrote last week about the harassment experienced by women who work in politics in Massachusetts, other women have come forward to share their stories. And behind them, doubtless, are many more who, for fear it would ruin their careers, have long kept quiet about being subjected to demeaning treatment, harassment, and even assaults by the men who run the state.

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Here, as before, the women would not be named. Despite forceful reassurances from legislative leaders since Friday that they have zero tolerance for harassment, and that those who report it would face no consequences for doing so, these women remain convinced that being identified would irreparably harm them.

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One woman agreed to be named at first — “I figure somebody has to,” she said — then, a day later, pulled back, saying she had “serious concerns for my career and reputation if I use my name.”

Her career. Her reputation.

She began that career in and around the State House over a decade ago, in her early 20s. From the beginning, she was objectified and harassed so many times she became desensitized to the inappropriate remarks on her appearance, the leering, the men getting “handsy” at events.

Then there were more egregious incidents, especially after she became a lobbyist, including unwanted sexting. Some legislators — including several still in office — half-joked that there was one sure way for her to get their vote. They said things like, “You’re lucky you’re so attractive, I wouldn’t be considering this vote otherwise.” In some meetings, lawmakers whose votes she needed described her and her interns as “hot.” In a conversation about whether she would run for office, a legislator suggested she’d definitely win if she campaigned in a bikini.

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Her position as a lobbyist made her particularly susceptible, she said. Thousands of vulnerable people were depending on the laws she was trying to get passed, so she had to put her own discomfort aside for their sake. And even if she had been inclined to make a formal complaint, it was unclear how she’d do it.

“If you’re being harassed by a legislator, or another lobbyist, there’s not much recourse,” she said. “You can’t go to HR.”

Another woman had stories that were shocking even in the context of those that have come out so far. Working on a campaign in 2004, she met with a member of the House at a bar to talk strategy. After a couple of drinks, “things got weird,” she recalled. The lawmaker invited her to go to a hotel room nearby. She declined, and he started to act like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, she said, by turns begging and bullying her.

“What do you think I met you here for, your political insight?” she recalled him saying. “Why would you meet me at night, and accept a drink?”

She got out of there, and he followed her to her car, getting into the passenger seat and lunging across the center console to kiss and grope her. She punched him and pushed him out of the car. He is no longer in the Legislature.

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“I had no recourse at all,” she said. “This was somebody with a great reputation who I thought was a lovely person before that night, and I knew if I had ever said anything publicly, I would never work in politics again.”

‘Staffers who speak out in any way run the risk of hurting our boss’ standing among their colleagues.’

That was her worst experience, but it wasn’t the only one.

Really, how many more stories do we need? I’ve got the one about the aide humiliated at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast when her boss, then one of the most powerful men in the state, publicly joked that she was a prostitute. I’ve got the former server at 6B Lounge, a bar near the State House, where members of the House acted like pigs, leering and commenting on her appearance. Or the young Beacon Hill staffer who was told by a legislative leader offering to buy her drinks that her necklace made her “chest area look really nice.” I’ve got aides who say they avoid not just some elected officials and lobbyists, but also other State House personnel, and some of their peers — today — because of their predatory ways.

Enough. I’m thrilled Speaker Robert DeLeo has made a commitment to deal with sexual harassment in the House, because it seems — based on my conversations — like that is where the biggest problems lie. That may be partly because women are more underrepresented in the House than in the Senate.

“The culture of the House is broken,” said one woman, who worked closely with legislators there until a few years ago and experienced harassment. Despite the fact that there are now women in leadership, “women are fundamentally not trusted,” she said. “They’re excluded from the late night dinners and drinks where decisions actually take place.”

Those who know him say DeLeo — who is not a fixture at gatherings outside the State House — is genuinely surprised and troubled by the stories that have emerged over the last week. He has called for an overhaul of sexual harassment policies in the House, which might include introducing trainings for legislators and staffers, and new procedures that make it easier for women to come forward. Representatives Lori Ehrlich and Tricia Farley-Bouvier have suggested other excellent ideas, including an anonymous survey to gauge the size of the problem and making legislators and others sign a memo outlining harsh consequences for harassment.

“We believe the State House can be a model workplace,” said Farley-Bouvier.

The way DeLeo runs the House could also be part of the problem here. Getting ahead there means falling in line with the speaker’s priorities. That could be one reason why you’re not seeing any significant outrage from legislators on this issue — even from women lawmakers, who are ceding the platform to the boss. Across the chamber, the word seems to be that one must not make the House look bad and that complaining about harassment could do just this.

“Staffers who speak out in any way run the risk of hurting our boss’ standing among their colleagues,’’ one legislative aide said, “and worst of all, with the speaker.”

That’s a big problem. You can change the rules all you like, but nothing is fixed until you change the culture, in the House and across politics in this state. Women who work in the State House know already harassment is wrong and that they have a right to report it. Yet many of them do not.

Until that changes, I’ll have to settle for this: Men living in fear of finally answering for the awful things they’ve done.

After all, they’re the ones who should be terrified.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham