Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Amid Sexual Harassment Reckoning, Women Of Utah Legislature Navigate ‘Grey Area’

Renee Bright / KUER

Earlier this year, a woman who works at the Utah Legislature was talking to a lawmaker in the hallway at the Utah State Capitol. It was a professional conversation — they were talking about a bill, when the lawmaker started fiddling with a button on his jacket. It was starting to come loose, and he hinted that he’d like her to sew it back on for him.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she wasn’t surprised by the incident and was able to quickly brush it off.

It may not be the most extreme scenario about sexual harassment, but it does illustrate what some women deal with at the state Legislature.

As allegations of sexual misconduct surface around the country, many workplaces are reexamining their own policies. Utah is no different.

The half-dozen female staffers, lobbyists and lawmakers interviewed for this story said they put up with a lot of ‘grey area’ stuff. That includes hugs instead of handshakes, and off-hand comments about a woman’s appearance. Some women reported receiving comments about their outfits, their eyes, and their legs. 

“I think that it’s pretty common for those inappropriate, nuanced comments that are sexual in nature,” said Jennifer Dailey-Provost, executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians.

Dailey-Provost spends time at the Legislature lobbying for health care bills. She said she’s never experienced any blatant sexual harassment, but she has been on the receiving end of “inappropriate touches” and “extra-long, tight hugs,” which made her uncomfortable.

“The vast majority of our legislators and lobbyists, in my experience, have never done anything wrong, are perfectly polite and professional,” she said.

But Dailey-Provost and other women said there are a few men they avoid meeting alone.

“It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it just is,” she said.

Democratic Rep. Patrice Arent knows that firsthand. She’s worked on the hill for decades, beginning as an intern in the late ‘70s.

“I had some lobbyists, specifically, treat me very inappropriately, and even a couple of legislators,” she said.

Credit Julia Ritchey / KUER

Later, Arent worked as a legislative lawyer and experienced a different kind of inappropriate behavior while she was pregnant.

“And I’m not talking about someone comes up and pats your belly and makes some cute little comment,” said Arent. “I’m talking about things that were much more serious than that. And again, I never talked to anybody about it. I should have.”

It’s a recurring theme among the women interviewed for this story: that they never said anything at the time, but now they wish they would have.

But among legislative staffers, there are murmurs of concern about even going to talk to somebody about filing a complaint. To do that, they’d have to go to the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel — the legislature’s attorneys.

Over the past seven years, 13 people complained to the legislature’s point person about workplace harassment. Three of those resulted in a formal complaint or an investigation.

One of those complaints was outlined in documents obtained by KUER through an open records request.

Names and other details were redacted, but it involved a man who was visiting the Capitol in February of this year.

The man wasn’t wearing a tie, but needed one to be on the chamber floor. He found one to borrow and repeatedly asked a female staffer to tie it on for him. She repeatedly refused. He tied the tie himself but asked her to fix the back of his collar, which she reluctantly did. His only reply — “Good girl.”

The staffer said later in the day, the man roughly grabbed her arm and returned the borrowed tie to her.

An internal investigation found that the incident did not constitute unlawful harassment, but documents show that the man is now required to have an escort when visiting the Capitol.  

Sexual Harassment Training For Lobbyists?
Lawmakers, staffers and new interns are required to take workplace harassment training, but lobbyists are not. Last month legislative lawyers recommended changing that.

Rep. Arent later said the recommendation came because of an incident this year involving a lobbyist and an intern.

Some legislators resisted the move, and ultimately voted down the bill. Republican Rep. Norm Thurston, referring to lobbyists as “guests” at the legislature, said he was reluctant to regulate them.

Another Republican Rep., Brian Greene, also said he didn’t want to burden lobbyists or government officials with extra training. 

“I hate to get into the false sense of security that we can somehow educate people on what appropriate behavior is and what inappropriate behavior is,” Greene said.

“Anyone that has risen to the level of adulthood in this society knows what’s appropriate and what isn’t,” he said.

The women interviewed for this story disagree.  

Hopefully ... people will take a reflection and look at themselves and go, 'Hm, maybe I'm that creeper.' Because sometimes people don’t realize they’re that creeper. - Rep. Angela Romero

“Hopefully with these conversations around sexual harassment and sexual assault, people will take a reflection and look at themselves and go, ‘Hm, maybe I’m that creeper,’” said Democratic Rep. Angela Romero, who has long spoken out against sexual violence and sexual harassment.

“Because sometimes people don’t realize they’re that creeper,” she said.

Romero wants people to speak up when they see or hear about inappropriate behavior.  

“I think we as a community need to step up and say, ‘You know, this is not cool anymore. That joke? It’s not funny, and this is why it’s not funny.’”

Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER

Of the women interviewed for this story, many said they didn’t want to name specific men at the capitol because it could damage relationships and hurt their careers.

One woman – the same woman who was asked to sew a button on for a lawmaker – said she hopes this wave of people coming forward to share their stories doesn’t have a backlash effect.

She’s worried some men might follow the “Mike Pence rule” and stop meeting with women alone. Which, she points out, only excludes women further. 

Complaints About Workplace Harassment at the Utah Legislature

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.