How Parliament Hill harassment exposed me to the dark side of power

It's difficult for young workers to navigate the halls of power on Parliament Hill. That naiveté makes it even harder for them to deal with incidents of harassment, writes the CBC's Laura Payton.

At the office or at ever-present cocktail parties, it can be hard to avoid sexual harassment on the Hill

It's difficult for young workers navigating the adult world of Parliament Hill. That naiveté makes it even harder for them to deal with incidents of harassment, writes the CBC's Laura Payton. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When I was a university student working in a senator’s office, one of his staff, who was older than my father, would come in, kiss me on the top of the head and rub my shoulders. I was 20 or 21 years old.

I assumed at first he had to realize how uncomfortable that would make me feel, and how wrong it was for someone who wasn’t a close relative to show that kind of affection. I thought that it couldn’t possibly happen every time he was there. It did, for the whole year I worked in that office.

I’ve worked on or close to the Hill most of my adult life, since I arrived in Ottawa as an 18-year-old Senate page. And while the mild sexual harassment I’ve experienced has evolved as my role has changed, it’s always lurking — from "I like your tights" (a married 50-year-old senator) to the hand of whichever male lobbyist I barely know that seems to find its way to the small of my back at social events.

It’s tough enough transitioning into adulthood without having to negotiate sex and power, but there it is — an additional challenge when you’re already trying to figure out how to interact with adults who aren’t teachers or friends of your parents.

When you’re emerging from the cocoon of a university campus, it’s hard to know what is appropriate to say and do around colleagues 20 or 30 or 40 years older, and what’s appropriate for them to say and do around you. That uncertainty makes it all the harder to have the confidence to tell somebody that you object to what they just said or that you want them to stand a little less close to you. Many of us were raised to be polite and taught to respect authority.

So how do you muster the courage to tell someone to back off without hurting their feelings?

You have a right to tell someone they’re making you uncomfortable. But an aspiring political staffer might fear the consequences of that conversation and the possibility that a grudge will mean a bad reference.

Protect each other

I feel lucky to have found my adult self in newsrooms where I’ve never experienced sexual harassment. That’s not to say that there aren’t journalists whose names come up in conversations about who to avoid having after-work drinks with. Even more, I feel somewhat protected from the most egregious, overt behaviour that women on the Hill talk about over glasses of wine or weekend brunch: what senior staffer or politician in their right mind would harass a journalist with the ability to call them out on Twitter?

Then again, as NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie told CBC News this week, it could also be the confidence you develop as you gain experience on the Hill and in your job.

Mostly, though, we protect each other, and develop our own ways to cope with the social situations required to build our networks. You warn your friends and colleagues about the man who cornered that staffer at that party, or who won’t give up when you’ve already politely turned down their invitation to dinner.

One of my colleagues gauges the scene at any reception — the events occur nightly when the House is sitting — and makes sure she leaves before most people have finished their second drink so that she avoids the most boorish behaviour. You choose your wardrobe, even for events like our annual black-tie-optional press gallery dinner, to protect as much as possible from hands that might enjoy resting on bare skin rather than a clothed shoulder or back.

But it’s always a dance, caught between the pressure to meet new contacts and break a big story (or, for a staffer, to get a better job) and the instinct for self-preservation.

So you accept an invitation but keep it to one drink — or, even better, a coffee — and only meet in public. No matter how many times you’re invited to someone’s home or office. You talk to that man at the party, but keep a respectable distance, and move a step away if you find his arm around you. You text because it’s the fastest way to communicate, but don’t engage in his flirting. You just ignore it.

I’m promising myself that, with all the discussion right now about harassment on the Hill, I will speak up the next time someone’s flirting makes me uncomfortable. But, like the current discussion, I fear that commitment will fade with time.