Gehrke: One intern’s story and recent headlines prove that Utah's Capitol is in need of a major cultural shift

The concept behind internships is that they give young people a glimpse of how things work in the real world.

Unfortunately, one recent intern at the Utah Capitol came face-to-face with the shameful reality of how women can still be treated in our halls of power.

The young woman — whose name I’ve agreed not to use — told me she had been avoiding a certain, much older lobbyist for much of the last session. The way he leered at her made her skin crawl.

Then, with just a few days of lawmaking remaining, while she was doing her job, he approached and said: “Man, if I was 20 years younger, I would take you and push you against the wall and kiss you right now.”

“It was very explicit and I was so shocked,” she said. “I was so shocked I didn’t even know how to react.”

Without saying a word, she spun around and rushed back into the chamber.

A few months later, after the session, she told the legislator she had been working for about the comment. Her legislator complained to the legislative counsel’s office and was told there was nothing they could do — the Legislature was no longer in session, she was no longer an employee, and lobbyists aren’t regulated by the state.

It was an eye-opener for the intern.

“I really got to see the level of sexual harassment that goes on in a professional setting,” she said. “I got the full experience of how women are treated in a professional workplace.”

Despite the piety that often permeates the Utah Capitol, it is not insulated from misconduct, as we’ve witnessed in the past week.

We saw Rep. Norm Thurston stripped of committee assignments because of a comment he made to a woman, the latest incident in what the Legislature’s human-resources director called a “pattern and practice” of such actions.

In the past few years, there have been reports of another lawmaker calling a staffer “honey” and “sweetie,” saying it was “nice to have an attractive woman in the front office,” kissing her hand, making overtures to her young friend and, when she complained, telling her he would “remember that at your evaluation.”

These things happen in the workplace, frequently, as the #MeToo campaign illustrated. There is one key difference, however, that makes the Legislature different, and that is a heightened power structure.

Lobbyists rely on legislators to advance their issues, young staffers are watching out for their careers, reporters have to maintain relationships, and interns, well, interns are the little fish at the bottom of the food chain.

For example, what happens when a legislator asks a lobbyist to be his date to a major fundraising event? Because that type of boundary-crossing has happened in the recent past.

There are simply dynamics that, as a white male, one doesn’t have to navigate.

Given the current climate, some have worried that more lawmakers will follow the “Mike Pence rule” — several already do — and refuse to meet with women alone.

And I have heard over the years from women who are afraid to report inappropriate conduct because they worry it might affect their jobs.

The Legislative General Counsel’s office, from what I’ve seen, takes these issues seriously and has gone so far as to initiate investigations in at least two instances when it saw a pattern of conduct, without formal requests from the target of the harassment.

This year, amid the heightened awareness of workplace harassment issues, the Legislature hired a new human-resources director, Debbie Cragun, the former HR director for the state — a positive step.

Training has been stepped up, and House Speaker Greg Hughes’ action against Thurston shows there will be consequences for those who cross the line.

But there’s still more that can be done.

Rep. Jeremy Peterson’s House Bill 110 would require lobbyists to take workplace harassment training, prohibit them from engaging in misconduct and provide penalties for those who break the rules.

Lobbyists grumble that they’re being unfairly singled out, but there have to be some regulations in place, and if lawmakers want to apply the same rules to the media and anyone else credentialed or licensed by the Legislature, then so be it.

The Legislature also should stop shielding the identities of those who are investigated and found to have engaged in misconduct. Make them accountable to their colleagues and to their voters.

And it’s going to take a change in the culture.

It’s going to take a culture where people don’t feel like they can lecture Sen. Deidre Henderson on what to wear and tell her to smile more (yes, that happened, too). It’s going to take legislators unwilling to look the other way when they see inappropriate behavior from their colleagues, lobbyists or others.

Most important, it’s going to take more women in the Legislature and in leadership positions.

Hopefully, we’re starting to see that take place. And hopefully, future interns won’t look back on their experience at the Capitol and say something similar to what this young woman told me: “It just wasn’t fair. I wasn’t looked at for my work ethic by the legislators or lobbyists. It was all based on my appearance. It was so unprofessional. They’re preying on people. It’s shocking … to treat the women there like objects.”