Sexual harassment investigator had warned Iowa senators about clerks' attire

Secretary of the Iowa Senate Charlie Smithson has sometimes encouraged senators to “tell your clerk to wear something different” if a female clerk’s short skirt or top was attracting attention from older male lawmakers, he told an audience earlier this year.

Smithson’s handling of concerns about clerks’ attire raises further questions about whether he was the right person to investigate alleged sexual harassment within the Senate Republican caucus.

“SOME OF OUR OLDER MALE MEMBERS ARE STARTING TO SWEAT A LITTLE BIT”

In his role as chief parliamentarian and supervisor of non-partisan staff in the upper chamber, Smithson spoke at an event organized by the Iowa non-profit 50-50 in 2020, which seeks to increase women’s representation at all levels of government. A participant provided Bleeding Heartland with a recording of the March 28 session after learning earlier this month that Majority Leader Bill Dix had tapped Smithson–who serves at his pleasure–to look into the workplace environment for Iowa Senate employees. (At the time, Dix intended to keep those findings secret.)

Smithson brought up the Senate’s informal dress code about a minute into his presentation, which I’ve posted in full here. The relevant clip:

Regarding what people wear, Smithson said,

Both in the House and in the Senate it’s never been an issue for the elected person. It’s been the clerk. A lot of the clerks you get are younger, and unfortunately, sometimes the females wear some stuff that kind of drew some attention. And so part of my job is to go to the member and say, “Hey, you might want to tell your clerk to wear something different. Some of our older male members are starting to sweat a little bit, right? OK? You know what I mean?”

Asked to clarify what he meant, Smithson explained, “Usually what it’s been, the skirt’s kind of short, or the top’s too short. And some of these clerks are, you know, I can say this, that they look really nice. They’re younger. But for them it’s a different environment than what we’re used to.”

When I asked participants an open-ended question about what they recalled from the session with Smithson, several immediately referenced his remarks about attire, which they interpreted to mean that women are expected not to wear clothes that older men might find distracting. One woman told me, “Our collective jaw was on the floor.”

Louisa Dykstra echoed that sentiment: “A lot of us were pretty stunned at his comments, especially to this audience (a room full of women interested in running for office). He’s the last person I would want running a sexual harassment investigation.”

After some audience members pressed him on the subject, Smithson backpedaled: “Don’t not run [for office] because of the clothing issue,” adding, “it’s an extremely minor part of what I have to worry about on a day to day basis.” Just before wrapping up the Q&A, he returned to the topic and downplayed its importance, encouraging women not to “worry about the shortness of the skirts.”

I was unable to find any guidelines on the state legislature’s website referring to an acceptable length for skirts or women’s blouses. The only publicly available information about the Senate’s dress code is this paragraph from the chamber’s rules on decorum.

Jeans and/or t-shirts are not permitted except for Property Management personnel performing their duties and authorized press photographers who are moving equipment through the chamber to the back stairway. All persons with access to the Senate chamber pursuant to section 1 shall, on all legislative days, wear appropriate business attire, e.g., no denim, tank tops, halter tops, or shorts shall be worn. Males must wear a coat and tie at all times when the Senate is in session, except for Property Management personnel and press photographers moving through the chamber.

Responding to my inquiry, Smithson did not provide any additional informal rules on attire for women. Nor did he clarify whether he had worried that some of the older male members might not be able to control themselves around attractive young clerks, or whether his primary concern was keeping the lawmakers happy. (Shortly before turning to the topic of clothing, he had said part of the House chief clerk’s or secretary of the Senate’s job is to be a “concierge of sorts,” doing “whatever the senators or reps need to make their lives easier.”)

Rather, Smithson told Bleeding Heartland in a November 20 e-mail that the matter came up only twice during this year’s legislative session.

It was actually female clerks that raised the issue of another female clerk’s attire. Those clerks stated “it is making the older male members starting to sweat” and that this is “not a club.” No Senator stated anything to me about the attire of any clerk. There was another instance when clerks made reference to a male clerk who in their view was not dressed appropriately. In both instances I informed the appropriate Senators that statements had been made about their clerks and the response I received was that those members indicated that they would address the matter. That resolved all issues brought up this session on clothing.

That account of one conversation with a senator about one female clerk’s attire is at odds with Smithson’s remarks to the 50-50 in 2020 audience, implying multiple incidents (“sometimes the females wear some stuff that kind of drew some attention,” “usually what it’s been,” “some of these clerks”).

Whereas Smithson told Bleeding Heartland, “No Senator stated anything to me” about how clerks were dressed, he said in the clip posted above (starting around the 2:20 mark), “And I would never go comment on [inaudible] you know, what they’re wearing. It’s a member” who brings it up. Elsewhere in his talk, “member” referred to a state senator.

“A GOOD HR PROFESSIONAL WOULD INVESTIGATE THE BACKSTORY”

I asked four human resources professionals how they would handle an employee expressing concern about what a female colleague was wearing at work. Would they take the complaint straight to the employee’s superior?

All indicated they would do some fact-finding to determine whether the offending clothing actually violated the company’s dress code. If they determined the employee was dressed inappropriately, a human resources staff person or, if possible, a woman in a supervisory role would speak privately to the employee.

A longtime employment attorney’s take was similar.

In my experience, a good HR professional would investigate the backstory. If the investigation revealed a legitimate issue that women were dressed inappropriately, HR would arrange for the appropriate *FEMALE* HR or managerial person to speak directly to the person, to reinforce any policy (or absent a policy, common sense) about professional attire.

Complicating factors in the scenario Smithson described: the Iowa legislature has never employed human resources professionals, the decorum rules aren’t specific about “appropriate business attire” for women, and most clerks don’t have a female supervisor. They report to the lawmaker for whom they are working, and 28 of the 29 current Republican state senators are men. In the absence of an HR department, the employment attorney told me, “you’d find someone else discreet, sensitive, female and senior” to have this kind of conversation with a female employee.

Former Iowa Senate GOP communications director Kirsten Anderson deserves most of the credit for shining a light on the workplace environment at the statehouse. She brought the matter to the public’s attention right after her dismissal in May 2013 and pressed for fair treatment with a civil rights complaint and civil lawsuit, finally resolved in September by a $1.75 million settlement.

At least one Republican staffer and an unnamed state senator regularly disparaged Anderson’s clothing, shoes, or hairstyle, so I wanted her feedback on the informal dress code for women in the Iowa Senate. Following Anderson’s November 20 presentation in Des Moines on “Standing Up for What’s Right in the Workplace”, I showed her my transcript of Smithson’s relevant comments from March.

She paused for a while before answering. “It’s unfortunate that he is taking HR duties upon himself and not asking other HR professionals” how to respond, Anderson said. The approach he described is “not the right, correct, or appropriate way”; a professional would handle this “a lot more discreetly.” Like the 50-50 in 2020 participants who spoke to me, Anderson was troubled by the implication that “the problem is the clerk adjusting because the senator or the member can’t control themselves.”

Ten days after a Polk County jury awarded Anderson large damages for sexual harassment and discrimination, Majority Leader Dix picked Smithson to investigate allegations that came up during the trial. Keeping the investigation in-house was a terrible idea. Dix can hire or fire the secretary of the Senate, and he put his right-hand man, Senate President Jack Whitver, in charge of overseeing Smithson’s probe. Those circumstances allowed Dix to control the scope of the investigation and the release of its conclusions.

In fairness to Smithson, he and Whitver’s senior aide Mary Earnhardt didn’t simply tell the Republican leader what he wanted to hear after going through the motions of interviewing staff. Their written report to Dix pointed to serious ongoing problems in the GOP caucus: “ineffective” training on harassment, “an environment on the Senate Floor with senators making sexually suggestive comments or about sexual preferences,” and “a fear of retaliation” which made several staff members unwilling to discuss the details of past harassment and “unlikely to report any future incidents.”

However, Smithson and Earnhardt failed to fully grasp the limits of their inquiry. Although they acknowledged “the task was a very delicate matter that involved colleagues and subordinates,” which “may have had a chilling effect on some responses,” they discouraged asking outsiders to carry the work forward: “it does not appear that bringing in yet another entity to conduct further investigation would be productive.”

Last week, Dix announced former Republican lawmaker Mary Kramer will serve as a volunteer adviser “to assist in Senate efforts in workplace reform.” He touted her past experience as a human resources executive for large corporations. But when Kramer was Senate president from 1997 to 2003, she told the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich, “she dealt with harassment or similar complaints by threatening to make them public if the behavior continued. That approach always worked.”

Too bad Kramer didn’t apply her private-sector knowledge long ago to craft system-wide policies and procedures for a safe Iowa Senate work environment. Ad-hoc threats to misbehaving individuals may have “always worked” from her perspective, but that tactic didn’t prevent some staff or senators from victimizing women many years later, or from retaliating against Anderson when she pushed back.

The Iowa legislature needs to address misconduct through improved training and clear expectations for all staff and lawmakers. The new statehouse human resources professional should not report to top lawmakers. To this day, Dix stands by the unconvincing cover story that Anderson was fired solely because of her work product.

As for Smithson, he should stick to advising senators on parliamentary procedure, not what their clerks are wearing.

UPDATE: William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register,

Smithson told the Des Moines Register on Monday [December 4] he hadn’t made clear in his remarks to the nonpartisan group that he was reflecting what he had been told by two female clerks who had approached him last session with concerns about another female clerk and a male clerk. The female clerk was dressed in a manner that was too revealing, while the male clerk was dressed so casually that questions were raised whether he met the standards of the Senate’s dress code, Smithson said.

Smithson said he resolved the matter by talking with individual Senate members, asking them to visit with their clerks. He said the issue was brought to him because people were concerned Senate rules were not being followed. He said he didn’t want to give the impression he was overly worried about how women are dressed.

“It wasn’t like it was a directive from the Senate president or anything. It was a couple of clerks who came in and I was, like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And it was, like, ‘Just help the members. These are their clerks.’ And that was the end of it,” Smithson said. “It wasn’t anything formal. It wasn’t anything in writing. To me, it was resolved. The clerks did not dress that way anymore, and that was the end of it.”

Top image: Charlie Smithson. Cropped from a February 2014 photograph taken when Smithson worked for the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

  • Blame the victim?

    Dress attire in the Senate is conservative. Not all clerks, interns, or lobbyists always comply, but I don’t think that ever makes them responsible for any harassing comments or other behavior directed towards them. I’ve always kept in mind that they’re dressing on a limited budget, too. They can’t afford a closet full of modest clothes and stylish, trendy clothes, too. Sometimes they try to compromise, and it doesn’t work. They’re young and make mistakes. I still hold the male legislators to a higher standard. I hope they’re getting a speech before session starts about their obligations. It doesn’t sound like it.
    I hope there isn’t a strict dress code imposed, in the attempt to provide clearer guidelines. That usually results in hurting women, not men. Congress recently had a rebellion of sorts in the House because women were prevented from wearing sleeveless dresses, and were barred from the floor. That rule has now been changed, but it was in place for far too long, and kept some women out of the chamber for no good reason. There have been similar rules in chambers against open-toed shoes or other items of clothing, when really the issue is about men controlling themselves and their comments. Is it too much to ask that our legislators not be juvenile?

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