Reporter Says Harrisburg's Boys Club Still Feels Like 'Mad Men'

Nov 3, 2017

In the wake of sexual harassment and assault claims against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others,  dozens of female legislators, lobbyists, consultants, and reporters have come forward in the last few weeks to talk about sexism and harassment they've dealt with in their respective statehouses.

Reporter Angela Couloumbis with The Philadelphia Inquirer says Harrisburg has stayed pretty quiet, but not because there's nothing to talk about.

"The silence belies a culture that, year after year, places men in virtually every position of power in the 253-member legislature, normalizing disparity and promoting a boys-club atmosphere that, consciously or not, relegates women and their concerns to secondary status."

90.5 WESA's Megan Harris spoke to Couloumbis about her experience.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ANGELA COULOUMBIS: You know within the actual statehouse, when I first walked in, I thought to myself, "My goodness, you know. Where where am I?" I felt like I had walked onto the film set of Mad Men, because there were all of these men running around very purposefully, and they were always surrounded by a supporting staff of young men and women and all these supporting roles. And I thought to myself, you know, "I haven't worked in a nerve center for government politics before that looks like this."

MEGAN HARRIS: Are there any indicators you notice in men that let you know that you are safe in their company, that they aren't going to be a problem?

COULOUMBIS: Usually body language. You know, when you walk into a room. If you're doing a one-on-one interview, for instance, when you walk into a room, you can tell pretty quickly whether somebody's going to treat you as a professional or whether somebody is going to treat you as perhaps a weaker professional because of your gender. When the door closes behind you, you always get a little nervous about what's to come. I don't see that happening with my male colleagues. I'm actually married to the AP reporter up there, and sometimes when we discuss this, he's like, "That's never happened to me. Nobody ever treats me that way."

HARRIS: Have you ever been surprised? Maybe you thought you had a good working relationship with someone, but he did something untoward. How do you handle that?

COULOUMBIS: If it's not ugly, and it's not awful, I sometimes just ignore it. If it is very blatant, I will say something. Once a male legislator began rubbing my arm while I was writing, and I just asked him to stop. And he did.

HARRIS: You describe a practice that one female legislator employs to block male colleagues from getting too close -- preemptively putting one hand on his shoulder while using the other to shake his hand. It seems like this legislator was effectively teaching this technique to a roomful of smart, ambitious, college-aged women. So what does it say that an elected official needs to give a tutorial to young women about how to avoid being touched in a professional setting?

COULOUMBIS: It means that we've got a lot of growing up to do. I don't think it is just Hollywood or just politics. It happens in all, unfortunately, types of professional settings. It's the harasser's career and it's the harasser's reputation that gets ruined when these things come out, so I think speaking out should be encouraged and is the first step to navigating that really kind of delicate imbalance of power.

Photo credit: Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr