Jeanne Ponte began filling what's become the most famous notebook in the European Parliament in 2014, two weeks after she arrived in Brussels, then a 23-year-old proud to have landed a job as political assistant.
On the first page, she titled it "The Little Sexism Notebook: Things Lived, Seen and Heard at the European Parliament," and began recording every act of sexual harassment – beginning with one of her first official meetings, when a leering German parliamentarian blocked her at her exit, with his arm across her waist, and said: "Are you new here? We should get a drink."
Her friends said, that's just politics, get used to it, she told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview. But she did not want to "get used to it."
So she kept records, adding the time a senior staffer secretly took photos of her working and sent them to her phone after midnight. "I have more," he boasted the next day at her desk. Other women, and a few men, began to contribute – including a new mom who said a politician asked to sample her breast milk while they were in the elevator on a work trip to Strasbourg. Ms. Ponte's notebook now has more than 65 entries and counting.
The #MeToo movement has swiftly arrived at political institutions across the western world. Thanks to a debate sparked last fall by that little notebook, the European Parliament is expected to decide on new guidelines to deal with sexual harassment by early March. In the United States, Britain and Canada, allegations have led to investigations and resignations of politicians. Parties are grappling with how to change the schmoozy, boozy, keep-quiet culture that allowed those in power to harass with impunity. At the European Parliament, for instance, a leaflet still reminds new members not to "pinch or rub against" their staffers. Notably, the human resources office there, often cited as the place to take complaints, has never received one for sexual harassment.
In Ottawa, where three federal parties have ordered investigations into harassment or sexual-misconduct allegations in their ranks, MPs are set to study a Liberal bill that would extend Canada Labour Code protection to staff on the Hill, including interns. It requires every employer, including MPs, to have a sexual harassment policy and to investigate, record and report harassment. When situations cannot be resolved, the legislation requires the involvement of a neutral third party. It does not list sanctions for harassers, although an employer who does not address complaints could be fined or named publicly.
Political parties are also instituting their own rules. The Liberals hold mandatory training sessions with staff and the Prime Minister's Office has set up a two-person team to handle harassment complaints from political staffers working for cabinet ministers and in the PMO. The New Democrats are set to bring in an external presenter to talk to their caucus about safe environments. And the Conservatives say they will ask prospective candidates if they have ever been accused of improper sexual behaviour.
The new European Parliament guidelines were expected to be decided this week, a parliamentary spokeswoman said, but on Monday the decision was postponed to March. The guidelines are a response to a resolution passed last fall that called for changes including a review of membership requirements for the two advisory committees that recommend sanctions against politicians and bureaucrats accused of harassment. The resolutions called for a gender balance on the committees, better training for the members and a more public accounting of committee findings.
But Ms. Ponte said the guidelines will not include many of the more significant recommendations, including an independent external audit on the extent of the problem, and confidential counsellors to advise and speak on behalf of victims, as the European Commission has. The British and Scottish parliaments have recently created anonymous harassment hotlines.
But unless workplace culture also changes, there is not much evidence a more streamlined complaints process or more employee workshops make a difference, especially if victims don't believe appropriate action will be taken, says Vicki Magley, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut.
Employment Minister Patty Hajdu recognizes these limitations. It is hard for a code of conduct to address the nuances of every situation, she recently told The Globe. Can an MP work late into the night with a staffer? Should parties prohibit relationships between two colleagues where one holds a more senior position? In her experience running a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, she said, "that is very, very hard to monitor."
At the same time, are such situations really so blurry?
"Is it possible for a drunk staffer to give consent for sex to a senior male [colleague] who aggressively propositions [her]," Conservative MP Michelle Rempel asked in a speech to the House of Commons last week during debate on the Liberal anti-harassment bill. "Within any standard workplace code of conduct, the answer to that should be unequivocally no."
Ms. Rempel wants a clearer definition of sexual harassment, and, given the after-hours socializing that happens, clarification of what counts as the workplace. She said everyone on Parliament Hill – from interns to ministers – should be required to take annual mandatory training about sexual harassment and sexual consent. She also called on political parties to adopt formal codes of conduct, with consequences for breaking them.
"Using the whisper network, the gossip chain that we use to tell each other when we see something or hear something, can no longer be seen as the main way to manage incidents of harassment," she said.
In Brussels, Ms. Ponte said she and her French colleagues call it the "open secret" that teaches women quickly who to avoid. "We all develop strategies," she says. And when complaints are made, "a lot of people will say to excuse sexual harassment, 'Oh, but it's flirting,' or 'You are not funny, you don't understand jokes.'"
That her notebook, which names names, spoiled the punch line, is an understatement. "People were wondering, 'Am I in it?'" said Ms. Ponte, who with the support of her boss, French member Edouard Martin, will continue to push for more changes to the system.
The notebook is now hidden away, and she has no plans to release it. "I don't want them to focus on one name, one situation," Ms. Ponte said, "and after that, we forget everything."
Besides, it has already done the job beyond what she could have imagined. "It was just for me," she said. "It became a notebook of solidarity."
The Canadian Press