Harassment and Gender Disparity in Local Government

Posted on August 2, 2018

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Harassment and Gender Disparity in Local Government

Executive Director’s note: this submission was received from an ELGL with the request that it be published anonymously. Here at ELGL, we always accept anonymous submissions because we know that the power of local government storytelling doesn’t always occur at the perfect time in our careers. If you have a story to tell, we want to tell it, especially when it is timely, relevant, and important. If you wish to respond to this post or reach out to the author, please email me and I can share your contact information with the author.

Read a prior anonymous post “Preparing Your Local Government for the Reckoning

Part I:

It seems to be almost daily, another article in the paper about women coming forward, and sharing their stories about sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. However, their stories also spotlight experiences of limited opportunities for career growth, and/or being devalued based on your gender. There is an imbalance of power in the workplace.  These stories expose a workplace culture where people in positions of power have created an environment where women can be treated less than equal.

I’ve been wondering about all of us in local government, as the software engineers in Silicon Valley, the actors in Hollywood, the lobbyists in D.C. and the factory workers at the Ford plants give voice to work place discrimination.

Has there been harassment or gender disparity, even with the policies in employee handbooks, unions, and all the transparency and accountability to citizens? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Over the last year I have been learning about the related experiences of female colleagues where I work. These civil servants work in a variety of departments, from Police and Public Works, to Legal, IT, Finance, and Human Resources departments. They are police officers, technicians, engineers, lawyers, accountants, IT and personnel professionals. They have a wealth of experience in both the private and public sectors, many with degrees and certifications that oftentimes exceed their male counterparts.

However, their skills are questioned, their authority is undermined, and they are held to a higher standard than their peers or even subordinates. While complaints have been submitted, investigations have been conducted, and findings of wrongdoing have been produced, rarely is the outcome disciplinary action or termination.

The perpetrators are allowed to continue in their roles, and to continue to bully and harass women. For many of the victims that have spoken up, there has been retaliation (workloads are increased, training is denied, information is withheld, participation in a high profile project is rejected, you become the subject of an investigation, and on and on).

These women are caring, professional, intelligent individuals, who come to work to serve their community and fellow co-workers, yet have to do so in a work environment where they are treated terribly. What are they to do? They have gone to HR for help, but the situation hasn’t changed. Some bide their time until retirement. Others leave to work elsewhere. A few take action.

In the last ten years there have been upwards of five EEOC complaints filed and five lawsuits, with several additional cases in the works.  In less than one recent year, over $200,000 was spent on outside investigators and legal counsel to address complaints of discrimination and retaliation, which does not include lawsuit settlement payments.

Are lawsuits and settlements better for the bottom line and easier than changing the culture of an organization?

How many taxpayer dollars need to be spent to keep a couple of bad apples employed? How many good employees do we need to lose to keep a few bad managers/employees around?  Why aren’t policies enforced and all employees held to the same standard?

From the outside, we may seem to be a great place to work. Our employee handbook and HR webpages have anti-harassment policies. We have a code of conduct to treat each other with dignity and respect. We have a diversity committee.

But the reality is it means very little. There has been no harassment training in years, no implementation of diversity strategies, managers and supervisors are uncivil to staff, and the head of our organization would rather hire consultants to provide information on a diversity plan, training, or investigate complaints, rather than let the HR director implement programs and hold employees accountable for violating policies.

The reality is that there is a culture of fear. What else do you call it when both male and female colleagues check to see who is in the hallway before giving a thumbs up or whispering “I support you” to the most recent employee that has a filed a lawsuit?

Part II of this blog will be published next week.

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