Forest Service women: We faced assault, mistreatment, retaliation if we complained

By Michael Doyle

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Female Forest Service workers in California reported enduring sexual misconduct, harassment and a fear of retaliation if they complained, according to a previously unreleased study obtained by McClatchy under the Freedom of Information Act.

While many Forest Service employees voiced general satisfaction with their workplaces, women were much more likely than men to identify serious problems in the 2015 survey.

Their grievances spanned a wide range, from misdeeds to mismanagement, and they echoed complaints lodged by women in the military and other federal agencies.

“Concerns included inappropriate supervisor behaviors, derogatory or patronizing attitudes towards females, a lack of accountability when issues arise and a lack of respect toward subordinates,” the 56-page study noted.

“The fact remains that a male-dominated workforce can lead to a variety of negative consequences for women,” it added.

The report, called a “workplace environment assessment” of the Pacific Southwest Region, was commissioned by the Forest Service and prepared by a consulting business called ICF International. It was provided to McClatchy on May 18, in response to a Dec. 1 FOIA request.

The report mirrors investigations by a congressional committee and the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General that have identified similar management missteps and alleged mistreatment of women in the National Park Service. The inquiries have exposed what some fear is a systemic problem in the government’s public lands agencies.

“I think that in any setting where you are in remote areas, where there is a separate code of conduct that is used to provide discipline, that oftentimes you have pretty egregious behavior,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in an interview.

Speier said members of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues hoped to hold a hearing later this year, possibly at Grand Canyon National Park, on the National Park Service and Forest Service workforce controversies. She has previously authored legislation addressing military sexual assault and harassment, which surveys have suggested is prevalent.

Citing the study on its workers in California, the Forest Service said in a statement Friday that it “takes seriously the findings in the assessment.”

It added, “The region’s goals in undertaking the assessment were to gain a better understanding of the current environment and to identify things that are working well, but also to identify areas for improvement.”

The Forest Service said it had undertaken a number of steps, including additional training, close cooperation with civil rights staff and engaging with a professional consultant to “help us recognize and take steps to manage gender-related and other unconscious bias that may exist.”

Among female Forest Service workers in the agency’s California-based Pacific Southwest Region, 20 percent indicated that they had witnessed insulting or disrespectful remarks or behaviors regarding an employee’s gender in the previous three years.

Thirty-one percent said they felt excluded from decision-making or group action.

Four percent of the women said they had experienced sexual harassment or misconduct.

“Women provided consistently less favorable responses than men across all aspects of the workplace environment,” the study reported.

It said “perceptions regarding a lack of accountability emerged as one of the most common problems” and that “fear of retaliation is a concern for a substantial percentage of employees in the Region.”

Previous hearings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have also put a spotlight on related issues within the Forest Service.

“I really love my job, but I have witnessed females being overlooked, not taken seriously, passed over and not given equal opportunities. This has also happened to me,” Denice Rice, a fire prevention technician on California’s Eldorado National Forest, told the House committee last year.

The Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region manages 20 million acres in California. Its workforce consists of approximately 5,000 full-time employees, 70 percent of whom are men. Seasonal employees bring the workforce to about 7,500, with a big majority in the male-dominated firefighting field.

All told, 1,084 employees responded to the workplace survey. Consultants also interviewed 90 workers, including seven from the Stanislaus, four from the Eldorado and six from the Sequoia national forests.

The good news for the Forest Service is that the majority of survey participants and interview subjects were relatively satisfied with their workplace environment.

“By far, the most common theme expressed by female participants about their co-workers regarding women in the workplace was that their co-workers are great and/or they had no issues with their co-workers related to gender discrimination,” the report noted.

For instance, 68 percent of women said they agreed or strongly agreed that their workplace “embodied a safe, respectful work environment” for females.

Among men, though, 87 percent answered the same, reflecting a significantly different perspective across genders that Forest Service officials have been trying to equalize.

In a similar vein, 55 percent of women said the Forest Service had taken “effective steps” to rectify sexual harassment or misconduct, compared with 72 percent of men.

Twenty-one percent of the women disagreed or strongly disagreed with the notion that employees were treated fairly regardless of gender.

While the majority of those surveyed reported having “positive experiences” with their supervisors and local leadership, the report cautioned that “a notable percentage of participants held negative perceptions, and complaints related to supervisors and local leadership were among the most commonly reported concerns across the assessment.”

With more concerted workforce training, and a younger generation of supervisors coming up, researchers suggest problems may start to diminish.

“There was a trend of improvement across the region,” the report said.