The Boys Club

Female employees say gender discrimination persists at City Hall. Could a new resolution fix the broken system?

Illustration by Jason Stout

A loyal City of Austin employee of nearly three decades, Mapi Vigil felt she had earned a move up the career ladder. Encouraged by her supervisors, the Austin Watershed Protection Department managing engineer applied for an assistant director position. Despite her experience and high performance reviews within the department, Vigil was passed up for two male applicants (the city withdrew the first hire's offer after discovering he had viewed pornography on a government-owned computer). Her supervisor simply called the selection "unlucky." Vigil filed an internal grievance with the city's human resources department to protest the promotion of a less-qualified candidate, but a hearing officer recommended that the grievance be denied.

Shortly afterward, her department underwent a reorganization, and while her white male counterparts saw salary raises, the Nicaraguan-born Vigil says she was taking on the same level of responsibility but wasn't afforded the same promotion. Vigil decided to speak up. She expressed feelings of gender discrimination in a private meeting with her supervisor, a nerve-racking but necessary conversation. Instead of understanding, her supervisor slapped Vigil with a two-day suspension, the threat of termination, and a written reprimand for yelling and being disrespectful.

Bewildered, Vigil wrote a letter to the city's HR department and the assistant city manager, as well as her supervisor, letting them know the accusations were false and requesting the reprimand be stricken from her record. HR ended up opening an investigation – not into Vigil's concerns, but into the allegations of unprofessional conduct made by her supervisor. Unaware of how important it would eventually be, Vigil had recorded the conversation with her supervisor to ensure she relayed all her points clearly. Vigil took the recording, which would prove the allegations false, to city management, but it didn't get much of a response. As a last resort, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discrimination on the basis of gender as well as national origin.

That's when the retribution began.

Essential parts of her job were blocked: Her requests to fill vacant positions as well as hire new employees were denied, and her performance reviews weren't scheduled (which made Vigil ineligible to receive additional merit-based vacation days), Vigil alleged in subsequent legal pleadings. In 2013, frustrated by the city's inaction, Vigil filed suit against the city. In the three years the case waited to go to trial, Vigil claims the retaliation increased tenfold – she was transferred to a new office, her employee team shrunk, and her professional duties decreased by an estimated 90%.

"I thought they were going to find the truth, and the truth was going to prevail. But that did not happen," says Vigil. "The system was broken, and it failed me as it does with a lot of other women."

When her suit finally went to trial in February of this year, the backlash had taken too heavy a toll on the longtime city employee. Although she was only 57 years old, she decided it was time to retire. "The saddest part for me is that I loved my job and didn't have any plans to leave," says Vigil, who left her post in March. "I was planning to stay another five years, but all that retaliation and all those obstacles that they put in front of my job created such an adverse impact not just on me but on my employees and citizens of Austin, since some of my projects were delayed."

Vigil left (mostly) vindicated – while a Travis County grand jury failed to confirm evidence of gender discrimination, they did find the city of Austin guilty of unlawful retaliation in reaction to her complaints of discrimination, and awarded Vigil $751,000 for back pay and compensatory damages. However, Texas Labor Code caps the amount she can receive at $300,000. Vigil left the courtroom that day numb and exhausted, and would spend the next three days in bed, sleeping off the emotional anguish of the past few years.

The lawsuit she filed was a time- and expense-consuming process rare for city employees, but Vigil's story of gender discrimination and retaliation is one of many. In testimony before the city and in interviews with the Chronicle, female city employees underscore a pattern of institutional discrimination, a weak complaint process, and retaliation unpunished. Seek­ing an opportunity for much-needed reform, women are throwing their support behind a resolution proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo that seeks to address the systemic problems they say have stymied their professional growth.

Sexist Session

“There is a pervasive cultural issue that needs to be fixed. It boils down to women not feeling like they have a seat at the table.”

Keri Burchard-Juarez was horrified as she listened to two speakers – ostensibly invited to educate city employees on diversity – peddle misogynistic stereotypes and dole out sexist advice to a roomful of women in City Council chambers. Among the tips: Female council members are "less likely to read agenda information" and instead ask a lot of questions (an observation one speaker derived from dealing with his 11-year-old daughter); women have an aversion to dealing with numbers and the budget; and (citing Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) women act on emotion, while men act on fact.

The assistant Public Works director struggled with her response: Should she get up and walk out the door to make a statement, or should she stay and subject herself to the misogyny to ensure she heard it all? Since her own employees in the audience would likely come to her with quizzical looks afterward, she chose the latter. "It was so painful and hurtful to hear the things that were said while sitting in my City Hall that I love and worked in for a decade," says Burchard-Juarez.

Keri Burchard-Juarez (Courtesy of Keri Burchard-Juarez)

By now, for some Austinites it may have become just an embarrassingly laughable stain on the city's recent history, but for others, the sexist presentation coordinated by city management in March 2015 is a solemn reminder of the pervasive discrimination they believe is ingrained at City Hall.

The two-hour "Women Leading in Local Government" session coordinated by former Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes was intended to bolster "principles regarding diversity in the workplace," and to instruct staff on how they could apply those lessons in light of the fact that women now outnumbered men on the 10-1 Council dais. The talk was led by Dr. Miya Burt-Stewart, head of a business development and marketing firm, and Jonathan K. Allen, who was fired from his city manager role in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., in 2015 by a female vice mayor with the support of two female commissioners for harboring a vision that did not align with the city's top officials.

The session catalyzed a firestorm of national ridicule, and heavy condemnation from the women on Council. "I was a combination of shocked, appalled, and speechless," said Council Member Delia Garza during a press conference denouncing the session last year. An internal investigation initiated by City Manager Marc Ott revealed that Snipes failed to properly vet the speakers and sought to shift blame elsewhere. After the incident, Snipes was placed on paid administrative leave, and subsequently announced his resignation.

When the dust settled, it became clear the sexist session was not an isolated event, but closer to a glimpse into a culture of inequity. "The training wasn't just upsetting – it reflected larger, systemic problems that we weren't addressing," says Burchard-Juarez. "There is a pervasive cultural issue that needs to be fixed. It boils down to women not feeling like they have a seat at the table." The former city engineer left her position last September and moved to the private sector, in part due to the feeling she lacked both the encouragement and opportunity to advance. On a hopeful note, today Burchard-Juarez feels optimistic about the city's ability to repair its shortcomings and transform its culture toward women.

A Broken System?

Empowered by the candor from council members after the session, several female employees called their local union to express claims of gender discrimination, pay disparity, harassment, and retaliation. Carol Guthrie, AFSCME Local 1624's business manager, says that since the sexist session, three to four women reach out with a complaint every month. "We started receiving numerous complaints after the Snipes presentation, and it has continued to rise. They have shared with us outrageous and shameful situations," says Guthrie. "Women are saying, 'Enough is enough, we want to be treated equally,' and they don't believe that is happening right now."

The city isn't oblivious to the high number of complaints. Female employees filed three times as many gender-based discrimination complaints as men from 2010-2015, detailed in a 2015 memorandum from the HR department, requested by Tovo. For allegations of discrimination or harassment, 57% are lodged against men.

“The odds of the city of Austin finding against the city of Austin are pretty slim. But when they do find something there is no real accountability, so people don’t really change their behavior. It’s just a broken process.”

Exacerbating the problem for women is what they consider a deeply flawed and unaccountable complaint system. Women the Chronicle spoke with allege the HR department shields managers and the city from liability when complaints of discrimination are filed. A strikingly low number of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and hostile work environment complaints filed with HR from 2010-2015 were found to be valid. Of the 23 such complaints filed by a woman against a man, only five were substantiated and no instances of discrimination and retaliation were found. Overall, roughly 10% of all allegations filed are substantiated with the city's HR depart­ment. "The odds of the city of Austin finding against the city of Austin are pretty slim," says Guth­rie. "But when they do find something there is no real accountability, so people don't really change their behavior. It's just a broken process."

Mapi Vigil (Photo by Jana Birchum)

HR contends its investigations are conducted by staffers who invest anywhere from 20 to 200 hours on each case with "significant detail, complexity, and uniqueness." By the very nature of the cases, any investigation could potentially result in the complainant or the respondent feeling "dissatisfied" with the outcome, they say. HR Acting Director Joya Hayes firmly discredits the claims that the department in any way protects management, when asked by the Chronicle. "No employee, including managers, are exempt from compliance with City policy, nor are they 'shielded' or 'protected' during investigations of any type, including investigations into allegations of gender discrimination," wrote Hayes in an email response. "The City takes all complaints seriously. When presented with a complaint of discrimination, human resources staff is assigned to investigate those complaints by gathering evidence and testimony to evaluate those allegations."

Lack of transparency stands as another point of contention for women filing discrimination complaints. When a complaint is filed and an investigation opens, the final report is sent to the employee's supervisor but, strangely, not to the employee who complained. To access his or her own report, the employee must file an open records request under the Public Information Act. Council Member Leslie Pool has taken issue with the process on the dais. "It seems a little slippery to me. Some people know to ask for a public information request, others don't. It's not a level playing field," Pool tells the Chronicle. "That should be an element of the ground rules going in, that you shouldn't have to go through the PIR process. There's enough emotional difficulty filing the complaint in the first place, you shouldn't add an additional obstacle in front of a person."

HR defends the open records request requirement, arguing that the process is meant to protect confidentiality. "This practice exists to ensure the documentation provided to any requestor maintains a consistent and appropriate approach to confidentiality and redactions if they are necessary," wrote Hayes, pointing to redactions of personally identifiable information, identity of individuals involved in claims of sexual harassment, etc. "Additionally, this practice ensures that all complainants, witnesses, co-workers and respondents are treated consistently by requiring investigation reports to be requested, tracked and disseminated via the PIR process."

Some City of Austin employees have simply lost faith in the system. J. (who wishes to remain under a pseudonym) bypassed the city's HR department complaint process and went straight to the EEOC. An employee within the Devel­op­ment Services Depart­ment, J. tells the Chronicle she's mistrustful of HR due to the many instances she's seen where complaints resulted in no action for colleagues. "You're better off not letting them know what's going on and working it out through other channels if you can," she says. A city employee of nearly 20 years, J. points to her own long history of what has felt like a pattern of gender and pay discrimination. She says male co-workers in her department that were taking on as much as or even less than her duties were receiving raises and promotions within months, while her requests for the same fell on deaf ears. The employee says she's already feeling retaliation in her work environment for speaking up (she claims one supervisor commented that she's "going around and causing trouble") and doesn't want to worsen the problem by revealing her identity.

"A lot of this started with the Snipes presentation," says J. "We were being treated bad and were part of an unfair process. That's when we banded together and said we're going to do something about this."

However, the other avenues women can take if HR fails to find in their favor or delays the process are time-consuming and costly. A response from the EEOC can take up to 10 months, and if the federal commission does recommend filing suit, hiring an attorney and proceeding with litigation is an expensive endeavor, forcing many to stifle their concerns. Just eight of the 162 charges against the city from 2010-2015 resulted in lawsuits (totaling five suits as some involved multiple discrimination charges); another 16 charges were settled by the city, and eight were withdrawn. "Nine times out of 10 they become ill and drop everything and don't get resolution," says Guthrie. "It's a sad, sad situation."

“I call it the Boys Club. The men in this city are running things.”

The disparity between complaints filed by women and men is indicative of a larger culture of inequality, women contend. After the Snipes presentation – coordinated by city management – made headlines, Tovo called the incident a "clarion call" to ensure more women are not just on Council, but fill more leadership roles at City Hall. The divide runs deep, with men eclipsing women in every job classification: Citywide, 68% of workers are male, 32% are female. In management, women hold 27% of positions, whereas men hold 73%. And as for the influential, decision-making leadership roles in the city, men account for 60% of the executive positions, a fairly striking gender imbalance. "I call it the Boys Club," says J., disheartened. "The men in this city are running things."

A Chance for Reform

Following the Snipes presentation, women brought the institutional problems to the city's Human Rights Commis­sion's door, as they have in the past. But this time, the HRC took action. During meetings in May and September of 2015, female city employees relayed their experiences of discrimination based on sex and recounted other training sessions that advanced negative stereotypes of women. (For instance, a picture in a city ethics training program depicted women unprofessionally commandeering an office conference room to sell beauty products.)

The volunteer-led commission listened. They examined data on complaints of gender discrimination, and in November 2015, Commissioners Garry Brown, Ashley Nor­mand, and Joe Miguez offered a list of recommendations to combat disparate treatment. Brown says they concluded city policies didn't appear to be strong enough or afford enough protection for women. Council should direct the city manag­er to immediately review the city's anti-discrimination policies and simplify/clarify the process by which employees make complaints of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, the commission recommended. The policies don't appear to be uniform, they noted, and some of the practices not standardized. The city manager should also update definitions of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. And they called for the immediate retirement of the sexist conference room depiction.

"Right after that training session we felt like we had to do something, especially since the issue was a holdover from a previous commission," says Brown, reflecting on the recommendations. "We really took what they were saying to heart and wanted to be sure that women feel safe in the workplace."

Council members address the Snipes training in a May 13, 2015, press conference. (Photo by Mary Tuma)

MPT Tovo grabbed the torch from the HRC and in March proposed a resolution based on the commission's recommendations. Tovo told the Chronicle her concern began when she heard about the Snipes training session – and moreover, how and when the sexist presentation came to light. While the session took place in March 2015, the news broke in May. "One of the pieces of that experience that really struck me is that it had happened months earlier and the woman who raised concerns about it didn't bring them up to her managers or within the city – they went and spoke anonymously to a reporter," says Tovo. "To me that was a red flag." The silence from women following the presentation led Tovo to believe female employees didn't feel safe or comfortable expressing their worries, possibly due to fear of workplace reprisal. "That in and of itself was a message that we needed to look at whether there are ways that our city culture could be more encouraging at helping people understand they have a right to speak up if they encounter something offensive," she says.

Tovo's resolution builds upon the HRC recommendations by calling for an objective, third-party appeals process for cases involving allegations of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation when an employee's needs aren't met through the city's standard grievance process. It also requests the city manager examine the Municipal Civil Service Commission for its "potential role" in the third-party appeals process. Additionally, the resolution tasks the city auditor with coordinating an external audit to review investigations of alleged discrimination, harassment, and retaliation filed between 2010 and 2015 and determine if improvements should be made.

Council saw a packed house on March 24, the day Tovo's resolution passed. A stream of women took to the podium and shared either their own personal experiences of discrimination or spoke for friends and colleagues, who wished to remain anonymous. Complaints ranged from sexual harassment, retaliation, and pay inequity, to HR's ineffective system for recourse. All 86 citizens who signed up to speak were in favor of the resolution. HR had the opportunity to reiterate its credibility and professionalism during a presentation following the personal stories, many of which slammed the department's process. Interim HR Director Hayes told Council there are "two sides" to every story. One word that comes to mind when describing the staff presentation: defensive.

"I certainly sensed some real concerns coming out of HR staff [during the council meeting]," says Tovo. "Afterward, people said wow, while they're saying we're happy to perform this, the tone of the conversation conveyed some frustration about the path we were taking." Tovo adds, "I appreciate the work HR does and I know it's hard when people on the outside are saying, 'Hey we can do better,' but I would say even great processes can be improved."

The department has taken issue with Tovo's request to look into expanding the role of the Municipal Civil Service Com­mis­sion for the third-party appeals process. Citing budgetary challenges and uniformity with other cities, a June 30 memo from acting assistant city manager and former HR Director Mark Washington instead recommends using an internal city department other than HR (e.g., adding staff to the Office of the Police Monitor or the Labor Relations office) or an outside law firm for the third-party option. Despite the pushback, Tovo says she's "strongly committed" to exploring a third-party appeals process beyond city management.

The resolution's progress is ongoing. As of June, the city updated and expanded its definitions of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation to reflect guidance from the EEOC. Council is expected to decide whether or not to approve a $90,000 contract with an external auditor (Matrix Consulting) on August 11. If approved, the results of the outside audit will be revealed at an unspecified date.

"This is about how we create a safe environment for our staff and make sure discrimination, harassment, and retaliation aren't tolerated on any level," says Tovo. "It's really just a matter of looking at voices within the city who are saying that wasn't their experience and figuring out how can we look at ways to make sure that experience doesn't happen again for someone else."

Fear of Retaliation

Over a couple of sodas and the faded sounds of music at Threadgill's, Susan Scallon says her first experience with gender-based harassment at the city occurred in the Nineties. Inappropriate jokes, sexist advice, and lewd photos from a male supervisor contributed to an uncomfortable environment. When Scallon complained to her superiors, she claims, she was met with retaliation. But at the time, she needed job stability and steady health insurance after her husband suffered injuries in a car accident. And last year, the environmental program coordinator says, gender discrimination reared its head once more.

While her department quickly promoted a male counterpart to be her boss, her requests for a promotion were not met, though she manages a high-profile program. The new boss, she claims, has tried to thwart her attempts to ascend at every opportunity. Her complaint to HR hit a brick wall: The department said Scallon's problem didn't meet a "nexus," so it didn't investigate the claim. She again asked for a promotion this year, but has yet to hear back for unexplained reasons. "My supervisor marginalizes me and my job duties," she says. "I don't know who to trust."

Scallon testified before Council in March, retelling the story of a co-worker who faced gender discrimination. She believes she faced retaliation for that. Going on the record once more, Scallon feels certain she'll face increased retribution. "I'm very nervous about talking to you. This going into the paper is frightening. But how long are we gonna take it? When are we going to stand up and do something?"

It's been months since Vigil's lawsuit ended. Today, she says she's trying to stash all the negative events she experienced in a "file cabinet" in the back of her mind, yet at the same time doing what she can to help reform the system and support other women in her position. Echoing Scallon, she says many women fear telling their stories due to backlash. "There are several women that are afraid to speak up because of retaliation. Maybe they saw what I'm going through and felt less compelled to complain. It was really hard. I lost friends and felt alone through the whole process."

AFSCME's Guthrie commends Council for the resolution and feels hopeful it will alleviate the major concerns from the many women she hears from on a weekly basis. For her, the issue is not just one of gender equality but of public interest. "When you don't deal with this problem effectively, it creates a morale issue and the impact on the city is huge. That's the biggest problem with it – how it flows over into the work environment. It makes for a hostile atmosphere where employees are less productive, and that's a disservice to the public."

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