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Disparate treatment of women comes back into focus at City Hall

Wednesday, January 13, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last spring, Austin found itself in the national spotlight when news broke about a training session held with the intent of helping city staff cope with a female-majority City Council. Though the repercussions were quick for then-assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes, who resigned in May, the issue soon fell out of the national – and local – consciousness, despite questions about why complaints about the sexist seminar took so long to surface and speculation about what that delay said about the culture at the city.

As it turns out, not everyone has dropped the issue and moved on. Over the past few months, the city’s Human Rights Commission has been investigating allegations of disparate treatment of women at the city. And, in November, the commission issued a series of recommendations that are now making their way to Council.

Carol Guthrie, who is the business manager for the employees union AFSCME, told the commission in November that the union deals with the issue “quite a bit.” She explained that the infamous “woman training” that occurred in March “got many women thinking about the way that they are treated on the job.”

“The reason you don’t see a whole lot of women here behind us is because they have been intimidated,” said Guthrie. “They’re afraid of consequences for their job.” She told commissioners that the problems weren’t limited to any one department but “were all over the city of Austin.”

“If you are a woman, most likely in your tenure at the city of Austin you will be discriminated against in some form, whether that’s pay or just being stereotyped by your peers. If you are a woman of color, you are going to suffer a little bit more,” said Guthrie. “And at some point we have had enough. … This is not the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. For heaven’s sakes, this is 2016. … This type of treatment is intolerable. It is not OK.”

Guthrie explained that, for women who found themselves being discriminated against, “There’s no way out, and there’s no body that women in this organization can turn to, unless they’re rich and they can sue the city of Austin.” She said that she wasn’t asking that anyone be fired; rather, she was seeking “change in the workplace.”

And that change may soon be on the way. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told the Austin Monitor that she was “absolutely” taking the issue seriously. In fact, Tovo is currently working on a resolution that will be co-sponsored by Council members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen based on the Human Rights Commission recommendations. She said that, although the resolution is still in the early stages, she expects to have it ready for this month’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting, with a goal of getting it to Council on Feb. 4.

“Based on what I’m hearing, I believe there’s a good reason to pursue the Human Rights Commission recommendations,” said Tovo. “The resolution I bring forward will stick pretty close to what they are suggesting.”

“We’ve had discussions in the past with our individual Women’s Commission appointees and with others. … There have been suggestions from time to time that some of the staff would really welcome some attention in this area,” said Tovo. “I really appreciate the staff members who came forward and talked with the Human Rights Commision and the union for representing them and really giving the Human Rights Commission some direction about what policy changes and process changes would look like.”

Most significantly, the recommendations focus on the need for the city to review its anti-discrimination policies and protocols.

During the discussion in November, commissioners questioned the policies currently in place and whether they were adequate and clear to city employees wanting to make complaints anonymously or report issues to those outside of their chain of command.

Commissioner Garry Brown said it was “crazy” that the policies had not been updated since 1996. He also pointed out that not all of the policies were uniform across the city, or even within the official city personnel policies.

“To me, that would give any city employee pause, because they don’t even know exactly what’s going on,” said Brown.

During the public hearing held in November, Guthrie summarized the current state of affairs by reading the statement from an anonymous city employee who, in Guthrie’s opinion, best summarized the situation. That woman said that contrary to assertions made by city management that the March training was not reflective of city culture, she had “witnessed at least two training events where women are stereotyped as selfish and not team players” and that “the city of Austin has systematically desensitized the treatment of women through training.”

That anonymous woman said that in 2014, she attended required diversity training during which the leader apologized for requiring attendance. That training, she said, also included a discussion about “how women may use their gender to be assigned better projects” and comments that indicated “tolerance towards discrimination.” In 2015, she attended an ethics training session that showed a video of a woman “deliberately disregarding a serious business need in favor of selling makeup to look like the pop star Beyonce.”

The two training events, she said, “exemplify the culture that women are out for selfish gain at the expense of the organization. This culture has led to the tolerance of serious, egregious acts against women because when a legitimate complaint is brought forth, it is regarded as women overreacting (who) need to calm down.”

Among the recommendations from the Human Rights Commission is a suggestion that those trainings be immediately removed and that a review be held to ensure that current and future vignettes do not have similar content.

Photo by That Other Paper made available through a Creative Commons license.

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