Women say discrimination still part of Forest Service culture

Margaret Stoughton Abel, first woman forester in the Forest Service, 1930.
Margaret Stoughton Abel, first woman forester in the Forest Service, 1930.

And a less upbeat story…
Here’s the link.

I have pointed out when I was an employee of the Forest Service, that if you do the math and you want to hire more:

People in fire suppression and fuels (lower percentage than 50% are women)
Ethnically diverse people (in natural resources, a lower percentage than 50% are women)
Vets (a lower percentage than 50% are women)

Which I agree are good things to do..if you are not careful you could have many fewer women than in the workforce or the population. Which may if you are not careful lead to a resurgence of the macho culture that we tried to moderate in the 80’s and 90’s. Which makes the workplace less comfortable for women, and so on..

So you have to be conscious of these trade-offs as part of your diversity hiring and Cultural Transformation.

Before I retired I was the first female in an otherwise an unbroken link of testosterone molecules that extended from my boss to the President of the United States. From my boss (black male) to his boss (Hispanic male) to the Chief (white male) to the Undersecretary (white male) assisted by Deputy Undersecretary (Native American male) to the Secretary (white male) to the President (black male) assisted by Vice-President (white male). We had two female forest supervisors on 11 forests. My statement when I looked at the numbers tended to go along the lines of “I can’t believe this is 2012.”

I worked in timber management on the neighboring Eldorado from 88 to 91, twenty years ago, and here is someone in timber on the Plumas today. My experience is that there is something deeper than training will fix, not measured in EEO complaints, and probably addressed more comprehensively and openly than through individual complaints or class actions.

I recommend listening to the mp3 of Elaine Vercruysse (on the left sidebar), one Forest Service employee who is filing a discrimination class complaint. One thing she says is that things used to be better 20 years ago, and that on forests, numbers are way down.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is tackling a history of discrimination with more training and accountability as part of a cultural transformation program. But some current and former USDA employees say they’re not seeing cultural changes, and sex discrimination is still prominent within the agency.

Specifically, female employees in Region 5 of the Forest Service are objecting to the disparity between how men and women are hired and promoted. The employees also point to hostile workplace conditions, where, in some cases, egregious sexual harassment.

“We want to see more women get the opportunities they deserve, getting promotions … getting jobs and getting paid for their skills and their experience level commensurate to the men,” said Elaine Vercruysse, a logging systems planner with the Plumas National Forest in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio.

In my experience, in other regions there might not be as much overtly jerky behavior, as a pervasive questioning of folks who are not Good Old Boys (even Diverse Good Old Boys) that may harken back to a lack of acceptance of what leadership without testosterone can look like.

If we went back to my example of “currently no women Station Directors” and you asked someone, they might say “females didn’t work out” and “there are none in the pipeline” or the popular “all the good ones move to the National Forest System.” To which I would reply “I think this is a problem, do you?” “have you asked folks why they aren’t in the pipeline?” “could you hire some coaches or others to help root out people with undesirable traits and encourage those with desirable traits?” “have you ever asked the ones who moved to NFS why they did?”

I suspect this is not the last we’ll hear of this.

4 thoughts on “Women say discrimination still part of Forest Service culture”

  1. Peter, thanks for the link. We had some discussion, though not thorough, of the book on the blog previously here. Would anyone want to summarize the key points of the book? I am still trying to find time to do that for the Pineros book.

    My first thoughts are that:

    1. Fire is part of the Forest Service but is not the Forest Service. I thought Stephen Pyne’s reflections on what “the war on fire” meant to the development of the Forest Service as presented at the SAF Convention in Spokane was excellent. I happened to attend a session with the Fire Director, Tom Harbour, at the Retirees’ Rendezvous. A group of retired folks disagreed with some things going on in a not very respectful (IMHO) way (and he handled it very professionally). I couldn’t get called on to say what I intended, along the lines of “you guys are not very realistic and the Forest Service is not all about fire” but couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

    2. Blaming the powerless for the generic decline of society has a long and sordid history. But as I used to tell folks in my former (highly male-centric) church, once you stopped accusing us of witchcraft and burning us at the stake, we lost our fear about speaking out.

    3. I would agree that many things were mishandled in R-5 during the Consent Decree. But they were mishandled before the Consent Decree, which led to the Consent Decree. Maybe the problem is the general problem of mishandling things, rather than any issue in particular? (I know this because I was there).

    4. I saw some numbers a couple of years ago about new hires in California that were not good from the female perspective. It seems to me that the climate that people have is qualitative and more difficult to analyze. But the numbers tell a story that is hard to argue with. Again, as with our other thread on resource conflict resolution and budget, it would be good to see the numbers by series, by forest and RO over the past 20 years.

  2. I work on one of the National Forests in Region 5 in California (since 1998). Our Forest Supervisor is a woman. 3 of 4 District Rangers are women, including the Ranger on my District. On my district, 2 or 3 fuels planners are women (the 2nd in command in the Forest fuels shop is a very well-respected woman), 2 of 2 sale administrators are women, 1 of 3 wildlife biologists is a woman, 3 out of 6 permanent resource specialists are women, 2 out of 3 special use officers are women, 2 out of 4 recreation personnel are women, all permanent positions in the silviculture shop are held by women, and the support services supervisor is a man. Very few of the supervision positions in fire are filled by women, but not for lack of recruitment and willingness (there simply aren’t that many women in today’s celebrity and glamor-centric culture who are interested in doing that work). That said, I’ve been working here since 1998 and am high enough on the food chain to be aware of my Forest’s motivations toward recruitment and workforce planning. I’ve never detected an unspoken agenda toward making our Forest the token example of including women in the org chart. They almost always just happened to be the best candidates at the time. And by the way, I am a woman.

    While I applaud your diligence in increasing awareness and efforts toward diversity, I get frustrated with worn out arguments about discrimination that simply are not borne out in reality. Truth be told, incidents of harassment and discrimination do still exist, but not to the degree some people would like to think more than 20 years after the consent decree. I’ve been here 14 years and interact with a wide circle of people and could probably count the number of times I’ve heard people express discriminatory thoughts against female FS employees on one hand.

    It’s time to reduce the victim rhetoric to the small space its due and start talking about creative new ideas about what the FS is doing and could be doing to create a more diverse workforce. You’re former FS- get out there and volunteer to host job faires to recruit women. Volunteer to work with school kids to get them interested in science fields rather than cosmetology or fashion design. Volunteer to lead girl hikes to increase self-esteem in girls and reduce embarrassment with liking science.

    Be the agent of change; stop the spinning.

  3. Mimi, your “reality” sounds excellent, and I am so glad that that is the case. Hurray for you and your Forest! But my “reality”, in terms of a small number of Forest Supes in my former region, and no Station Directors who are women, is equally valid.

    As a scientist, I can’t help but wonder if the reason for our difference experience could be… that the history of R-5 included… the Consent Decree! I hate to think that, because there were a lot of problems with it, but it has to be a hypothesis on the table, since R-2 didn’t have it and R-5 did.

    Your thoughts on potential directions for my volunteer work are interesting, but I won’t be volunteering to work on sending any women through the science pipeline until some of the issues get fixed. E.g.,


    I would like to think that in my own small way, by doing what I currently do on this blog and with SAF, that I am an agent of change 🙂

    Thanks much for contributing to this blog!


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