Outside Magazine’s “The Forest Service is Silencing Women” and Some Reflections

Here’s an interesting and sad story from Outside Magazine. You pretty much have to read the whole thing. The headline is about the Forest Service and much of the story is about that, but part is also about how complaints are handled at USDA.

Rumor has it that NBC Dateline is running a 10 minute segment on the Forest Service – tomorrow (Fri, 8/31)

I’ve got two comments to add to this story from my own experiences.

(1) the story says..”The Forest Service responded by flooding the region with women it had done little to train, and a backlash ensued, as many men felt they were passed over for jobs.” Where I was, on the Eldorado National Forest in timber management working for Rex Baumback, he was able to hire many women simply by getting us from other Regions and the private sector. My attempt to hire the most qualified person in the country from North Central Station (woman) was made difficult because she came with a husband who needed to be employed (!). Rex and others managed to work it through. I think people like Rex proved it was possible to meet the Decree and also have highly qualified employees, but the way the Region went about it was alternating incompetence with (disproportional, IMHO) pushback, and shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly (incompetence? malevolence? who can know?).

Region 6, where I had come from, had a more pragmatic “well, we have to hire women I guess we have to figure out how to do it” attitude. Men, and non-diverse people, and diverse people are being, and have been, passed over for jobs for a variety of reasons. There tends to be resentment, but it seemed to me that resentment had almost a place of honor in (some places in) R-5 that it did not in other places I worked before and after.

(2) A person can get the impression from this story that these (EEO and grievance) processes and the people involved are incompetent and/or corrupt. I will share my own most recent story of filing a grievance in a later post, but the long and short of it is, the people were uniformly helpful and it worked out for me. With one exception, like these folks experienced, once you’ve done it you tend to be a persona non grata because you are not “taking one for the team” (yes, the same team that decided to mistreat you). The idea seems to be that if you stumble into one of these organizational grievance swamps, you should sink gracefully out of sight rather than fight.

If others would like to share their experiences with these processes, positive or negative, please do so below, or you can email me and I will keep your identity private. This is truly stressful and heartbreaking work for those folks, and I think the ones who are doing it right need to be noted and honored (I would also put the Employee Relations folks in this group). They are the only folks standing between employees and really, really bad situations. When they screw up, it is terrible. But many times they do not. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the people I worked with, and their help during a stressful and difficult time.

17 thoughts on “Outside Magazine’s “The Forest Service is Silencing Women” and Some Reflections”

    • Ditto. And when the Forest Service received an outside opinion that they should not be doing internal investigations of these things and they should have an outside party do them – I silently cheered – how arrogant (?) of the FS to think that they could objectively investigate these types of incidents! The evidence has been there for a long time – and yet they kept doing the same old thing…

  1. I worked in R5 in the 1980s and was one one of the “many men felt they were passed over for jobs.” I was upset at the time not that a woman got the job, but that she didn’t have a forestry degree or timber-shop experience, and I did. Turned out that she was a darn good employee. I would not have been upset if the woman had been as qualified, or more so , than I was.

    • That was my experience also, Steve, though I was not a permanent, full-time employee at the time. I saw the developing situation in CA as one not favoring my chances to be hired. So, I left the state.

      I had no animosity towards the women hired during this time. It was not their fault that the agency used inappropriate hiring practices, specifically discrimination based on gender.

      • I left the USFS a year or so after not getting the job I’d wanted, figuring that my chances were better elsewhere. In any case, my disappointment is nothing compared to what many women have endured.

    • I feel a bit sorry for Region 5. When I graduated with a forestry degree from Cal in 1975, they were not hiring women, so I went on to graduate school so as to get a paycheck. Same kind of thing.. no opportunities. But they had been more resistant to doing this than 6, so needed to shift gears and seem to have thought resistance was a better strategy.

      I’ve seen people hired who weren’t qualified (not in order of importance or quantity):
      1. Because they needed to leave where they were due to some bad behavior, or personality conflicts or…discrimination or grievances. Giving someone a fresh start.
      2. Veteran’s preference
      3. Placements needed for hardship or dual-career needs
      4. Diversity hiring (women and diverse people)
      5. The good old boy buddy system

      These are all good ideas in the abstract. Even the people in the good old boy system believe that their buddy is a better candidate (or that’s what they tell me :)). But of course, any of these may have negative impacts on other people. For example, when a person is not qualified to do the job, one employee may end up doing two jobs and training a new person (and hopefully gets a substantial cash award) instead of the one job they signed up for. Another employee may not get a well-deserved promotion, or may not get hired on permanent.

      • I don’t know much about federal employment and discrimination law, but there are rules, and they allow these kinds of things in appropriate circumstances (especially laterals vs promotions). My experience is that federal employees are about as good with employment rules as they are with NEPA; many don’t really understand them and they don’t get it right – and some will break them because they want to and figure they won’t get caught.

        As for the idea of the Forest Service policing itself? See “Catholic Church.”

      • Don’t forget nepotism, too. Spouses were often hired ‘non-competitively’ (‘wired’).

        Many timber units in Region 5 just decided not to have any new hires, fearing what they may get ‘stuck with’. As long as the Temporary Appointments lasted 180 work days, the work would get done. Now that Temps are limited to 1039 hours, good employees leave and less work gets done.

        I was right in the middle of all that. Our District Ranger addressed the army of Temps who were working on the RD, telling us to “Get on with our lives, as there would be no permanent positions”. They did try to hire me but, I didn’t lie on my ‘self-evaluation’ form. They did hire a woman, who did lie. They were willing to hire her, along with myself (and another long-term Temp) but, they couldn’t “reach us”. Yep, there was some serious friction after that. I knew many others who had forestry degrees, and they didn’t get in, either. They left the USFS.

        AND, there wasn’t really much of a problem with harassment in timber, although it did exist, from time to time. I was able to work along side and under many women in timber who were quite excellent in their jobs. I truly enjoyed watching our TMO/Contracting Officer tell those loggers how to do things. She was also an expert in dealing with people. She allowed me to excel at my job, and led by example.

    • People hired MUST always be qualified and people better-suited for the job MUST not be passed over. I was many times more qualified for the GS-15 positions I applied for and being an African American woman you’d think I’d be quickly promoted. However, since I had filed an EEO complaint I was black-listed, so to speak, and never was selected although I placed very high on the certificates for jobs I applied for. I was retired at only 46 years of age. You can guess why.

  2. As you note, the Consent Decree was a world unto itself in R5 and the backlash was not handled well. And it’s almost like it’s still there in spades with the recent reporting that we have seen (at least in relation to the fire organization). I was in a long-term training session at the time of the Consent Decree (early 1990s) and about half of the course attendees were from R5 and half from R6. Most of the R5 attendees were women, some of whom had been hired after the Consent Decree. They were an impressive group – very skilled, and most of them had masters degrees in their field. And this was a very competitive training course to get into. I’d even venture to say that the group from R5 was better qualified to attend than the group from R6. The crap that the R5 women (especially those that had been hired after the Consent Decree) had to deal with was unreal. Made me glad I didn’t work in R5, as I had been through enough already. Now I have the opportunity to teach at least some of that long-term training, again with folks from both R5 and R6, and those issues (at least in the group of folks that I deal with) don’t seem to still be there, thank goodness. I also interact with attendees from the entire FS during other parts of this training, and while there are some women who still encounter problems, and a few men who harbor some resentment, it is thankfully nothing like it was in the early 1990s. But that doesn’t mean that all is well.

    My experience with grievances is that line officers don’t want them/don’t like them because they don’t like the light that it shines on them and they don’t like the extra hassle, but on the other hand, they don’t do what they need to do to prevent grievances from being filed either even though they know what is going on that might lead to a grievance. My approach as a supervisor was to deal with those things head on and in a preventative way, and if someone crossed the line, action was swift because I wasn’t going to put up with folks on my crews having to deal with that type of thing. I hated it when I had to act because some stepped over the line, and it made the other crew members really uncomfortable, but everyone had been told what the expectations were and what the consequences would be, so there were no surprises. And most folks shape up quickly once they know what will happen, and they understand what the expectations are.

    • Thank you for this update , it’s very encouraging.

      I remember I was serving on some committee back in those days in R-5 and a person was complaining that they couldn’t get qualified women in Fire. He said the ones from R-6 were unwilling to move down and cited an example. I asked what grade the job they had open was.. he said 7. I said what is the person now.. he said a 9. I just looked at him. They were fully capable of hiring women just the same as R-6 but for whatever reason did not engage the gears to make it happen.

      One more Eldorado story. We were having a family meeting (late 80’s) and some guys in silviculture were complaining that they would never get a job because of hiring women. Out loud, at the meeting. Ms Liking to Provide Data (that’s me) pointed out that a position in the RO had just been filled by a man. The Forest Supe told me later not to say those kinds of things in meetings. Hopefully he told the complainers too, but I don’t know that.

      Note that the late 80’s were 30 YEARS AGO as was Rex’s successful effort to get highly qualified women in the Timber shop. This is the same forest as was depicted in the article.

      In later years, I did not hear the same openness in public forums about being against diversity hiring. Maybe all the training helped? And certainly (some) people feel just as strongly, but I think they would say now “it will only set off red flags with peers, subordinates and supervisors, and won’t do any good anyway.” Certainly people complain to people they feel comfortable with privately. I do think that in some circles (most notably, fire) people felt there was an illegitimacy to women that there wasn’t to diverse men. Physically weak, breaking up bonding opportunities, can’t talk about fishing/hunting/cars all day, could make life awkward with wife. Most of the rest of the FS simply got over it. Or expressed it more subtly.

  3. I vaguely recall hearing about an all-female crew of wildland firefighters. Reading the Outside story made me wonder if these women had considered forming an all-female crew for hire — working for agencies only on contract.

    OTOH, that wouldn’t stop harassment by men outside of the crew.

    • It certainly wouldn’t stop harassment by men outside of the crew. But all-female crews are not new. The Hoedads (a tree planting cooperative in Oregon in the 1970s/1980s) had at least one all-female planting crew. Contract tree planting is a different world than fire-fighting…and the Hoedads were not your typical planting contractor either, born in Lane County, OR in the 70s…lots of “hippie” influence at the time.

      The FS has done wrong by lots of folks for lots of reasons. And generally only made things worse until they were sued and had to do things differently…and then they didn’t handle that well either in many cases. Sharon’s supervisor is clearly an exception unfortunately. And folks like that are still clearly an exception. But it all comes down to leadership – and in the case of the Forest Service, a lack of leadership.

      • I keep hearing the phrase “lack of leadership” and have also pondered what would be different if we had “leadership” in the FS. I am curious, “momoftuba”, what you would see being different if the FS had “leadership”.

  4. I don’t think there will ever be a diverse workforce where discrimination and retaliation aren’t allowed and sometimes encouraged in the USDA Forest Service UNTIL everyone is truly held accountable for their illegal actions.


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