Discrimination lawsuit exposes sexism


For The Beachcomber

I love our Vashon community. And I should not be surprised that once again our small community is a microcosm of a dysfunctional family — complete with skeletons lurking in the closets and elephants in the living room that need to be acknowledged.

Since I arrived on the Island more than nine years ago, I’ve read about the fire department’s skeletons: fire chiefs come and go, public attacks about various ambulance services and nasty, contentious races for commissioners.

Now one courageous woman, Lanora Hackett, took on the sexist elephant in the Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) living room and got a resounding verdict (and vindication).

Yet the recent response from VIFR (“VIFR Responds,” The Beachcomber, Feb. 11) indicates that the department is refusing to admit any wrongdoing, take public responsibility or hold the individuals named in the verdict personally accountable. This is not good for a public service organization or building community trust.

Sex discrimination is a subtle “ism” and as such is a difficult thing to prove in court. The fire department thought it had a case or it wouldn’t have gone to trial. But VIFR was as mistaken in that call as it has been in determining whether the behaviors of certain members of the department were inappropriate or not.

Neither Fire Chief Hank Lipe nor Jason Everett, the head of the firefighters’ union, heard the verdict; neither were in the courtroom when the King County Superior Court Judge Cheryl Carey handed down her ruling, speaking from the bench about the district’s infractions for a full 25 minutes.

Lipe does admit that they didn’t have a “proper response” to complaints, but he falls short of acknowledging that the complaints were legitimate. Carey, who heard all the evidence, made that clear with her resounding verdict that sexism was alive and even hostile in our Vashon fire department.

In addition, Everett, in his defense of the department and one firefighter mentioned repeatedly in the judge’s verdict, Chris Huffman, makes statements that don’t accurately reflect the facts of the case or how discrimination can permeate a work environment.

First, facts. Of our eight Vashon firefighter/EMTs, none are women. Period. This is the position that Hackett was applying for, and for which less qualified men were hired. The judge ruled that VIFR was in violation of Washington’s gender discrimination laws in determining whether to hire her or not for that position.

Everett’s statement in support for Huffman includes comments that do not accurately address how sexism plays out in the work- place. The sexist does not need to be in a “decision-making position” to participate in creating a sexist or hostile environment for women. It can be derogatory comments, a condescending attitude, the general discounting and disregard of an individual that make a culture unwelcoming and demeaning to women. This is what can lead a judge to decide, “The fire department is liable for causing her hostile working environment.”

Everett builds a case for Huffman with his assessment of him as a firefighter. However, it is possible that a man can be a good firefighter and “tough and demanding trainer” and also be sexist. These are not mutually exclusive attributes.

I take particular offense to Everett’s position that Hackett is using gender discrimination just because she didn’t get the job the first time around. This is insulting to all women who experience gender discrimination. And, frankly, it’s a common way women’s claims are discounted. Besides, his statement is simply false. Hackett tested and applied more than once. Plus, she was far more qualified than the male firefighters who were hired. The judge clearly stated in her verdict that being female was what made Hackett not the right “fit” for the male environment of the department.

When I first read that Hackett filed the lawsuit, I knew she was putting herself out there for character analysis, be it ridicule or praise. I’m one to praise her. But I know there will be her detractors who are just not happy that this woman spoke out. Historically “uppity” women — women who protested injustices — were classified as suffering from hysteria and promptly institutionalized. In today’s culture, character assassination in a trial and the press is the mode to keep resisters silent. Beware of those who just want to criticize her personally, without the facts.

So what now? First, the department must openly and clearly take full responsibility for what occurred. Second, rather than automatically defend its members, the firefighter’s union needs to take a look at all of those firefighters the judge cited in her verdict — Huffman was not the only one — and do what it can to hold them responsible. Third, there should be no appeal. More litigation would be more costly in both time and money.

Lipe has stated his new resolution of “zero tolerance.” Sounds great. But how can we be assured there will be “zero tolerance” without VIFR acknowledging there was tolerance for such behavior before? To move forward, they must admit they did wrong. Only by acknowledging and studying what happened before can the department begin to assure us that it will not happen again. Let’s out this elephant and move on.

— Lynann Politte is a producer, mother and activist who is currently writing a one-woman show about misogyny.

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