In late September of 2016, Seattle City Light conducted an online department-wide employee survey. It ended with a question asking employees if they had anything additional to say.
An employee we'll call Jasmine (she and other employees quoted in this story asked The Stranger not to use their real names for fear of retaliation) had worked at Seattle's public electric utility, part-time and eventually full-time, since 2009. She says she dealt with inappropriate touching and remarks from men. For years, she had never filed a formal complaint. Never complained about the time, she claims, a male coworker brushed his hand against her ass, or all the times men made comments about her appearance. Never complained about when, she says, a colleague asked her if she ever considered "jumping on the pole" at a strip joint or about the time she says a supervisor asked her what color panties she was wearing.
But staring at the last question on the online employee satisfaction survey, Jasmine decided to say something.
"Training plans for employees, promotional opportunities, clear path for career progression," she first wrote carefully.
But then she kept writing.
"There are many male workers who could use intensive training on gender bias, subtle sexism, and explicit sexism in the workplace," Jasmine wrote. "Personally, I work with many men around the age of my father. The generation gap is huge, and their construct of women in the workplace is from a different time (generalization, but true for many). Current awareness doesn't mean current practice."
She wrote that she personally experienced the sexism, as well as harassment, naming some examples. And as Jasmine continued to write, she began to get scared. This was her first time speaking out in any public way.
"This is how it goes," she continued writing. You ignore it and try to be "cool." Or you tell the guy what he did wrong, which carries the risk of being labeled a "bitch" in the office. Or you never speak to your coworker again. Or if your coworker realizes what he did was wrong, you're expected to say, "No problem." But of course it's a problem.
After Jasmine hit submit on the employee survey, she sent her response to the last question to her mother. "I'm like, 'Mom, I just told this for the first time,'" she said.
"Good for you!" her mother responded.
And at that point, Jasmine started taking notes about comments men made in the office. She filed formal complaints. She met with other women to swap stories.
"I'm no longer in secret mode," she says she told a coworker at one point. "I'm in the screaming this aloud mode."
Jasmine wasn't the only woman who had noticed and been bothered by men's behavior in the office. A coworker we'll call Lauren sent out an e-mail to the women she worked with in December of 2016 decrying male coworkers' use of pet names like "baby," "babe," "baby girl," and "sweetheart."
Lauren maintained she hasn't experienced sexual harassment at City Light. Still, she said she received comments about her butt from three different people. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment can range from unwelcome sexual advances to verbal conduct of a sexual nature if it interferes with work or creates a hostile environment. Lauren never filed a formal complaint.
Another employee, Emma, said that in City Light's service centers, "there's a lot of sexism that goes on." Much of that, she said, had to do with the industry's male-dominated legacy. "A lot of it is just inappropriate, not thinking before you speak or do something," she said.
Lauren's e-mail to the other women, Emma said, was a breakthrough. The person calling everyone by pet names? Same thing had happened to her. She said she was shocked it was also happening to so many other people. "I think that's what's really important," she said. "That we talk to each other. There's safety and power in numbers."
In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the agency responded to these comments by saying that Seattle City Light was committed to ensuring that all employees are safe and secure at work. "We do not tolerate inappropriate behavior and take any report of harassment or discrimination seriously," City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen said.
But speaking to one another in their City Light division made women want to put the issue on a fast track. Jasmine circulated a petition decrying "blatant sexism" in the division and a "hostile work environment," and 42 employees signed it. The petition asked for immediate anti-sexism training. Meanwhile, Jasmine started reporting her more serious experiences up the chain. For instance, she reported one employee who allegedly made a cunnilingus gesture toward her and asked if she was menstruating.
Still, sometimes she struggled with coming into work and seeing people who had allegedly harassed her or made comments about her appearance. She was having panic attacks, and once, a case of vertigo that sent her to the emergency room. "There were certain mornings where even getting to work, my body would be like a fucking knot," she said.
In February, the employees' union rep, Guadalupe Perez-Garcia, sent the petition that 42 employees had signed to their division director, as well as the city's head of personnel. Perez-Garcia thought their demands were straightforward and easy asks: for a group of female employees to advise in the hiring of a consultant to provide anti-sexism training; that all supervisors receive training on how to receive, respond to, and report incidents of sexist hostility and sexual harassment; and that management keep an open dialogue and remain transparent while implementing such changes.
Perez-Garcia no longer works as a union rep, but she told The Stranger she thought Jasmine's individual complaints were legitimate, and she was surprised by what she saw as little done in response to the petition. "They didn't necessarily want people fired. They weren't looking for something unreasonable," she said.
City Light spokesperson Thomsen said the petition was sent long after Jasmine's division had already launched a "culture change initiative" the summer before. When the director had picked up that "somebody might have been upset about some things," Thomsen said, the initiative was "expanded to emphasize mutual respect among all employees, including antidiscrimination and anti-harassment awareness."
As for Jasmine's specific complaints, Thomsen said that investigations were launched as soon as her complaints were filed. Some, he said, are still under way.
The division brought in a consultant from Praxis Consulting Group after the petition had been sent. In first speaking to employees, the consultant talked about "mutual respect," but did not once mention sexism or sexual harassment, employees who spoke to The Stranger said. City Light confirmed that it had hired Praxis to lead Jasmine's division on mutual respect, as well as "communication and transparency, collaboration and cooperation, commitment to innovation and learning, and a culture of care and equitable services."
The Praxis project, spokesperson Thomsen wrote, laid out the following steps for itself: assess current culture, analyze gaps, develop an action plan, organize activities to address gaps, such as training and organizational development, and then measure and evaluate the division's progress.
The division also formed a "culture team" with female employees on it. Still, Jasmine told The Stranger that she felt the team seemed mired in process and took little action.
"I think that the department has to walk a fine line," Perez-Garcia, who worked as a union rep for public employees for 11 years, said. She said that she believes the department cares about its employees, but higher-ups also fear being found liable for a hostile work environment if they acknowledge issues with sexism and sexual harassment. "So, oftentimes, it's like, 'Eh, we hear you, but we're not going to find anybody at fault here,'" she said.
City Light, via Thomsen, said it "strongly disagrees" with Perez-Garcia's characterization of its response to employee concerns.
"City Light is committed to treating all its employees fairly," Thomsen wrote. "The utility's only concern regarding investigations is that the investigation is thorough and complete and the findings are supported by the evidence. It is not in City Light's interests to ignore sexual harassment claims that are supported by evidence, nor is it in City Light's interests to rush the investigation process or have investigation findings that are unsupported."
Back in February, Jasmine said she was struggling with panic attacks from seeing her accused harassers at work. She got her doctor to write a note with an Americans with Disabilities Act request to change work locations. Never mind, she said, that she believed when a city employee reports alleged sexual harassment, personnel regulations say the complainant and accused are supposed to be separated. She needed to get out of there.
Thomsen told The Stranger that sexual harassment investigations didn't quite work how Jasmine thought. When an employee files a sexual harassment complaint, Thomsen said, City Light conducts an assessment "to determine whether any protective measures are necessary during the investigation." Those protective measures can include relocation, but also paid administrative leave. The assessment, he said, is an "ongoing and evolving process that may change during the investigation."
Jasmine's request went back and forth with human resources, but eventually she was approved to change office locations between April and May. It had been three months, she said, since she had first been interviewed by human resources about her perceived level of threat at work.
But by June, Jasmine still felt that little progress had been made on her own investigations and on broader concerns about sexism in the office. She decided to read the petition sent in February, as well as a collection of stories she had obtained from women she worked with, to the Seattle Women's Commission.
Jasmine's friend, who we'll call Marnie, went to support Jasmine at the Seattle Women's Commission meeting. Marnie, who works for the city but not City Light, said the stories read to the commission, which included an allegation of an unwanted massage and a higher-up pressuring an intern to see each other after work, "just break your heart."
Marnie has known Jasmine for nine years. "I think she's really self-aware," she said. "I think she really pays attention. She's just got one of those planning brains, so everything is organized. She's not a gossip at all."
And Marnie believes Jasmine about what Jasmine says happened to her. "She doesn't make up stories," Marnie said. "That's not her style."
After the Women's Commission meeting, Jasmine said, she felt vulnerable for speaking out, but also frustrated that no progress had been made on the petition's asks. (City Light said that it was never invited to the Women's Commission meeting and hadn't known about it.) She decided to take her concerns to the Seattle City Council by writing to Council Members Kshama Sawant and Mike O'Brien.
At the council's next Energy and Environment meeting, Sawant spoke about Jasmine and other employees' sexism and sexual harassment concerns in front of the city's highest paid employee, Seattle City Light CEO Larry Weis. Sawant passed the petition and the stories Jasmine collected around the table.
"I was just hoping we could just register one issue that we've been contacted for by City Light workers," Sawant said. "This is from some workers who are concerned about sexual harassment at City Light's Customer Energy Solutions. I'm sure you're aware of this."
Sawant raised the petition that had circulated in February. She thanked Weis and City Light for beginning to address it, but added that the committee took the issue "extremely seriously."
"Right, we take all complaints very seriously at City Light," Weis said. "I have yet to see the materials that are there, but I will shortly, I'm sure. So it will be addressed, absolutely."
Still, now more than a year after her response on the employee satisfaction survey, and eight months after her union rep e-mailed the sexism petition to management, Jasmine still feels like City Light has made few changes.
"There's still a lack of acknowledgment of the real issues," she said.