Gender Disparity and Workplace Harassment Plagues Interior

Women Make Up Only 26 Percent of Top Decision-Makers at Interior As New Report by Inspector General Highlights Urgent Need to Address Harassment

Women make up only 26% of the top decision-makers and board appointments at the Department of the Interior, according to new analysis from Western Values Project. This analysis follows a report released last week by Interior’s Inspector General addressing the department’s urgent need to stop the sexual harassment epidemic and take stronger actions to protect the department’s employees.

“The failure to address workplace sexual harassment is partially a reflection of the administration’s hiring biases across the Interior Department. Public lands belong to all public hands – and the Trump administration’s Interior hiring practices aren’t even close to matching the outdoor participation rates of women who enjoy getting outside. Once again, this administration mutes and ignores women’s voices,” said Yetta Stein, a spokeswoman for Western Values Project.

Of the top appointed decision-makers at Interior, women represent only 28% or only 29 out of 104 political appointments. Of the 221 board appointees at Interior, women only make of 25% of the appointments, 166 are men and 56 are women. These roles are hand-selected by the Trump administration. 

With greater access to public lands and increased participation in outdoor recreation activities, the gender divide on mountain trails and in river rapids continues to shrink. The most recent Outdoor Participation Report estimated women make up around 46% of outdoor activity participants. This should be cause for celebration – if it didn’t present a stark difference between gender participation in the outdoor recreation world and the decision-makers controlling public lands access and conservation efforts at the federal level.

Trump’s Department of the Interior (DOI) has ignored an environment where harassment thrives. Systemic gender disparity within Interior is certainly not the only thing contributing to the workplace harassment epidemic plaguing DOI, but it’s clearly a piece of the puzzle.   

The New York Times reported that 35 percent of employees said they felt some sort of harassment or intimidation, in a department-wide survey. Most employees who felt harassed were still interacting with the person who harassed them, meaning reprimand had been neither swift or efficient. Strikingly, 16% of respondents to the internal survey said they had faced discrimination based on gender. While this survey and response came under former scandal-plagued Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure, the current Secretary, ex-mega lobbyist David Bernhardt, is not proving to be much better according to the report released by the Inspector General. 

A Washington Post piece detailed crude behavior coming out of the National Park System. Though Daniel Smith, the employee accused of the inappropriate behavior, apologized for his workplace actions, Interior’s ‘zero-policy’ for workplace harassment was not held up. Smith was just reinstated as the Acting National Parks Director by Secretary Bernhardt. 

According to an internal Interior Department survey, there may be many more incidents that have gone unreported or ignored. Unfortunately, Bernhardt’s management at Interior has created a culture of silence where ignoring career public servants seems to be the norm. 

Outdoor recreation is not only part of America’s birthright – it is a critical piece of the economy, particularly in rural areas. Last year, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the outdoor recreation industry contributed around 2 percent of the entire 2016 U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Beyond that, the outdoor economic sector is growing rapidly — faster than the overall economy — at a rate of 3.8 percent. This matters in the grander picture: in a country where women still are paid cents on the dollar, the gender gap within the federal government’s top public lands and outdoor recreation department must be addressed. If rapid and structural changes are not pursued within the Department of Interior, women could once again miss out on their fair share of this economic boom. 

Decision-making within the Department of the Interior affects all Americans equally and, luckily, it has become clear that diverse representation matters when critical decisions are made. However, changing the culture within Bernhardt’s Interior will take a systematic cultural shift – even Congress is calling out the pervasive and destructive workplace environment at Interior. Part of reshaping a workplace means hiring a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce. While this alone will not stop the workplace harassment ravaging Interior, it would be a step in the right direction.

Join the effort to strengthen the American West.