Tacoma utility spokeswoman files claim for damages, citing ‘bro culture’ and gender bias among bosses

Spokeswoman Chris Gleason has filed a claim seeking $3 million in damages for what she alleges are discriminatory practices at Tacoma Public Utilities.
Spokeswoman Chris Gleason has filed a claim seeking $3 million in damages for what she alleges are discriminatory practices at Tacoma Public Utilities. The News Tribune

Tacoma Public Utilities suffers from a male-dominated management culture that marginalizes women, according to a claim for damages filed by its longtime spokeswoman and communications director.

Chris Gleason, who has worked for the utility since 2006, filed the claim Nov. 21, citing discriminatory practices, denial of equal pay and other issues. She is seeking $3 million in damages.

“Culturally, it’s not an environment that supports or develops women,” Gleason said Friday. “It’s not just pay. It’s also access to opportunities in the organization. It’s based on this male-dominated, kind of ‘bro’ culture that exists. It’s a hard thing to talk about because there’s fear of losing your job, or being retaliated against.”

Paul Goulding, a deputy city attorney, confirmed Friday that Gleason’s claim had been received. In keeping with standard practice for the legal division, he declined to address the allegations in the claim, which is under investigation.

“We don’t comment on active claims and litigation,” he said.

Gleason, 49, joined the utility in 2006, hired as its community and media services manager. Before that, she worked for the City of Tacoma as a community relations specialist.

Initially, she was a member of the utility’s executive team. In May 2017, that changed. Her department split, absorbed into the utility’s marketing division.

In June of this year, she said, she was demoted and her supervisory responsibilities reduced again.

She said she was told of the decision by a male manager she did not name.

“I was called into his office,” she said. “He said there was going to be a reorganization. My position was essentially going to be demoted. All the people that were working for me were no longer working for me.”

Gleason said she asked for a reason.

“His comment was, ‘You’re too bold,’ ” she said.

Gleason said the same manager chastised her a few weeks later for raising questions about a workplace issue. She said she mentioned another employee, a man whose behavior toward others was perceived as aggressive and sometimes bullying.

“Well, that’s just him,” the manager replied. “He’s bold.”

At the time of her demotion, Gleason also was given a piece of paper, which she shared with The News Tribune.

“No end-arounds,” it said, ordering her not to speak to other top leaders at the utility about the changes or the reasoning behind them.

She said that’s why she didn’t share her concerns with Jackie Flowers, TPU’s newly appointed director, and the first female permanently appointed to the position.

“I have a ton of respect for her,” Gleason said. “(But) when the reorg happened, I was told I was not to talk to her, or any of the other managers. I was given a gag order.”

Records of Gleason’s claim include 40 pages of attachments, including internal emails related to her past performance evaluations and a string of emails referring to alleged disparities in pay.

One email string dates to 2013, and a conversation about salaries between Gleason and Bill Gaines, then TPU’s director.

The emails begin with Gleason raising the prospect of matching her salary as community and media services manager to that of the marketing director. A graph attached to the email notes that Gleason’s salary, then roughly $115,000, was $50,000 lower than the marketing director’s $175,000.

Gaines’ reply to the email was blunt:

“On the salary issue, the bottom line is that we are not going to make your salary and (the marketing director’s) the same,” Gaines wrote. “Nor are we going to make your staff’s salaries the same as his staff’s salaries. Rather, we are going to be driven by what the market comparables tell us.”

Gleason said other women at the utility know about cultural issues in management, but they don’t want to be identified or retaliated against. She doesn’t know whether others have complained.

“I have no idea if there have been other claims filed or not,” she said. “It’s about changing an organization that’s gotten by with allowing men to flourish while women sit on the sidelines. That’s not how it should work. It’s a government agency. It’s a utility, but it should be more progressive in how it treats people.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.