07/18/97- Updated 12:56 AM ET.
Jan Gonzales says the warning went up as she entered the control tower to start her shift as an air traffic controller. "Chick alert! Chick alert!" she says one of the male controllers yelled one day last November. It was an apparent warning to others in the John Wayne Airport tower in Orange County, Calif., to knock off the sexist horseplay. But it didn't stop, Gonzales says. A few minutes later, she says, one of the men unbuttoned his shirt, grabbed at his chest with both hands and declared, "I'll show you some cleavage." Gonzales and another woman, contending such behavior is all too common, have filed a class-action internal complaint with their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Their lawyers say they will follow up with a class-action lawsuit, possibly within a few weeks, after they complete interviews with more women. About 25 female controllers have submitted statements, lawyers say, and they hope to include as many as 100. USA TODAY interviewed nine female air traffic controllers who allege that sexual discrimination and harassment are widespread in many control towers and radar facilities. The allegations the women describe span two decades in control towers across the nation. They range from the use of crude and hostile language about women to anonymous threats, stalking and vandalism. The women also say supervisors turned a blind eye to the problems. Linda Owens, the other controller whose name is on the internal FAA complaint, says male controllers "swore and tried to distract me" while she monitored planes on a radar screen at Chicago O'Hare in the late 1980s. "These controllers were subjected to egregious acts of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment solely because they were women working in a traditionally male-dominated profession," says lawyer Brad Yamauchi of San Francisco, who plans to initiate the class action. "Their complaints weren't taken seriously." Such charges would be inflammatory enough at any job site. But at the FAA, a hostile work atmosphere can imperil the safety of the thousands of air passengers and flight crews criss-crossing the skies at any moment. FAA officials won't comment on any of the cases, but they say the agency has zero tolerance for discrimination in any form, especially if it affects safety. "We will not tolerate any improper workplace behavior that impacts safety. Safety is our number one job, and that's what we do 24 hours a day," says FAA spokesman Eliot Brenner. Yamauchi says that his action on behalf of female controllers will allege that the hazing and belittling of the women were aimed at washing them out or preventing them from being promoted to better-paying assignments at bigger airports. Gonzales says she hopes to change the FAA culture. "If nothing is done, nothing will change - and that is the whole purpose of the class action," she says. Among the women's allegations: (a) Sexist behavior is tolerated at some FAA facilities. Sheila Duhn, 31, says she became fed up with the cussing, explicit discussion of oral sex, leering and general crude behavior in the control room of the FAA radar tracking center in Palmdale, Calif. She says that when her jacket disappeared, someone slipped a note in her locker saying it would be "tie-dyed" if she talked to the counselor that handles discrimination complaints. She filed a complaint, eventually went on leave and says she was mailed a dead rat as a warning not to return. Owens, 33, says "Hooters from Hell" was substituted for her name in the computer system she shared with other controllers when she worked at Chicago O'Hare. An FAA investigator who visited the New York radar tracking center found such a "stressful environment" that she said she would hate to go to work there. Civil rights specialist Norma Wilkerson alleged in a blistering 1994 memo that her interviews turned up case after case of vulgar jokes, profane insults and apathetic supervisors. One complaint, Wilkerson said, involved a male controller who told a handicapped female controller, "How would you like for me to stick your cane up your vagina?" When the woman complained to a supervisor, the supervisor allegedly told her it was her word against his. (a) Harassment complaints often aren't taken seriously. Joan Henson, 32, says she had worked as a controller since 1989 without a problem. Then, last December, someone identifying himself as a married man started leaving love notes on her car in the parking lot of the radar tracking center outside Atlanta where she works. She says that she received three letters that month, which she turned over to management with the request they find the culprit, but that nothing happened. Henson says she called in the Hampton, Ga., police out of fear she was being stalked. Police identified the suspected letter-writer as a male controller who worked with Henson. The FAA transferred the controller and was considering disciplinary action against him, according to a June 8 letter an FAA official wrote to Henson's congressman, Rep. Michael "Mac" Collins, R-Ga. The controller declined comment. (a) Complaint filers feel ostracized. Wendi Ferguson, 33, says her locker was vandalized and the photo of her boyfriend stolen after she complained about being stalked by another controller. An FAA investigation could not substantiate her charges, according to a letter she received. Last May, she says she received an anonymous note in the mail made from letters torn from magazines and pasted on a sheet of paper: "You lost bitch and got what you deserve! You may be out but look over your shoulder, it's not over." She gave it to the police. Ferguson says one male co-worker confided: "People are scared of you. They are afraid you are going to take some action on them." Beth Swartz, 41, says she had a similar experience after she filed a complaint about what she says was a verbally abusive supervisor in Spokane, Wash., in 1988. The supervisor talked of his wife being "a real pig in bed" and would tell female controllers, "Jesus Christ, you're f------ stupid," Swartz says. "Half the guys felt I had destroyed this guy's life," Swartz says, adding many of the male controllers gave her the silent treatment thereafter. Gonzales refers to the discrimination complaint process as the "scarlet letter" because of the retaliation that follows. FAA officials say they believe they are doing a good job of rooting out sexism and punishing offenders, although problems remain. "If something happens out there, if there's an allegation of discrimination, we try to be very swift in finding out what happened," says FAA Assistant Administrator Fanny Rivera. USA TODAY tried to contact the men who allegedly tormented the women, as well as supervisors or facility managers who were involved. Gonzales and Swartz declined to name the men they say tormented them. Most of the managers declined comment specifically, but indicated they take discrimination cases seriously and are quick to investigate. "We will find out the truth," says Nancy Shelton, who manages the radar center in Hampton, Ga., where Henson is assigned. About the Henson case, she says only that there's more to the story that isn't being disclosed publicly. Women remain a distinct minority in the male-dominated world of air traffic control. Only 15% of the FAA's 22,718 air traffic controllers are women, vs. 46% of women in the general labor pool. "This is a profession that traditionally men have gravitated to, not women," says FAA spokesman Eliot Brenner. "We want that number to increase and we're working on it." One number that is increasing at the FAA is discrimination complaints of all types. Complaints filed under the government's Equal Employment Opportunity process, involving issues ranging from sexual harassment to denial of promotions, soared 70% from 258 in fiscal 1994 to 438 in fiscal 1996. This fiscal year, they are already at 397. The FAA says 19 dealt with sexual harassment issues. FAA officials say they can't provide statistics on the disposition of sexual harassment complaints that would show how tough they've been. They do say that investigations have led to several resignations , including an unidentified "senior FAA headquarters executive" in the past year. The allegations of harassment and the complaint process add stress to an already a high-stress profession. "We work in a high-pressure environment. Everyone knows that," says Bill Otto, a union representative in radar approach at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. "A lot of ways we let off steam is jokes and comments." At the traffic control center in Leesburg, Va., 55 women are among the 390 controllers who toil in a large darkened room. Controllers dress casually in polo shirts and shorts. The atmosphere appears relaxed, but things can get tense quickly. Air traffic control requires lightning decision-making and interaction with other controllers. The talk can be blunt, sometimes crude. "It's been a man's world," says Tom Doyle, a 35-year controller and supervisor who retired in 1996. "The men have been able to vent with other men around them in a very forceful or profane way, and some of this is being taken away from them. . . .They have not been taught how do it in the proper manner." The FAA has taken these steps: (a) Sending out memos, brochures, posters. The agency has sent memos to its airport tower and radar tracking centers over the past few years filled with warnings about sexual harassment. A poster in the Leesburg center reads "Sexual harassment is turbulance you can stop." So-called "model workplace" brochures attempt to spell out what's proper and what isn't. (a) Diversity training. A revamped diversity training program for all FAA employees is due to start next year. It will be in addition to diversity training already in place and will focus on training managers and supervisors to deal with employees in the workplace, the FAA says. But FAA documents show that diversity still has a way to go. "Many women felt like they are treated like third-class citizens and have to continue to prove themselves," states an FAA "Glass Ceiling" report issued last October. The report, prepared by the FAA's Human Resource Management office, examined advancement issues within the agency. "Women described an environment in which when a woman says something in a meeting, no white male pays attention," the report states. "When a white male says the same thing, it is perceived as a good idea." Mary Schiavo, the former DOT inspector general, says she's received telephone calls from about 25 female air traffic controllers complaining of raunchy jokes, lack of promotions and little action on their complaints. "Their complaints ranged from the subtle to outright blatant actions," says Schiavo, now a professor at Ohio State University. But the FAA has made progress over the past few years, says Annette Gowans, president of Professional Women Controllers, a 900-member association that is not connected to the lawsuit. They just haven't improved enough, she adds. "The FAA has gone to great lengths to ensure the workplace is non-hostile," Gowans says. "But the message isn't getting down to the workforce." Gender wars have also involved the controllers' union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. A union representative in Houston, who is not part of the lawsuit, says the FAA needs to do more to end harassment, but raises questions about the women in the lawsuit. "It may be easy money for these people," says Trish Gilbert, an air traffic controller since 1988. "I know some of these people who joined this (suit) who would not be considered top-of-the-line employees." Eight of the nine women interviewed acknowledge having been cited for operational errors or deviations from procedures. Most controllers' mistakes are usually not dire cases in which two aircraft are in danger of colliding, but are still considered serious enough by the FAA that they can require retraining. They stay on a controller's record for 30 months, then disappear. One controller, Owens, is contesting an operational error which allegedly caused two aircraft to come too close together in Scottsdale, Ariz. Owens, on leave without pay, denies a near mid-air collision occurred. Owens and the other women say they are often singled out for errors that are overlooked when they happen to men. "Every woman is considered an aviation hazard. We're held to a higher standard," says Owens. "Closer scrutiny and less training and less mentoring leave them open to be set up for mistakes or criticism," says attorney Yamauchi. All of the women say they have had to take medical leave recently, some related to their complaints and others apparently due to the pressures of the job. Yet they say they love the work, not to mention the pay: at least $65,000 annually and more after a few years on the job. Most have worked at several FAA facilities during their careers and say that not every FAA tower is a hostile environment for women. The difference, they say, usually involves the degree to which supervisors allow problems to fester. Gonzales says the problem was pointed up by the "chick alert" incident in the John Wayne tower last November. She says a supervisor was sitting beside the men as they engaged in their horseplay, yet didn't step in. The internal FAA complaint in which she is a plaintiff was sent to the San Francisco office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then transferred to the Phoenix office, for assignment to an administrative judge. Yamauchi and Gonzales say they've not yet heard a determination, but enough time has passed - six months since the internal complaint was filed - that a lawsuit can now be filed in federal court. Gonzales, 40, says she hopes her lawsuit will change the way FAA equal-employment opportunity cases are investigated, making the probes independent of the FAA. Her FAA complaint also demands damages of $300,000 for each incident of discrimination, harassment or reprisal for every class member. She says the demands are the only way to make the FAA wake up to the problem. "They just ignore it. It's just so prevalent," she says.
By Chris Woodyard and Donna Rosato, USA TODAY