Laura R. Fisher sued the city after quitting her job as a senior auditor in 1994. She claimed that the office was hostile to women and that when she spoke up about it, managers retaliated against her. The city avoided a trial in the case by paying Fisher $80,000 last month.
That settlement ended four years of gender-based antics by employees in the auditor's section. The locker-room exploits ultimately drew scrutiny from the highest levels of city government. At the direction of City Treasurer Steve Hutt, three "focus groups" and four full days of staff "seminars" were held--during office hours--to discuss the tensions that had developed. A flurry of on-the-job memo writing took place, and at least two disciplinary actions were taken against employees for making inappropriate remarks--including Fisher herself, who admitted to calling another female staffer a "goddamn bitch" immediately before quitting. The case dragged in city council members and Mayor Wellington Webb, and city attorneys racked up dozens of hours of legal work. The total cost to taxpayers: unknown.
This is the participants' story, in their own words.
ACT I: BRA-BURNING BITCHES
"The subject of a 'lunch club,' consisting of six or seven women in Treasury, which goes by the acronym SLAM, came up at this [supervisors'] meeting. The subject has been discussed briefly at one or more prior meetings. As I recall, at this particular meeting a question was directed at me as to what SLAM stands for and what the group does at their luncheons. I responded that I did not know what SLAM meant, and someone else in our group made a comment at this time. It was at this point in the meeting that I made a mistake and jokingly said something to the effect, 'I hope they are not becoming bra-burning bitches.'"
--Memo from Jerry Arellano, Laura Fisher's audit supervisor, to Scott Sprague, audit manager
"Jerry went on to relate that the group was called SLAM, and he expressed his curiosity as to the meaning of the letters in the title. Jerry then laughingly referred to the group as 'feminists' and then as 'Bra-Burning Bitches.' I immediately pointed out to Jerry the inappropriateness of his remarks. He then apologized to me for his comments. I perceived his remarks to be sexist in nature, in that they showed a derogatory attitude towards female members of the professional staff of the department."
--Memo from Madeline Aswad, audit supervisor, to Scott Sprague
"Jerry made the remark that went something like, 'I think Laura's trying to turn them into bra-burning bitches,' which seemed to get some chuckles from almost everybody. I perceived this as Jerry trying to make a joke. Maddie [Madeline Aswad] is the only one I don't remember hearing chuckle or smile, and then she turned to Jerry and called his name, obviously not approving of this remark. Jerry immediately apologized to Maddie."
--Memo from Dean Peressini, audit supervisor, to Scott Sprague
"The SLAM group was brought up. Jerry expressed that he didn't understand why a women's group was formed, nor what the letters stood for. He and Dean chuckled when Jerry called the group a bunch of 'Bra-Burning Bitches.' I commented that I just threw [my bra] away, and didn't think any more on his comment, because that's Jerry. However, Maddie appeared to be disturbed by the statements."
--Memo from Patricia LeClaire, audit supervisor, to Scott Sprague
"Notice of contemplated disciplinary action. This is to advise you that disciplinary action is being contemplated for violation of the following Career Service Authority Rules:
16-23 (4) Failure to maintain a satisfactory working relationship with other employees or the public.
16-23 (14) Sexual harassment which has the effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee's work performance or which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment."
--Memo from Scott Sprague to Jerry Arellano
As punishment for the "bra-burning bitches" comment, Jerry Arellano received a letter of reprimand. Arellano then filed a grievance against his supervisor, Scott Sprague, charging that the disciplinary measure was unfair. A deal was struck: Arellano would withdraw his grievance if the reprimand was removed from his personnel file after one year.
But the intrigue within the treasury department was only beginning. And the mysterious SLAM remained at the core of the controversy.
ACT II: SLAM DANCING
"Q: For the record, what does SLAM stand for?
Laura Fisher: Sisters Laboring Among Men."
--From the deposition of Laura R. Fisher
"Q. Why do you believe there was all the concern in the office about this group of women going to lunch together?