Women describe pervasive sexism, toxic work environment in Colorado’s judicial branch – Canon City Daily Record

The allegations of misconduct and sexism within the Colorado Judicial Branch that prompted the state Supreme Court to authorize an independent investigation are emblematic of a larger cultural problem within the branch, seven current and former employees told The Denver Post after the allegations were made public.

The women — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their careers — described a toxic work environment within their departments, and said a pervasive undercurrent of sexism influences how women in the branch are treated in ways that go beyond the dozen allegations laid out in a two-page memo penned by former Chief of Staff Mindy Masias in 2018.

The Colorado Supreme Court in February authorized an independent investigation into that memo, and into former State Court Administrator Chris Ryan’s allegations, first reported by The Post, that top judicial officials tried to keep the misconduct the document detailed secret by giving Masias a $2.5 million contract in 2019.

During an annual address to legislators, Chief Justice Brian Boatright said the claims had created a “crisis of confidence” in the courts and vowed to reform any problems discovered.

Now, women within the branch are eyeing the effort warily, hopeful for change but unconvinced that the promised reform will be realized across the sprawling branch of state government.

“If they just focus on the memo, that’s like looking at the tip of the iceberg,” said one employee who has been with the branch for more than 10 years. “The reality is that culturally, this goes well beyond that memo, and literally nothing that I have heard from my female colleagues, when they told me their own experiences, is in that memo.”

The memo details misconduct by judges, probation officers and administrators, and lists examples of what Masias said was evidence of systemic harassment that she was prepared to make public in a sex discrimination lawsuit. The allegations included that a judge rubbed his “hairy chest” on a female employee’s back, that a judge sent a pornographic video on his work email, and that few women held top leadership positions.

The seven women who spoke to The Post described situations in which they believe male managers favored women based on their looks or how they dressed, men were held to a lower standard than women, and women in leadership perpetuated harmful or sexist attitudes. They said women who speak up about problems are retaliated against. The Post is not detailing their individual accounts in order to protect the women’s identities.

“Every woman that I’ve worked with who has had the chutzpah to bring forward, ‘This is how I’m being treated by the men in my office,’ or, ‘Hey, this is how women are being overly sexualized and being treated with favoritism,’ or ‘Hey, this is not OK’ —  they’ve all been laid off, written up, disciplined, pushed out, moved over for promotion,” said the 10-year employee. “Everybody, including myself.”

State Court Administrator Steven Vasconcellos said in a statement that the judicial department wants to remedy any gender-based mistreatment of its employees.

“Under the leadership of Chief Justice Boatright, and with the full support of his peers on the Supreme Court, the department is committed to unearthing and resolving all issues and instances where women have been mistreated in the workplace or where broader gender-related workforce issues have gone unaddressed,” Vasconcellos said.

Women make up about 77% of the nearly 4,000 employees within the judicial branch, but are underrepresented in leadership roles, a Post analysis found, an imbalance that one investigator said raises “red flags.”

Both the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Colorado Women’s Bar Association have called for a broader investigation into alleged discrimination and harassment within the branch since the memo was made public. The women’s bar association urged the state Supreme Court to establish an independent monitor within the judiciary to handle such complaints.

“Recent revelations regarding complaints of sexual harassment within the judicial system, and their nontransparent handling, have been profoundly demoralizing to our members,” president Miranda Hawkins wrote in a Feb. 17 letter to the justices.

The judicial branch is “currently exploring additional ways for employees to report any type of harassment,” Vasconcellos said.

“Judicial is the ex-boyfriend that abuses you”

In late February, Vasconcellos told employees in an email they were free to speak to Post reporters, according to copies of the email shared with the newspaper.

“Simply put, the decision is yours,” he wrote. “You can choose to respond, you can decline or you can ignore the request. If you decide to talk with a reporter about this matter, please keep in mind that the Judicial Department Code of Conduct prohibits employees from sharing non-public information about the department such as case information.”

But the current and former employees who spoke to The Post said women who complain about problems within the department are often disbelieved, told they are taking the wrong tone, making a problem out of nothing, or behaving inappropriately.

One employee pointed to a secretly recorded conversation between then Chief Justice Nancy Rice and Masias after Masias was passed over for promotion. In that recording, obtained by The Post in 2019, Rice told Masias she wasn’t promoted into a leadership role in part because she “was a small woman” and “didn’t look the part.”

“Judicial is the ex-boyfriend that abuses you, and when you say something about how they’re abusing you, they tell you you’re the crazy one,” said one former employee.

Another former employee who was with the branch for eight years said she brought concerns about a female manager’s abusive behavior to a male supervisor. The man told her she could quit if the working environment was as untenable as she described. She was laid off last year.

“From the time I started stirring the pot with the manager who didn’t treat us right, I was watched like a hawk from that moment on,” she said. “It was very uncomfortable for me. Part of me thinks I was let go because I was the employee who had an opinion and I didn’t put up with the crap that everyone else had for years before. Which, again, I’m so thankful that I don’t work there (anymore), because clearly they can’t handle outspoken people — women.”

Both department administrators and the Supreme Court justices want any employees who believe they have been treated unfairly to come forward “without fear of retribution,” Vasconcellos said in the statement.

“We will listen to these concerns, and, if we have something wrong, we will fix it and move forward,” Vasconcellos said.

Representation of women in leadership

One of Colorado’s three branches of government, the judicial branch employs nearly 4,000 people across the state. The branch includes the state court system, from county courts up through the Colorado Supreme Court, as well as probation and the Office of the State Court Administrator. Seven independent agencies, including the public defender’s office, fall under its umbrella, but operate separately.

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It’s a diverse and widespread operation with employees based across the state. The Post reached out through phone calls, word-of-mouth and online messages to more than three dozen current and former employees to ask about their working conditions. Many did not respond, and some women contacted by The Post said they had not experienced any sexism on the job. Those women declined to comment for this story.

The seven women who did speak with The Post held jobs throughout the branch, including in administration, the probation department and in the courts.

“You had people who worked there who had really high ethics, and they were great at their jobs,” said a recently retired employee who worked for the branch for more than 20 years. “But then you had the other ones who had a sense of entitlement, and that is what made it hard for the ones who had the ethics.”

On average, women make up more than three-quarters of branch employees, but are underrepresented in leadership roles, according to a Post analysis of data provided by the judicial department.

In 2019, men made up about a quarter of the branch, but held nearly half of jobs titled as judges, executives, managers, supervisors or chiefs, that analysis showed. Conversely, women accounted for 72% of employees but held only 52% of those jobs.

Vasconcellos disputed that analysis in his statement, and said judges should not be included in the count of people holding leadership positions — only chief justices or chief judges.

Excluding nearly 300 judges, who are appointed by the governor and not hired by the judicial department, the disparity is less pronounced. Women held 64% of those leadership roles in 2019, the Post analysis found. Vasconcellos said women held 70% of leadership roles in 2020.

“The Judicial Department continues to work hard to make positive changes in actively recruiting and promoting women to leadership roles,” Vasconcellos said.

“They should be investigating this today”

Any disparity between genders in leadership would be concerning at any organization, said Nancy Bornn, an attorney and independent workplace investigator based in California.

“That raises red flags for anyone who looks at this kind of scenario,” she said. “Within any organization, where you have such a majority of women but only a small percentage in leadership, you have to start out with the obvious presumption that there is discrimination going on.”

But, she added, the numbers alone don’t give a clear picture of whether the disparity is driven by gender discrimination or by other legitimate factors, like an applicant’s qualifications or how many women apply for the top jobs.

“When you do an investigation, you’ve got to go beyond the numbers,” she said. “What are the positions they’re being promoted into, and are these women who come in on an entry-level and move up, or mid-level people who move higher into management or executive positions?”

It’s not clear whether the judicial branch being majority women is typical of state court systems, but it is similar to the breakdown of non-judge employees in Nebraska’s court system, a spokeswoman there said. Across courts and probation in Nebraska, about 78% of 1,432 employees are women.

The numbers in Colorado do show that the majority of people fired from the department were women — a claim Masias made in her memo — but it’s not disproportionate to the overall percentage of women employees.

At Boatright’s request, the executive and legislative branches of Colorado government in February picked eight people to determine who will conduct the independent investigation into the misconduct and cover-up claims, and what in particular the investigation will look at. The eight-person panel will draft a request for proposal, which will then be open for bids for about a month before the investigators are selected.

“We hope the investigation will provide specific recommendations for changes that we can make to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for all members of the Judicial Department,” Vasconcellos said in the statement.

Bornn was critical of the judicial branch’s slow pace.

“They should be investigating this today,” Bornn said. “Not a month from now or two months from now…Because in the meantime, if this conduct that is alleged to have occurred is actually occurring, then you’ve got another month of abuse going on. Why? This is discrimination, this is harassment, this is unlawful conduct.”

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