While attending Northland College in Wisconsin, Kelly Martin spent time living in a teepee with friends in 30 degrees-below-zero weather. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of her life, she said, and the memory of the grit and determination it took to live there has stayed with her to this day.
Upon graduating from college, she landed her dream job: park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. She described the thrill of “being 23 years old and flying in a helicopter across Grand Canyon, getting dropped off in a very remote place … [My] boots were on the ground with the Grand Canyon under my feet. I absolutely loved it.”
But in less than a year, the dream came crashing down. While showering in her cabin in the woods one morning, she noticed a man peering through the bathroom window. The shock was even greater when she saw he wore a park ranger uniform. He was a co-worker.
Years later, Martin would put her 34-year government career on the line to testify before Congress about that episode of sexual harassment and others she experienced in the National Park Service. She would become involved in efforts to prevent sexual harassment and bias at Yosemite National Park where she now works. Later, TIME magazine would call her and scores of other women — including celebrities Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan — “The Silence Breakers,” honoring them as the 2017 Person of the Year. Martin shared her story at the recent Wharton Leadership Conference.
‘Or Do Nothing’
It was in the 1980s when Martin caught the ranger spying on her in the shower, a time when workplace sexual harassment was less recognized and discussed than it is today. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements would occur several decades later. Martin did tell two supervisors about the incident, and they gave her four choices: She could file a criminal complaint, file an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint, ask for an apology, or do nothing.
She was reluctant to file a complaint. “I was a young woman … [and] my financial independence and my ability to maintain the integrity of my career overrode [that] idea,” she said. But she did agree to meet with the co-worker, with supervisors present, to get an apology. “It’s still hard for me to talk about [that meeting], even today,” she recounted. The perpetrator told her that it had never happened before and would never happen again.
“I knew for a fact that our leaders knew about my particular perpetrator.”
Before long, another ranger began harassing her. He stalked her, secretly took photos of her on the job and attached them to the visor of his work truck so he could show them off to people. The atmosphere became so toxic for her that she left Grand Canyon. She would work for the next 16 years in fire management at the U.S. Forest Service before returning to the National Park system, at Yosemite, in 2006.
Over the years, Martin noticed that her Peeping Tom seemed to fare just fine in the agency, including getting promotions. “He went to another park, and continued to victimize other women, and got moved again. And again. And then he just retired from his federal [government] career not more than about four or five years ago.”
The last straw for Martin came a few years ago when she noticed a spate of news articles about sexual harassment in the National Park Service, and specifically at Grand Canyon. The headlines were chilling: “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream” (The Huffington Post), and the Washington Post’s “Few women fight wildfires. That’s not because they’re afraid of flames.”
“This was [my] first, visceral moment of rage,” Martin said. “I couldn’t believe this was still going on today.” She also said that in 2016, during Congressional hearings on misconduct at the agency, the Peeping Tom problem at Grand Canyon was specifically mentioned. “I knew for a fact that our leaders knew about my particular perpetrator.… I really felt compelled to say something.”
She testified before Congress in the fall of 2016, potentially putting her 34-year government career on the line. She was now chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite. “I felt like I [cashed] in all my chips for this one day,” said Martin. “The thing that really got me the most was … young women were still being victimized. We had to change our culture.”
Amid the Congressional investigation in 2016, Martin described how the National Park Service dealt with the problem — by sending a letter to employees stating a zero-tolerance policy and announcing a new requirement to take sexual harassment training online. “How good is that?” Martin said. “It doesn’t go far enough … you have to dig down deeper.” The agency did improve, though, and Martin said that ultimately she was proud of how the agency responded to the issue.
At Yosemite, two ombudsmen were put in place. Additionally, a prevalence survey went out to all employees. Martin said the report showed that one in 10 people had experienced sexual harassment within the last 12 months. Four in 10 had experienced some kind of harassment based on race, age, religion or gender. “So we knew we had a problem,” she said.
Part of Martin’s focus at Yosemite is to accelerate training and development for under-represented groups, including women and racial minorities. She is active in diversity and inclusion efforts. “Diversity is something we can see, and inclusion is something we can feel,” she said.
“Once it gets to your HR department and [it turns] into a grievance and a lawsuit, there’s a huge cost.”
One of the initiatives taken is the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, an annual program started in 2016 and co-hosted by Yosemite with other organizations. The program explores the growing role of women in wildland fire organizations in addition to boosting their formal qualifications. It has drawn attendees from other nations including Canada, Australia and Portugal in addition to the U.S., according to Martin.
Martin noted that while the program doesn’t exclude men, it does maintain an attendee proportion of 90% women and 10% men. The numbers flip the usual gender breakdown among wildland firefighters, who are 90% men and only 10% women. She said the event has been very well received, and that it gives these women, who typically have few or no female co-workers (which is the case with Martin herself) a same-gender peer group.
Martin also said the men who attend tend to be very supportive of diversity and inclusion, and the gathering gives them a chance to “really look … at the gender issues that we’re faced with in the wildland fire organization.”
Tackling Workplace Sexual Harassment
Martin told business leaders not to assume that just because they’re not hearing about sexual harassment in their organization that it isn’t happening. She said that in addition to education and training, companies should promote awareness and communication. “A couple of these [approaches] really aren’t going to cost you a whole lot of money,” she added. “The alternative is that once it gets to your HR department and [it turns] into a grievance and a lawsuit, there’s a huge cost.”
How can companies promote awareness and communication? “It doesn’t hurt for the senior executive person to take individuals aside and ask them, for instance, ‘Hey, what has it been like for you as a woman firefighter? What are some things you think we could be doing better?’” she said. The more that you talk about it and provide opportunities for communication, the less scary it becomes for people, she added.
Martin noted that one technique working fairly well at Yosemite is to create safe spaces for small-group interactions and dialogue. “You don’t have to get really heavy with people on the initial communication to really create an environment of conversation in your company,” she said. “The most important piece is, get people talking.”
Once employees are given a space to describe inappropriate behavior that had been directed toward them, or that they had seen happen to others, the resulting conversation can reinforce for them that the particular behavior was, in fact, unacceptable. And conducting such meetings, she said, establishes the fact that you as a leader really do want to see a culture shift.
Martin exhorted business leaders to be proactive about preventing sexual harassment. Think about the threat to the talent that you’re bringing into your companies, corporations and nonprofits, she said. “The war for top talent is alive and well. You want to keep those individuals,” Martin said. “You want them in a healthy environment, and you want them to succeed to their greatest potential.”