Preventing hostile environment in male-dominated workplaces
Protecting Employee & Consumer Rights

Preventing hostile environment in male-dominated workplaces

In 2001, Sara Alfaro became a Firefighter with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department


(SDFD). Throughout her employment, she consistently performed with a rating of “above standard” or better. She has worked at several of the busiest fire stations, where she was the only woman out of a group of 5-10 firefighters during her shift. In 2015, Alfaro was promoted to Fire Captain, and became one of five female operational fire captains in the Department.

The SDFD is dominated by men in its ranks and culture. Only five of the approximately 120-


130 operational Fire Captains are women. Women hold only one of approximately 25 Battalion Chief positions and one of approximately 12 Deputy Chiefs positions. The Division to which Alfaro belongs is often referred to as “the Brotherhood.” Much worse than the lack of diversity, male coworkers openly express chauvinist views in Alfaro’s presence, referring to women as “subservient” and discussing the bodies of the few women they work with.

Alfaro alleges that she was subjected to severe sexual harassment. Male coworkers had groped her, unzipped her shirt, placed their exposed genitalia on her possessions, photoshopping a picture of a penis onto a picture of her and distributing this at work, and sending her multiple sexually suggestive text messages. This sexually hostile behavior was a conspicuous a feature of Alfaro’s workplace that was known to the SDFD.

Aside from the unwelcome sexual attention which she ignored, Alfaro has been locked out of certain promotions and assignments that have gone to men, many of whom lack her qualifications.

Alfaro claims she was held to a higher standard and expected to perform additional work without pay or recognition.

After nearly 17 years of unequal treatment, Alfaro complained to a Fire Chief, who filed an

EEO complaint on her behalf. The SDFD and the City’s HR Department disclosed her complaints and its investigation to the men of the department, despite Alfaro’s repeated warnings that this would cause her male colleagues to retaliate against her. The sexual harassment intensified and Alfaro was denied promotions. Seeking accountability for years of emotional distress, Alfaro sued SDFD and the City of San Diego.

Sexual harassment creates a “hostile environment.” Unwelcome sexual comments and inappropriate touching despite requests to stop interfere with an employee’s job performance and create a hostile work environment for the victim (and others who witnessed this interaction). For sexual harassment/hostile work environment to be actionable, the complainant must establish that the sexual conduct is unwelcome, or has created a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.


California law prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex.” Discrimination based on sex comes in many forms; failure/refusal to promote; unequal pay; and unequal treatment in terms of socio-business relations. One of the most common ways to discriminate on the basis of sex is paying women less than men for substantially similar work. Thus, California’s Fair Pay Act was enacted to address this inequity. The Act prohibits an employer from paying wage rates that are less than what it pays employees of the opposite sex, or of another race, or of another ethnicity, for substantially similar work and performed under similar working conditions. If differences in wages exist, the difference must be legally justified based on factors that have nothing to do with sex, race, or other protected characteristics.

If the employee’s efforts to end sexual harassment by reporting it to management resulted in demotion, suspension or termination, management’s conduct may be retaliation. Sexual harassment and retaliation cases are taken seriously by the courts and the juries.

In her claims of sexual harassment, unequal pay, and retaliation, it would seem that Alfaro had the law solidly on her side. Little surprise then that rather than proceed to trial, the City of San

Diego settled Alfaro’s claim by agreeing to pay her $525,000 in damages.

The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]

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TAGS: California law, hostile work environment, sex discrimination
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