In 1921, suffragist Alice Paul drafted an Equal Rights Amendment to make men and women equals in the eyes of the law. Two years later it was first introduced into Congress; it has been introduced every year since. The ERA passed in 1972, but only 35 of the required 38 states ratified it before the 1982 deadline.
This struggle for equal opportunity and treatment has not escaped the fire service. Female firefighters are few and far between, and at times litigation has sought to increase their number and stop harassment. New research is now available to assist fire department leaders in addressing these issues before lawsuits impose inevitably expensive, imperfect solutions.
Among the 350,000 paid firefighters in the nation today, only 3.7% are women. More than half of the nation's paid fire departments have never had a female firefighter on staff. In the nation's largest metropolitan regions, 51.2% had zero paid female firefighters across the multiple departments in the region. More than 20 years after it faced the nation's first lawsuit on this subject, the New York City department still counts less than 0.25% women in its uniformed force.
Fire department leaders challenged about such numbers traditionally respond that women do not want and cannot handle the job, so low numbers are to be expected.
To examine these issues, the Ford Foundation sponsored a research team that included social scientists Marc Bendick, Jr of Bendick and Egan Economic Consultant, Inc., and Francine Moccio of Cornell University; and civil-rights lawyers Denise M. Hulett of the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, and Sheila Y. Thomas of the Law Offices of Sheila Y. Thomas. This team took a comprehensive look at women in firefighting by gathering confidential questionnaires from 675 male and female firefighters in 48 states, surveying 114 departments large and small, and interviewing 175 female firefighters. The team also conducted case studies in the Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis, Prince William County (Va.), and Seattle fire departments.
The researchers developed a benchmark for expected female representation using data from the 2000 U.S. Census. They computed the percent of women of typical firefighter age (20 to 49) and educational background (high-school graduate but no college degree), in 184 occupations resembling firefighting in required strength, stamina and dexterity, or involving outdoor, dirty or dangerous work. These comparison occupations include bus mechanics, loggers, professional athletes, refuse collectors, roofers and tire builders. The proportion of women in these 184 occupations is 17%.
Seventeen percent is far below the 47% that women represent in the average occupation, so it is clear that the majority of women are not likely to seek a firefighting career. But this does not explain the gap between the 17% of women who are qualified and potentially interested in this career despite its being dirty, dangerous and demanding, and the 3.7% women employed there today. In 2000, if women had been employed at the 17% rate, there would have been 39,742 additional female firefighters nationwide, or 50,577 total, quadrupling their actual number of 11,135. If women of color had been employed at their expected rate, they would account for 13,552 (34%) of those additional female firefighters.
Actual employment of women in some departments confirms the reasonableness of the 17% benchmark. Women now approach, equal, or exceed 17% of paid uniformed officers in Minneapolis (17%); Madison, Wis. (15%); Boulder, Colo. (14%); Miami-Dade (13%); Anchorage, Alaska (14%); Kalamazoo, Mich. (24%); Racine, Wis. (19%); Redding, Calif. (17%); Sarasota, Fla. (12%); Springfield, Ill. (19%); Tuscaloosa, Ala. (24%); and San Francisco (15%).
So, the study's first finding is the huge under-representation of women among firefighters. Tens of thousands of women likely to be interested in the career and capable of performing it are available, but they are not applying, not getting hired, or leaving. If courts accept this 17% benchmark, the overwhelming majority of departments nationwide are vulnerable to litigation for falling far short of it. In moving from approximately 0% in 1980 to 3.7% in 2000, the percentage of female firefighters has increased less than 0.2% per year. At that rate, females will not constitute 17% of firefighters for another 72 years.
Too few women employed is only the start of potential legal issues the study identified, however. When women do get hired, they widely encounter treatment well outside legal boundaries for equal opportunity and non-harassment.
When it came to gender-based discrimination or exclusion in the firefighter survey, problems were reported by between 79.7% of female firefighters (for ill-fitting equipment) to 6.3% (for assaults), averaging 34.2% among the 25 problems researchers asked about. These women's experiences contrasted sharply with that of their male colleagues, who reported much lower rates when asked the same questions. When asked if they had experienced different treatment because of gender, 84.7% of women agreed, compared with only 12.4% of men.
One hopeful sign that women's experiences are improving is that female firefighters report a slightly lower rate of problems than their older counterparts — 31.7% versus 37.8%. On the other hand, 34% of women of all ages reported that gender-based problems continue into the present. Clearly, gender discrimination and harassment are not rapidly disappearing.
The study has not simply documented problems, however. The researchers sought best practices demonstrated as feasible by being implemented in some departments. Twenty of these best practices, summarized in “Best Practices for Increasing the Inclusion of Female Firefighters,” page 38, are discussed in detail in the full report, available at www.firechief.com.
In the survey, two clusters of issues concern female firefighters the most. The first, labeled incidents in the workplace, refers to encounters with discrimination, harassment or exclusion in their daily work life, combined with lack of response to these incidents by supervisors. The second, labeled fairness in employment practices, refers to women's perceptions that they are not treated equally to men in hiring, assignments and promotions. Departments seeking to make current female firefighters more satisfied with their careers and encourage other women to become firefighters should give these concerns highest priority.
Neither priority issue involves special treatment for women or lower standards for physical performance, but instead merely require departments to ensure equal employment opportunity. In most departments, an essential first step toward that goal is to recognize that the playing field is not level between the genders. The second step is to start enforcing standards of non-harassment and equal treatment, which have been required by law, as well as widely held social norms, for at least four decades.
Why are departments so slow in adopting anti-discriminatory and anti-harassment policies and practices, which long ago became standard in most law-abiding, well-managed American workplaces? The study concludes that the workplace culture in most departments continues to resent female firefighters and, consciously or unconsciously, intends to exclude them.
Formally defined, a workplace's culture is the system of beliefs, values and ways of behaving common to that workplace. More simply, it is the way things are done around here. Workplace cultures tend to resist change both actively and passively. Resistance tends to be strongest where employees remain for long careers, personal relationships are important, traditions are maintained with pride, and employment is well rewarded — all characteristics of firefighting.
Firefighting's traditional culture is proud and noble, building on shared perceptions that the occupation is dangerous and difficult. The key performance requirements are strength and courage. Only an elite subset of individuals is capable of performing its duties. And generous compensation and prestige reflect these circumstances.
Ironically, these perceptions continue to justify exclusion of female firefighters as the evolving occupation itself erodes their relevance. Obviously, fire suppression remains a dangerous, difficult task. However, the shifting balance between fire calls and medical calls brings to prominence skills and abilities, which the traditional occupational self-image ignores. Medical calls typically invoke treatment skills and knowledge more than strength or courage, as well as caregiving skills and aptitudes often associated with nurses or social workers.
Nevertheless, as the's manual on female firefighters puts it, “It is the mystique of interior structural firefighting that lures most recruits to city fire departments, and it remains the psychological focus of the urban firefighter's job….” This mystique equally remains the focus of resistance to women. To their male peers, female firefighters represent more than competitors for jobs or constraints on freewheeling aspects of firehouse life. They also silently challenge the self-esteem male firefighters derive from doing a job for which only a select few have the right stuff. In these circumstances, the opposition shown in the study is not surprising.
These cultural dynamics are not unique to women in firefighting. Whenever the demographic diversity of a work force increases, inter-group relations tend initially to worsen rather than improve. Accordingly, departments cannot simply hire women and allow them to sink or swim, but instead need strategies to ensure their inclusion.
These strategies must address the specific issues from physical-abilities tests to dormitory privacy. But they also must address the underlying exclusionary culture of which these issues are symptoms. (See “5 Steps to Culture Change,” page 40.) Doing the first of these without the second will result in no employment increases, only token increases or temporary increases that fade as newly hired women are driven out.
Four decades ago, it was considered obvious that women were not capable of or interested in firefighting. That explanation will no longer suffice. The main role of such obvious but incorrect assumptions today is to justify administrative, organizational, interpersonal and technological barriers to women's employment, which are not actually necessary for safe, efficient departmental operations.
To reduce these barriers and bring women's employment to its potential will require more universal application of best practices already adopted by pioneering departments. It also will require changing the underlying workplace culture from one of exclusion to one of gender inclusion. Inclusion is a far more ambitious goal than simply increasing the number of women in uniform. But it is essential if increases in those numbers are to be meaningful and self-sustaining.
Guided by this study, gender inclusion is the new standard to which departments are likely to be held by courts, the elected officials to which they report and the residents they serve. Senior fire managers need to lead their departments in achieving that standard proactively, before being forced by expensive and disruptive litigation.
Marc Bendick Jr. holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin and is an economist with Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants, in Washington, D.C. His research on work force diversity, which is widely quoted in trade publications, Congressional testimony, and employment discrimination lawsuits, can be read at www.bendickegan.com.
Francine Moccio of Cornell University; Denise M. Hulett of the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center; and Sheila Y. Thomas of the Law Offices of Sheila Y. Thomas contributed to this story. To see a full version of their report, visit www.firechief.com.
|Recruiting||▪Invest in active recruitment — which most departments don't. |
▪Use the same personal relationships successful in recruiting men.
▪Increase recruiting in sports/fitness, medical and campus settings.
▪Start with girls 11 or younger.
▪Assist young women to obtain volunteer, cadet and seasonal firefighting experience.
|Physical-Abilities Tests||▪Provide serious pre-testing training for both men and women. |
▪Use tests whose job-relatedness criterion has been validated.
▪Ensure that all candidates are tested under equal circumstances.
|Uniforms & Equipment||▪Routinely provide uniforms and equipment designed for women.|
|Firehouse Living||▪Adapt bunkrooms and bathrooms to provide appropriate privacy. |
▪Maintain zero tolerance for gender-hostile pranks, hazing or isolation.
▪Maintain zero tolerance for pornography and sexually focused talk in the firehouse.
▪Maintain zero tolerance for sexual activity in the firehouse.
▪Provide rapid, serious responses to firefighter complaints of discrimination or harassment.
▪Prevent retaliation against firefighters complaining of discrimination or harassment.
|Promotions||▪Ensure that men and women receive equal on-the-job training and personal mentoring. |
▪Provide women equal access to formal classes and exam preparation.
▪Avoid over-assigning women to duties outside fire suppression.
▪Ensure women and men equal opportunity for station assignments.
▪Replace “tap on the shoulder” selections with transparent decisions, open postings and explicit criteria.
5 Steps to Culture Change
There is no simple formula for promoting fundamental, permanent changes in a department's culture. However, research and experience suggest five key elements.
Commitment by mayors, chiefs and other top officials. These leaders must visibly advocate expanded female employment and persistently and insistently communicate their expectation that those reporting to them will join the effort.
Monitoring and accountability translating the broad goal into immediate personal consequences for mid-level managers and supervisors. Positive actions need to be rewarded through performance appraisals, awards and promotions. Negative behavior needs to be sanctioned promptly and visibly.
Human resource management procedures embodying transparency, objectivity, and performance-relatedness. These procedures need to replace informal procedures that allow gender stereotypes, individual favoritism, and in-group bias in hiring, promotions and assignments.
Changes in individuals' behavior to control biased or aggressive behavior. Zero-tolerance policies need to be enforced for serious violations and for symbolic words or actions that open the door to serious violations. Training is needed to increase employees' aware of pervasive tendencies toward conscious and unconscious bias. Effective training uses real-life examples and provides practical tools such as scripts for alternative behavior. All staff should receive basic training, since culture is a 360-degree process, which all employees help to shape. Additional training should target first-level supervisors, the daily face of the department for individual employees.
Sustained effort. Significant change in a complex, long-established workplace may require deliberate effort over three to five years.