Women in the Fire Service: A Diverse Culture Leads to a Successful Culture

BY DAVID R. HOLLENBACH III

Throughout history, men have dominated many occupations because of cultural views and the division of labor determined by society’s needs. The stratification of the workforce by gender is applied by the culture of the society in which one is a member.1 Cross-culturally, many societies have excluded women from many of the same occupations. Military service, law enforcement, and firefighting have all been male-dominated occupations in many cultures. As women’s roles in society have changed, so too has their desire to serve in occupations from which they have previously been excluded, among them the fire service.

Rich with deeply engrained traditions, the fire service culture has resisted change to varying degrees and for a variety of reasons. Many strategies have been used to increase the presence of women in the fire service, yet the numbers are still lower than in many other male-dominated fields because the exclusionary culture still exists. The fire service can resist this culture change if upper management or key political figures lack commitment to it.2 The fire service needs strong, committed leadership to develop it into a more inclusive occupation: a culture that values female and male firefighters equally.

The fire service is one of many occupations in which women participate at a lower percentage than men. The reasons for the lower numbers of women in the fire service have been thoroughly examined. Discrimination, physiology, and desire have all been given attention by economists, sociologists, and psychologists. Many fire service leaders have disputed discrimination; the most commonly cited reasons for the lower numbers of women are lack of desire and a weaker physiology.

The first paid female firefighter in the United States was hired in 1973, yet women did not increase their numbers significantly until the 1980s. The 2000 Census reported approximately 11,000 paid female firefighters in the United States, roughly 3.7 percent of all paid firefighters in the country. (2) Using the 2000 Census, a benchmark for the expected number of female firefighters was developed by comparing the ratios of female to male employees in similar occupations—e.g., enlisted military, construction laborers, roofers, loggers, and welders. The proportion of female to male workers in these occupations in the United States was 17 percent. (2) Some fire departments do have roughly the same proportions of men and women as those similar occupations. However, these numbers suggest that although women are attracted to occupations that are inherently dangerous and dirty, for reasons other than lack of desire they are unable to obtain proportionate employment in the fire service as a whole. The 2010 Census lists current employed firefighters numbering at 293,000 with roughly 14,000 women serving, approximately 4.8 percent.

PHYSICAL ABILITY

With desire ruled out as a factor for lower numbers of women in the fire service, another proposed factor is the lack of agility, upper body strength, and stamina generally attributed to feminine characteristics. But the success women have had in the careers considered similar to firefighting in physical requirements for strength, stamina, and dexterity or involving outdoor, dirty, or dangerous work contradicts this. (2) The fact that women pass the same physical requirement tests as the men to gain employment also disputes this. Gender does not automatically predispose a person to a higher or lower aptitude for firefighting.

Through physical agility tests, which are common in the fire service, candidates are tested on their abilities related to the occupation. Women who pass are still represented at lower percentages than men, but they do pass. The women as well as the men chosen to be employed must pass these tests. Furthermore, pass rates for both men and women on physical abilities tests are strongly influenced by whether job candidates have trained prior to being tested. (2)

Fire departments can increase female success by offering mentoring programs that help candidates prepare for the demands of the job. The Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department trains recruits for 14 weeks prior to the physical agility test. Consequently, the department found that females’ strength increased an average of 21 percent and fitness by 29 percent and that by the end of training, the females’ combined size, strength, and fitness averaged 96 percent of their male counterparts. (2)

DISCRIMINATION

With physiology and desire ruled out as the main factors for low numbers of female firefighters compared to other similar occupations, discrimination is the logical remaining factor. All societies use gender to stratify their members throughout all areas of life, based on the particular society’s needs at that point in time, and it tends to change as the society’s needs change.3 Where women have been historically excluded from military service because it is seen as “man’s domain,” when that society needs bodies to defend it, gender is not a disqualifier, only an identifier. (3) This shows that “man’s work” is saved for men unless women are needed.

Women in the fire service have endured discrimination, harassment, and hostile working environments all while performing the same job as their male counterparts. Many studies have suggested the root cause of unequal treatment of women in male-dominated career fields is cultural bias. (1) Although most fire departments in the United States have resisted efforts to include more women, several have made great strides in advancing equality.

Although low female employment in this attractive career is often attributed to the job’s physical demands, its fundamental cause is an occupational culture that excludes many races and genders. This culture is the underlying problem, and women’s underhiring, “glass ceiling,” occupational segregation, lack of accommodation, social isolation, and sexual harassment are the symptoms. Surveys of firefighters and fire departments identify best practices for addressing such issues. However, for permanent change, these practices must be encompassed within the development of an inclusive workplace culture. (2)

Research has found that fire departments with the highest ratio of women include Minneapolis, Minnesota (17 percent); Madison, Wisconsin (15 percent); San Francisco, California (15 percent); Boulder, Colorado (14 percent); and Miami-Dade, Florida (13 percent). (2) These larger fire departments have larger proportions of women than others because they were proactive in increasing those numbers. Most candidates who apply for firefighter positions report hearing about the jobs through family members or friends, or they are encouraged by the same to follow that career path. Because men are represented in higher numbers than women, it is a logical conclusion that those men will informally recruit other men by word of mouth. By actively recruiting women, the departments listed above were able to increase the number of qualified women applying for the available positions.

LEADING THE WAY

Despite the admirable efforts of these departments, there is still much to be done. Although many strategies for creating a more inclusive fire service exist already, few, if any, stress the necessity of strong leadership. John Kotter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, is regarded as an authority on leadership and change. In Leading Change, he outlines an eight-step process for successful change in an organization. The process involves changing organizational culture. Each step is rooted in strong leadership.4 Culture change is difficult and may take several years of hard work from the top to the bottom. Kotter’s eight-stage process in leading a change in culture begins with creating a sense of urgency, developing a core group of leaders to guide the change, and developing a vision and strategy. The vision must be shared with the organization through multiple means of communication. The organization’s members must be empowered to act and be rewarded for short-term wins, and those gains must be consolidated to produce more change. The final step is to anchor the change in the culture. (4)

If leadership is the key for cultural change in organizations in general, what role might there be for leadership in changing the fire service culture? The culture change begins with the very top: the mayor and the fire chief. (1) The chief’s behavior and character will be seen through the behavior and character of the firefighters in the field. Leadership is most effective when the leader’s behavior embodies what is desired from the rank and file. The most desirable behaviors for fostering a more inclusive environment for women include an attitude that supports developing women at the same pace as men and a strong, educated, and proactive character.

Women are capable of performing the job requirements of a firefighter, and departments are capable of hiring women in increased numbers. However, hiring qualified women in increased numbers is not enough to perpetuate a meaningful change in the culture. If women are not accepted as members of the group, their success in the organization is often derailed by harassment or simply unsatisfying working conditions. (1) A sense of belonging is necessary for individuals to derive satisfaction from their occupations, regardless of gender. For female firefighters to experience success to the same degree and with the same effort as male firefighters, the respective fire department must have a culture that is inclusive to women.

Strong leadership and a desire for change are the beginning; that desire must be felt throughout the organization. How members interpret that desire depends on how they perceive the source. Many factors determine how an individual will perceive something; life experiences and education are but two. A person is first shaped by life experiences. The education he receives prior to being employed by a fire department will include training in a fire academy. If fire service leaders were to require firefighter recruits to be educated in the fire academies about the dangers of cultural biases and the inaccuracies they spread about women in the fire service, the schools would have no choice but to provide just that in their curriculum. The training and education received at fire academies are second to a person’s life experiences but the first that the fire service can influence now.

Fire departments hire probationary firefighters and train them to a higher level, teaching them what the local government and department require of them. Firefighters learn through watching the behavior of their peers and supervisors, and the supervisors learn from their superiors. Supporting programs that develop women into highly effective firefighters is vital to ending the stereotypes that have reinforced an exclusionary culture. If a male firefighter is required to perform up to a certain standard (which is related to required job functions), women should be as well. It is easier to have someone with a “known ability” (strength, size) accomplish a function that requires a given level of fitness. If a man is chosen over a woman every time the function is required, it can reinforce unfounded stereotypes. There are firefighting functions that are easier for someone with above-average body mass, but it does not mean that women are unable to accomplish them.

Training that fosters teamwork and improved body mechanics that aid male and female firefighters with large and small frames in accomplishing tasks much more safely can be implemented. Training should reinforce the principle that superior body mechanics are equal to superior strength. “Working smarter, not harder” can decrease injuries and workers’ compensation claims and extend careers typically shortened by avoidable injuries. Gender does not dictate the ease with which a firefighter can accomplish a task. Training as a team reinforces unity and camaraderie and degrades discrimination.5

The top leadership must own the goal of enhanced female employment. (2) Strong leadership is the reason some organizations are more successful than others in implementing positive change, whatever that change may be. For women in the fire service, there may be policies in place that do not help increase the number of qualified female firefighters. If policies need to be written in such a way to make the organization more inclusive, that task falls to the mayor, the city council, the county board, and the chief.

Change is slow when the needed assistance is given reluctantly. A leader is only as strong as the bond between the followers and the leader. Since the character of leaders is often scrutinized, it is important to behave the same no matter who is watching. Actions and words should reflect a positive attitude toward women at all levels of the fire service. Those people who make positive changes, more often than not, do so with the help of those they lead. Those people who aid the leader in making changes do so because they trust the leader and believe that the changes will improve the current situation. The mayor must have the loyalty of the chief, which is the result of a close working relationship and a similar vision. The chief needs to secure loyalty from the fire department’s upper management, not by making demands but through personal character and a visible commitment to the success of the organization’s personnel and its goals. Upper-management members must have the respect of those through whom they plan to effect the culture change. The change must become the culture and make the current culture obsolete. Education and a focus on unity rather than differences are imperative. (5) The character and attitude of fire department leadership should be consistent and highly visible regarding what is expected from the entire organization.

Strong, positive, effective leadership today perpetuates those qualities in the leaders of tomorrow. A firefighter starts off as a recruit in a fire academy and brings that person’s unique life experiences. It is the instructors—typically firefighters or fire officers from local departments—who must develop these men and women into firefighters who can meet the requirements of the departments with which they wish to be employed. The instructors must reinforce the local government’s goals of developing firefighters who work well in team settings regardless of other members’ gender, race, or religious beliefs. Those who can’t or won’t adapt should be identified and removed at this stage.

Once the candidate is employed as a firefighter through a fair and equitable hiring process, that individual must be indoctrinated into the department’s culture and trained in the accepted procedures of that agency. At this point, senior firefighters can assist in transforming the probationary firefighter into a full-fledged firefighter. The fire officers who work with the senior firefighters in training the probies must feel obligated to ensure their success. The chief fire officers (battalion chiefs or district chiefs) directly responsible for the fire officers (lieutenants or captains) must ensure that they and their subordinates are aware of their obligations and are competent. The battalion chiefs answer to the assistant, division, deputy, or chief, depending on the department. Whatever the rank structure and titles, the person in charge must be a capable leader and aware of the goals to be accomplished. The chief and the local government must work together toward the same goals. If the goal is to make the fire service more gender-diverse, a change must occur in the culture from one that excludes females to one that is inclusive.

The role of leadership is to lead, to show the way, and to be an example. If there is no sense of urgency from upper management, why would any of the firefighters who have dedicated their lives to the fire service and its culture feel the need to change something that in their eyes is not broken? The fire service has its own culture and is rich with tradition and history. That culture has excluded women throughout its history, and society has accepted and supported that exclusion because of its perception of the role women must play. These perceptions are socially constructed. The dialogue on the issues, the prominence given to specific arguments about women’s roles, is not based on objective reality but on cultural values. (5) The facts are available for educating our firefighters and our communities. The citizens are not as accepting of gender discrimination as they were in the past. It now falls on the leaders of our communities to make the changes desired by its citizens and dictated by the laws of the nation:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer

  1. to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
  2. To limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin ….6

The possibility of litigation for sexual discrimination is a reality. (2) Ignorance is a huge obstacle when change is the goal. Educating firefighters is an important step in combating discrimination and gaining support.

The ethical behavior from a public service leader in public service must ensure the equal treatment of all those employed under him. The possibility of a firefighter being mistreated for any reason should be an urgent issue that the chief should take personally and handle swiftly. There must be a real sense of ownership felt by all those serving under the chief and those the chief serves, such as the mayor. The mayor, the chief, and the fire department’s entire upper management must ensure the department is aware of and understands that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated.

Educate the members of the department constantly until the information becomes common sense. Developing policies and procedures that support a more inclusive environment starts at the top. Tolerating a culture that discriminates against people for their gender is only perpetuating the behavior and can be just as criminal as the behavior. Successful leaders discover methods for making the integration of previously excluded groups personal. (5) It is time for the fire service’s leaders to guide the nation’s fire departments toward a future that values women firefighters for their ongoing contributions. Firefighters become part of a larger family when they accept the inherent hazards and responsibilities of the occupation. Gender does not dictate success or failure. Education, character, and obligation to the team will always triumph over discrimination. The fire service is a family and, regardless of the gender of the members of the team, will continue to labor as firefighters in one of the noblest professions known to history.

Disclaimer: The views contained within this article do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

Endnotes

1. Bielby, D. D., Reskin, B. F. (2005). A Sociological Perspective on Gender and Career Outcomes. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 19, Number 1, 71-86.

2. Hulett, D. M., Bendick Jr, M., Thomas, S.Y. et al. (2008). Enhancing Women’s Inclusion in Firefighting in the USA. The International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities & Nations, 187-210 Volume 8, Number 2, http://las-elc.org/docs/publications/Womens_Inclusion_in_Firefighting.pdf.

3. Segal, M. W. (1995). Women’s Military Roles Cross-Nationally: Past, Present, and Future. Gender and Society, Vol. 9, No. 6 , 757-775, http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/189540?uid=3739256&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21103434228067.

4. Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

5. Johnson, W. B., & Harper, G. P. (2005). Becoming a Leader the Annapolis Way. New York: McGraw-Hill.

6. Title VII, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 703(a). www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm.

DAVID R. HOLLENBACH III is a battalion chief with Orange County (FL) Fire Rescue (OCFRD), where he has served 15 of his 17 years in the fire service. He is an adjunct fire instructor for the OCFRD Training Bureau and the program coordinator for the department’s fire service leadership enhancement and development program.

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