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A preliminary report of raw data developed in response to the 2004-2005 “firegirls” national web survey.
Dr Merilyn Childs, Fire Services Research Program, University of Western Sydney, Australia, April, 2006.
FINDINGS These are the findings of the www.firegirls.info web survey conducted during 2004-2005 by Dr Merilyn Childs, Fire Services Research Program, University of Western Sydney, Australia. The “Introduction” and “Attachments” to this report can be downloaded as separate PDF files that can be found at www.firegirls.info
Introduction The “findings” section reports what women said, and this is laid out by question. Not all questions in the survey are reported here, given limitations of space, and a wish for brevity. The questions reported are discussed below and where responses where given these are reproduced verbatim. 1. What are some of the tasks female fire fighters do? This question might seem like a no-brainer because the work that female fire fighters do is the same as the work male fire fighters do. However, it seemed important to put this simple fact into the historic record.
Female fire fighters indicated that they completed a wide range of front-line fire fighting duties, as reported in their own words below. Hazard reduction burn; attending bushfires in remote locations in national parks; lightning strike ignition in remote area involving insertion by helicopter, direct attack of fire and patrol of fire edge; grass fires deliberately lit; scrub fires; wildfire suppression; bomb threat; power pole alight; investigation of smoke sighting; stolen vehicle fire; crop fire; total fire ban stand-by; wildfire threatening residential area; arson in national park; search and rescue; road crash; prescribed burn; industrial bin fire; houseboat fire; vehicle roll over; management of incidents; recover bushwalker from heat stroke; automatic fire alarm; structural fires - house fires, factory fires; illegal pile burn on property. 2. What are some of the things you enjoy about fire fighting? Women enjoy fire fighting for a range of reasons, but these can be summarised as: a sense of accomplishment; service to community and the environment; team work; the adrenalin rush; the challenge. Here are some of the things women said:
At first I just went along and quietly learnt what I wanted to. I question a lot, and try to have as much knowledge as possible so I can be treated on an even level. I work hard and am part of the team. I know that I am now relied upon a lot as a member as they know if I get asked to do a job, it will get done. • • • • • • • I love the challenge, the physical work, and working out doors. The fire. The camaraderie, when it works, it’s beautiful! The skills that you learn and the confidence that team work can help build…if they feel like accepting you as part of the team, yes I mean the boys/men and sometimes other females. The challenge of the job. The excitement and spontaneity. Helping other people and the fact that I am constantly learning and growing personally. Seeing a result at the end. Community service, sense of family with the Brigades, physical exertion, sticking it to the male chauvinists, doing well in my job. Assisting your community, especially in hard times. Gratitude from property owners, protecting life and property, then friendship among fire fighters. Working as a team towards a shared goal.
3. What are some of the difficulties you face doing fire fighting work? One woman’s experience: I joined the same time as my husband, and got frustrated for quite a while as he had a lot of the guys running around after him encouraging him, but I just had to work harder to get recognition. It’s not good enough to work as hard as the boys, you do need to work harder to get treated as an equal. It upset my husband as well, as he could also see what was happening. After a while they noticed I was not an idiot, and now I'm just one of the boys. I still put a lot more time into the Brigade than my husband does, and now I get the recognition and encouragement for it from my Brigade. Another woman’s experience: When I first started fire fighting, I think I was pretty lucky because I worked with a really good crew comprising of both men & women. My first Divisional Commander was a male who had many years experience fire fighting, & mentored me during that fire. He explained things to me in a manner which was not condescending or macho, just politely. He also showed me things first hand & gave me the opportunity to try out things myself whilst he closely supervised eg back burning opportunities using the drip torch. For some women, the positives could be balanced against work realities such as: • Having to deal with people’s personality changes when the smoke goes up. • Dangerous situations where I have to deal with old boy attitudes that don’t agree with female fire fighters being there. • Being paged at 2am, some male attitudes (the little woman syndrome). • As one grows older, it becomes hard work, consequently not so pleasurable. • Long hours, hard work, peeing if you don’t have 2 piece overalls. • The fact that I have to work 150% harder than some guys at my station to show that I am just as good. The fact that I get undermined when I try to get promoted. • Heat and fatigue. • Protracted incidents where strength is put to the test. Lack of facilities at an incident particularly when menstruating, mind you this is difficult to overcome logistically. • Bowling a 64 hose. • Males, regardless of age, that do not want to acknowledge that I have a brain and a body and contribute to fire fighting. • Not being able to save people’s houses. The destruction that can be left after a fire. • Working with men and their egos. Finding a suitable place to squat.
• • • • • • Physically and mentally challenging work. Often confronted by sexism, although this is changing. Too much testosterone and ego in control rooms. Increasing tendency for those at state level to interfere in operational decisions taken at a local level. Attending a vehicle accident where people are deceased or children are involved. Boys are best, girls are cooks! Girls cannot drive trucks! Especially on the fire ground. Going to the loo on the fire ground especially when the boys play water bombers!!! Finding an unburnt bush to wee behind (without a helicopter overhead). Coordinating with a range of people often with conflicting instructions or advice. Physical work in physically stressful situations, extreme heat, lack of sleep. I am now aged in my mid-50s and I am not as fit as I think I should be.
Ignoring the gendered nature of the fire fighting experience, the “difficulties” many female fire fighters faced were the same as those that male fire fighters faced. It’s a hard job. Not necessarily knowing when you'll be returning home from now on - maintaining my current fitness level so that I will be able to meet the Arduous TBA level on an annual basis communications - working with other agencies where each party cannot communicate effectively with each other because of different comms equipment, frequencies etc.; & working in remote locations where there is either no or very poor communications (safety issue) can work extremely long hours day after day. 4. What heroism or great deed do you make claim to? I wanted to find out how female fie fighters responded to a question like this. The media speaks so commonly of “fire fighter heroes” and I wondered if female fire fighters related to such a view of fire fighting. The responses ranged from pragmatic statements such as “I am not a hero. You do what you have to do”; or “We are doing our jobs”; to “lateral” answers “I volunteer a lot of my time”; or “Having children” to the brief recounting of fire fighting incidents. Understanding how women perceived fire fighting labour may provide some important clues to fire fighting agencies about how to attract more women into this work.
Here are some of the “pragmatic” things that some women said. • • • • • • • You just have to do the job. It isn’t about HEROISM! I find the media portrays that very badly only when people are doing the wrong thing (such as not wearing BA) and they die and they are heroes. Not a good message. None. I don’t volunteer for the glory. I volunteer to give something back to my local community. None. There are plenty of other women I consider greater heroes than myself. None. Just doing my job. I dragged someone out of a fire once (a male fire fighter) but heroics are not my thing. Heroics are generally dangerous and in this situation it was because he was doing something stupid – he was way too close to the fire. The question is embarrassing because no-one in the emergency services does it for the glory. None. I think the ‘heroism” label is part of the problem. Suppressing wildfire is a job that needs doing and the people who do it deserve no more accolades than the local librarian.
Here are some of the “lateral” things that some women said:
• • • • • • • • Since transferring to my current location 18 months ago, I have become very disillusioned due to the discrimination and bad management. My heroism or great deed is turning up to work each day. Mother of one teenager, two apprentices and being a wife. Giving birth. Fire fighting is a walk in the park compared to giving birth. A fact most fellas tend to avoid. I survive the boys (male fire fighters). Being a great Mum! I don’t think I have been heroic but some of the things I have done have made me proud. I didn’t back off and show fear in the face of a large fire and a car fire. Improving the relationship between [one agency] and [another agency] and establishing regular joint training activities. The first female to [do a range of activities associated with fire fighting.]
Here are some of the “incidents” some women told me about: • • • • • Saving the fire truck from going over a steep embankment with a fellow member still inside, when the hand-brake failed. Have been involved in large scale incidents. Working side by side with other local fire fighters in the heat of January 2003 which ravaged our town – before I was trained. Keeping me and an all male crew calm during an over-run and then making jokes about it all later that night. Stopping at a car rollover, with four seriously injured patients, around 3am in the morning, after being called to the scene. I had to drive past it to get to the fire station, so I stopped and got out and provided first aide, and so on.
And mention was made of numerous fire fighting incidents. 5. If you are doing retained or volunteer fire fighting, have you ever applied to do fulltime fire fighting? Of the 244 responses to this question, 211 said “no” they had not applied for FT FF work, and 32 [13%] said they had. 16 of those that had applied, or 50%, were unsuccessful. 5 indicated they did not pass the beep test, 2 had not passed the fitness test more generally. 7 were waiting to hear back about their results. 6. If you are paid to do fire fighting work, would you encourage other women to do paid fire fighting work? Of the 389 responses made to this question, 94% answered yes, but with the following qualifications. • • • It’s hard physical work in extreme conditions, operating the pumps and fire fighting equipment. You continuously have to prove you are capable first. Being the only female in your Brigade is often difficult. I am considered an equal by some members. Fire fighting itself is very difficult. Our area is mountainous and the work is hard.
7. If you are a volunteer fire fighter, would you be interested in full-time fire fighting work? Quite a number of women indicated they were studying at university for professional careers (so had made other choices), lived too far away from a career brigade, did not see how they
could have a family and a job as a paid fire fighter, or simply preferred to volunteer as a way of contributing to the community. These are some of the things women told me: • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • I have applied for retained. It’s hard to be full-time in outlying areas. I have thought about it, but I live in a rural area, and I live too far away from a town brigade. I can’t leave my family. I believe my age and family would restrict my ability to get a paid job. I enjoy being a volunteer and would never leave my paid profession (in health care). I did consider it but I thought I could do more. I am now an ambulance officer, but I still do volunteer fire fighting. Best of both worlds? I earn more money in [another industry] in the private sector. Have recently applied for a permanent position and await feedback. I have considered this and have considered doing so, but I want to start a family and believe the hours and even the stress may be too much. I also want to stay as a volunteer because I get a great feeling of giving. Considered but felt too old. I have considered it. But I am a bushfire fighter, not an urban fire fighter. I applied. I don’t believe they even read my application. My fellow fire fighters helped me and couldn’t believe I didn’t even get a look in. No, I wanted a career in the environment, and thus being a fire fighter was part of the career I chose. As a volunteer fire fighter you are not waiting around for calls. I think it would be boring being a paid fire fighter. It would be a good job. But I have heard that fire fighting is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle that you live. That might be OK while I am young, but when I am older and have kids that might be difficult. It isn’t paid enough. I haven’t got the time or the inclination to be a paid fire fighter. Paid fire fighters work with structural fires and I work with bushfires. It would be boring to do it all the time.
Table 1: When you first started doing fire fighting work, how likely were the following things?
Item Being shown what to do Friendship Being encouraged Constructive feedback from supervisor Bullying Jokes about you as a female fire fighter Induction Uniform that fits Appropriate toilet facilities Extremely likely 57% 44% 46% 36% 4% 21% 41% 27% 30% Likely 34% 41% 36% 36% 13% 27% 27% 28% 21% Not sure 2% 8% 6% 12% 10% 7% 11% 4% 5% Unlikely 5% 6% 9% 11% 34% 21% 9% 23% 20% Extremely unlikely 2% 1% 3% 5% 39% 24% 12% 18% 22%
Being shown what to do Based on these responses, over 90% felt it was likely or extremely likely that they were shown what to do, although only 69% felt it likely or extremely likely to be provided with an induction.
Being encouraged 81% of women reported that it was likely or extremely likely that they were encouraged in their work, which appears to be a positive response. The problem is that subsequent comments made about this response suggest that the encouragement was very patchy, sometimes came at a cost, or was filtered through inappropriate messages that were in response to gender. On the positive side, women commented that • • • • • • • Most of the time the men were good at teaching and making sure I was taught properly The men made me feel welcome in the Brigade. They treated me the same as everyone else. Most helped in every way possible. Some shook their heads and said “bloody women in the fire brigade”. I already knew some of the guys and they really helped me a lot. I already knew what to expect. My first captain was totally sexist, so the other guys, the younger ones, really gave me a help. Most of the men treated me with respect and encouraged me to learn. My husband was the captain of the Brigade and he encouraged me constantly. He looked out for me at incidents and so did some of the other guys. I think they were amazed at what I could do.
No-one commented that a female fire fighter provided the training. For example, there were no statements like “The women made me feel welcome in the Brigade”, so that it was clear that female fire fighters enter a world populated by males (which is not surprising as women are under-represented) but it signifies a deficiency in terms of the presence of other women as mentors, role models, and sources of knowledge.
The final dot-point (above) was common. It appeared that the good treatment of some women was based on the local nature of the work – if someone was willing to act as an individual woman’s champion, then chances were the woman had a great experience. However, the converse was also true – if someone in a local setting had it in for a woman, their life could be made truly unpleasant.
The word “most” kept cropping up repeatedly, as in the phrase “most of the men”. For example, “most of the men” had been supportive, which suggested that there were usually one or two who were not. Reading across the data I gained an impression that women discounted experiences they had with these one or two men, concluding in balance, that their experiences with “most” men were positive. This suggested to me that there may well be a culture of tolerance within the industry whereby women accommodate, forgive, glean over, and ignore, and so on, one or two men. More needs to be understood about this phenomenon.
On the negative side, women commented that
• • • • • • • Helpful? Not really. I had to prove myself. Little help really. I remember lots of very crude conversation aimed, I believe, at discouraging me. Only a few helped me. I was the first one…They had to adapt to me and I had to adapt to the culture. A few helped me silently, and a few helped me obviously, and several were intimidated because I was willing to try anything. To start with they tried to stop me as they said I was not the right person. With my husband as a fire fighter we were able to change their minds, but it took two years. Like I was a leper. But eventually the team got to know me and what I could do. With scepticism. I was treated well and bad. Mostly it depended on the personality of the people I was interacting with. Some were great and extremely helpful. Others were coming close to harassment complaints. Thankfully, they were few.
Wide variation appeared to exist, and I found myself wondering if this hinted at a failure of agency policy and/or practice in ensuring that all women were treated normally by all fire fighting personnel.
Bullying & Jokes One woman wrote: Being able to handle comments received from other members of the crew & learn not to take them to literally, unless of course I feel the need to take matters further. Mostly I find, some fire fighters (male) will say things to test you out, to see how you will react, if at all, to their comments. No different to my job everyday in a male dominated department Show my fire fighting competency through experience by leading a crew successfully. Seeking the views & opinions of other crew members I find is really important to make everyone feel like they really are part of a team, & that their opinion really does count (as long as it’s constructive comments). 16% of women reported that it was likely or extremely likely to experience bullying. This is a high percentage, and one that agencies should note. 46% reported that it was likely or extremely likely to experience jokes made about them on the basis of their gender.
There was no room in the survey for women to define what they meant by bullying, or what types of jokes were made. No direct questions were asked about sexual harassment or sexual violence in this study, but it is the case that hostile jokes on the basis of gender provide one clue as to the existence of a negative workplace culture towards women. It was unclear what types of experiences women included in the “bullying” response as I did not provide an opportunity to explore this theme. Had questions been asked about workplace violence, more detailed information might have been gained. However I made the conscious decision to exclude questions about sexual violence from the survey as I felt it inappropriate and unethical to ask questions of this personal and distressing nature in a web-based survey. It is worth noting here that studies in the US and the UK have indicated that some women fire fighters have experienced workplace violence, and this violence ranges from the persistence of a workplace culture that treats women with hostility [eg the “women have no right to be fire fighters” attitude] to sexual harassment [including the presence of inappropriate images of women as sexual objects] and sexual assault, including rape. [Author’s note: It is possible that
those male fire fighters who persistently denigrate women fire fighters, or “test” women fire fighters in terms of work capabilities, do not understand that these behaviours fit the workplace violence definition. They just think they are having a bit of a joke.]
One of the cultural problems that surround sexual violence is the persistent view that “you have to be tough to be a fire fighter” - so women are expected to cop whatever treatment is handed out in order to prove they fit in.
Uniforms that fit 51% of women indicated it was likely or extremely likely that uniforms fit, (4% were unsure), which means that 45% of women had been issued with ill-fitting uniforms. Women’s safety as fire fighters depends on well fitting uniforms. Further details about the nature of the fit of uniforms were not sought in this preliminary survey. However, Women in the Fire Service, Inc., (USA) conducted a national survey in the USA in 1995, and found that;
Women firefighters continue to experience problems with getting firefighting gear that fits properly. Comparison of data from nationwide surveys done by WFS in 1990 and 1995 show the problem is actually getting worse. Only in one area (turnout/bunker coats) did women report fewer fit problems in 1995 than in 1990.The items of protective gear most commonly creating fit problems were:
Table 2: The fit of uniforms as reported by WFSI, 2005.
Source: http://www.wfsi.org/women_and_firefighting/issues.php?issue=12 [sourced March 10 , 2006].
Item Firefighting gloves Rubber firefighting boots Turnout/bunker coat Turnout/bunker pants SCBA facepiece Helmet SCBA harness/pack Nomex/PBI hood
% of respondents reporting fit problems 31% 19% 16% 14% 14% 13% 9% 2%
Why does it remain the case that women continue to be expected to wear PPE designed for men?
Appropriate toilet facilities 42% of women indicated it was unlikely or extremely unlikely for the provision of appropriate toilet facilities for women. The word “appropriate” was not defined, nor was it possible for respondents to indicate what the word meant for them. I asked this question not so much to find out about the toilet facilities but to seek some insight into the “welcome” women might have within fire fighting agencies. As academic women I can state quite easily that the toilet facilities provided to me are more or less 100% appropriate, 100% of the time. I have clean toilets, with easy access, and with tampon disposal units within them. It is taken for granted
within educational institutions that men and women work there, and that both will have appropriate facilities.
Not so in the fire services. It is taken for granted that men work there. It is not uncommon for facilities such as tampon disposal units to be provided within fire stations only when women get appointed. Thus when women are appointed, a fuss has to be made to adjust to their presence; and it is not at all uncommon for women to have to share men’s facilities. Many women make light of this fact, but it is one more example of the ways in which women must fit in, and thus be reactive to “what is there” rather than participate in defining “what should always be there”. 8. What are your thoughts about the support given to women fire fighters by your organisation? I thought it was important to get a sense of how women perceived the ways in which their employer organisation responded to women. The rationale for these questions is that there is sufficient organisational research available that argues that the ecology of the workplace is a critical factor in fostering women’s active entry to and participation in, the workforce. In other words, whilst there appears to be a cultural view within the fire services that women should simply “fit in” or get out, (Baigent 2001a and b) strong evidence exists that such an attitude places the onus on women alone to battle it out in a workplace climate that may be hostile to them. The picture formed by women’s responses has lessons in it for fire fighting agencies. The collective view was not particularly good, and suggests that agencies have some way to go in terms of supporting female fire fighters. Women told me the following things about their workplaces. Table 3: What are your thoughts about the support given to women fire fighters by your organisation? Item Treatment of women fire fighters Training of women fire fighters Promotion of women fire fighters Cultural change to support women fire fighters Dealing with bullying Uniforms that fit Gloves that fit Toilets and sanitary disposal facilities for women fire fighters. Excellent 24% 36% 17% 13% 18% 14% 11% 12% Good 42% 40% 23% 31% 28% 29% 24% 21% Average 24% 16% 26% 22% 20% 25% 24% 18% Fair 5% 3% 11% 15% 16% 14% 18% 15% Poor 5% 5% 23% 19% 18% 18% 23% 34%
66% of women indicated that their treatment ranged from excellent to good. 32% of women indicated that their treatment ranged from average to poor. This response surprised me, given
that it contrasts so markedly with narrative responses that indicated that women enjoyed fire fighting work, and “except for one or two males” had an OK time on-the-job.
59% of women responded that the promotion of women was average to poor. This is not surprising as there remain; few women in leadership roles in this industry, no agreed public policy on promoting women within the fire services, cultural practices within specific agencies that make it difficult for women to access promotion, a lack of networks and mentors to encourage women, and so on. Unlike in the US there are no female “fire chiefs”, and unlike the police in Australia, women remain below the level of front-line managers in paid fire fighting, although volunteer female fire fighters have faired better. These are anecdotal claims on my part, based on my knowledge of the labour market, as no figures are reported in Australia about this matter (Childs, in press, 2006).
53% of women responded that bullying was dealt with in their organisation on a range of average to poor. This really is a major problem for agencies, and one that requires action both in terms of research and through the development of strategies.
Women confirmed in their
responses about PPE, gloves and toilet facilities that employer organisations have a great deal more work to do in improving quite basic working conditions for women.
9. What are your thoughts about the support given to men fire fighters by your organisation? I wanted to compare the way female fire fighters perceived their work, with that of their perception of their male fire fighters counterparts’ treatment at work. Table 4: What are your thoughts about the support given to men fire fighters by your organisation?
Item Treatment of men fire fighters Training of men fire fighters Promotion of men fire fighters Cultural change to support men fire fighters Dealing with bullying of men Uniforms that fit Gloves that fit Toilets facilities for men fire fighters.
Excellent 38% 45% 51% 36% 17% 33% 35% 37%
Good 54% 48% 40% 43% 32% 52% 51% 42%
Average 6% 5% 7% 16% 28% 13% 10% 12%
Fair 1% 1% 1% 3% 12% 1% 2% 3%
Poor 1% 1% 1% 2% 11% 1% 2% 6%
Whereas 66% of women indicated that their treatment as women ranged from excellent to good, 92% felt that the treatment of men fire fighters ranged from excellent to good. Whereas 32% of women indicated that their treatment as women ranged from average to poor, only 7%
Rather than reinventing the wheel, fire fighting agencies would do well to pay head to consider the emerging work of social psychologists in the area of sexual ethics (Banyard, Plante & Moynihan 2004). This work has formed the basis of cultural change of male attitudes to women within the AFL in Australia.
judged men’s treatment to be average to poor. Thus there was a marked difference in perception in terms of how they judged women and men to be treated by fire fighting organisations. The comparison may or may not be spurious- there is no way of judging this from this research – but it is important information that the perceptions exists.
In fact, on all questions, men fire fighter’s “lot” was judged by women to be better off when compared to perceptions of their own experiences. For example, • • • 91% of women judged that the promotion of men was on a range of excellent to good. [40% for women] 93% of women judged that the training of men was on a range of excellent to good. [75% for women] 78% of women judged that the cultural change to support men was on a range of excellent to good. [44% for women].
48% of women felt that dealing with bullying [of men] fit within in a range of excellent to good by their organisations. 56% of women felt that dealing with bullying [of women] fit within in a range of excellent to good by their organisations. This result was the only issue in which comparative perceptions of the treatment received by men and women were close together.
I asked a second series of questions about the way women perceived their acceptance and treatment within their employer organisation. Table 5: How do you perceive your acceptance and treatment within your employer organisation? Extremely Likely Women are shown in pictures as administrative workers, not fire fighters. Women wear a uniform that restricts movement Women feel safe. Women are given access to fitness training. Equality of opportunity. Sexist jokes. ‘War stories' that include women as fire fighters Equality of access to training opportunities. Not Sure Extremely Unlikely No Response
6.5% 30% 18% 25% 18% 7%
19.5% 48% 23% 33% 31% 18%
15% 11% 11% 11% 14% 19%
41% 3% 19% 18% 22% 26%
11.5% 2% 14% 9% 8% 20%
6.5% 5% 14% 4% 7% 10%
52% of women responded that it was likely or extremely likely that women were portrayed in pictures as administrative workers, not firefighters in their organisation.
78% of women indicated it was likely or extremely likely that they felt safe in their workplace, although this finding needs to be tempered against other indications that women feel safe “despite one or two males”; despite uniforms that don’t fit; despite sexist jokes and bullying; despite exclusionary narratives; and despite toilet facilities that are inadequate. In other words, “safety” is a mediated concept that needs careful unpacking and further research.
One of the key cultural norms within fire fighting agencies is the “war story”. War stories are stories told through generations of fire fighters about prior fire fighting campaigns, incidents, and so on. Part of “fitting in” is learning from war stories. Part of fitting in is also participating in the making of war stories, and forging a place as a fire fighter is also about having war stories to tell. For this reason, I asked how likely it was that ‘war stories' included women as firefighters. This is a highly problematic question, very chicken and egg, for if there are so few female fire fighters, how can they be included in many war stories? That said, I thought the question worth asking, because it is a confirmatory narrative about the gendered nature of fire fighting if nothing else.
Interestingly, 22% of women responded that it was very likely, or likely, for women to be included in war stories. 29% were unsure or did not respond, and 46% felt it was unlikely or very unlikely, so this may suggest a very mixed experience; and an indication that the question lacked relevance; or women may tell stories to each other and to other fire fighters that include themselves in war stories.
49% of women felt it likely or extremely likely that sexist jokes be made. 71% of women felt it likely or extremely likely they would be given fair and equal access to training. 13% felt it unlikely or extremely unlikely that they be given equality of opportunity.
Once again these uneven – and what might appear to be slightly incongruent responses – may well be explained at the definitional level. What it leads me to conjecture is that women might identify that “sexist jokes” or inequality exists, but the same women might have accommodated sexism and inequality as part of the way things are done within fire fighting. This likely scenario would lead women to therefore give less weight to sexism when asked to evaluate it.
Other researchers have argued that this is the consequence of “fitting in” (Baigent ibid) or of internalized oppression and can be seen to be a consequence of acculturation to harmful norms. Important insights about the issue of women and violence, and here I am arguing that sexist jokes are a form of sexual violence, can be gleaned from contemporary research being conducted into “bystander behaviour” (Banyard, Plante & Moynihan 2004). Women are often
encouraged to see all jokes, sexist or otherwise, in the greater context of “all fire fighters get made the butt of jokes” and to therefore accept such behaviour as “normal” even if it extends to sexual violence.
Some female fire fighters find it unacceptable to see themselves as victims, because they have chosen to do work that requires physical and metal toughness. If they therefore face sexual violence at the hands of other fire fighters, whether that be gender-based derision, work cultures where women have to prove they are better than men, or work practices that require women to participate in bastardisation practices perpetuated by males, or where “male social control and entitlement” (ibid) characterise the environment, then these otherwise strong women must make sense of the ways they are treated, given they do not identify as victims. One way is to “blame individuals for their own victimization”. There is some evidence to suggest that some female fire fighters blame other female fire fighters if they are victimised, bullied, or harassed. 10. How could fire fighter unions help women fire fighters? Fire fighter unions have the capacity to play a key role in protecting and advancing the industrial conditions of fire fighters. Historically, what were once called “traditional male” sectors of the labour market have not always been quick to understand the differences women bring to their labour market, nor have they always been pro-active in finding out what female unionists see as important industrially. For this reason, and because the author sees the
union movement as important in improving the working conditions of all employees, including females, a set of questions were asked to find out what women felt a union could do for them.
The limitation of these findings is that fire fighters, as defined by this survey, were not represented by one union, nor is it the case that all fire fighters are members of a union or association. Volunteer fire fighters are largely represented by “associations”. Urban fire and rescue fire fighters who were members of a union were represented by “fire fighter unions” that advocate industrial conditions. Land management fire fighters who were members of a union, were not members of a fire fighting union – rather they were public servants and were represented by various public sector unions. Despite these difficulties, I asked women to reflect their general views about unions to gain some idea about the roles unions might play, if any, in working with women to improve the working conditions of female fire fighters.
I asked if women felt it would be useful to establish an officer to advocate for female fire fighters. I added to this question the idea that the gender of the officer might matter. This felt like a very 1970s question, when “women’s rooms” were set up on campus, and separatist movements were afoot! However, sometimes the fire fighting industry feels like it needs a 1970’s movement to initiate change, and thus I felt motivated to at least ask the question.
Women indicated the following things. Table 6: Should the union have an officer to advocate on behalf of female fire fighters?
Strongly Agree Establish a male Women's Officer to advocate for women firefighters. Establish a female Women's Officer to advocate for women firefighters.
51.5% of women indicated support for a female women’s officer to advocate for female fire fighters. Considerably fewer – 31% – supported the notion of a male women’s officer. With few exceptions union delegates in this industry are males.
I also asked respondents how the union might be able to improve conditions for female fire fighters.
Table 7: What could a union do to assist female fire fighters?
Consult women firefighters about their industrial needs. Consult women about their experiences at work. Use photographs of women firefighters in PR materials. Advocate for women firefighters to have PPE that fits. Advocate for women firefighters to have gloves that fit.
Strongly Agree 47.5%
Strongly Disagree 1%
No Response 13.36%
Quite conclusively, women indicated that unions could play a role in advocating for their specific needs.
• • • • 77% agreed or strongly agreed that unions should consult women about their industrial needs 79% agreed or strongly agreed that unions should consult women about their experiences at work 77% agreed or strongly agreed that unions should use photographs of women firefighters in PR materials 78% agreed or strongly agreed that unions should advocate for women firefighters to have PPE that fit, and a similar number for gloves that fit.
Fitness Tests One of the contentious issues that some women and ethnic groups of small stature may face as they attempt to become fire fighters is fitness testing. It’s a very complex issue, and when faced with this complexity I have often found that people fall back on a quite simple equation – fire fighting is dangerous, and therefore everyone should have to meet “the” standard at entry to be able to be a fire fighter. I have also found, within this logic, hostility towards diversity. If “the” standard is varied in any way, then the person who inspired the variation is then seen to have been given “special treatment” and is therefore not up to the job. Thus fitness testing is another example of the “one size” culture endemic within the fire services. Combining “diversity” and “fitness testing” in the one mental model seems to generate heavy breathing and reactive thinking. When I pose questions such as these, I am often told I am arguing that there should be no standard – but this is far from the case. No-one working in this industry wants to see “fire fighters down”.
Others have written about this topic in great detail, supported by research. Ellis and Gilbert (2002) for example noted that, The duty of care requires the provision of a safe working environment. In short; risk managers can change the job or change the person. In a task like fire suppression there are many aspects about the job which can’t be changed leaving only the person. However, in general there is reluctance by employers to concentrate on the person due to the perceived imposition on personal life (pg. 94). The idea that “there are many aspects of the job that can’t be changed” needs careful questioning. If this were the case, then fire fighters would still use the horse, not wear PPE there would be no helicopters or modern equipment. Many things about fire suppression have, and continue to change, and the notion that a “fire is a fire is a fire” cannot be supported. The job has changed (Childs 2005) and this change has implications for fitness testing. Moreover, the job could and will change further in ways that we can only conjecture. The “provision of a safe working environment” has a deeply gendered answer within the fire services. “Safety” is defined by equipment purchased with average sized white male fire fighters in mind. Thus smaller bodied fire fighters such as some women or for example, Asian males, are made unsafe, or perceived as incompetent, when placed within this culturally constructed view of safety.
Ellis and Gilbert (2002) also made the following suggestion (point seven in the original) when noting the recommended steps for current fitness testing. [Agencies need to]…work towards validation of all program components and remember to consider:· Protective clothing· Heat· Speed of performance, Aerobic vs anaerobic systems· Job related assessments, Ageing, Gender differences To this list I would like to add “ethnicity”, and an acknowledgement that “job related assessments” are cultural rather than objective tests that represent “the” standard. By this I mean that “job related” tasks are shaped by such things as equipment, which may be designed for average sized white Australian males rather than, say, small bodied Asian males. Were such an Asian male to be tested using standard equipment, for an example a fire truck or tanker, it may be the case that they would be deemed to be incompetent because they cannot adequately reach the pedals of the vehicle. This may be viewed as a personal failure – and I have heard this said of shorter females – whereas in fact it is a failure in design standards. The gendered and/or racial nature of fire fighting equipment can be clearly seen when visiting a current exhibition at Penrith Museum of Fire, New South Wales, which has on display appliances and equipment, including PPE from Japan. The difference in size when compared to Australian fire brigade appliances is immediately noticeable. Fire services in these countries have adapted the equipment to fit the fire fighter.
With these thoughts in mind I asked about the role a union might play in advocating for fitness testing that responded to physiological differences of females. It needs to be noted that unions are only one part of this question – “management” within the fire services hold the final responsibility for industrial arrangements within the fire services. That said, fitness testing is one of the conditions of fire fighting work, and a union’s policies in terms of fitness testing is critical in either maintaining or changing the status quo. This is what women said:
Table 8: What could a union do to advocate for fitness testing that is suitable for female physiology?
Advocate for fitness tests that reflect safe firefighting standards. Advocate for fitness training appropriate for women’s physiology
Strongly Agree 52%
Strongly Disagree 0%
No Response 14%
79% of women agreed or strongly agreed that unions could advocate for fitness tests that reflect safe fire fighting standards, 9% took a neutral position, and 2% disagreed. They were not asked to define “safe”, but I have already argued that a “safe work environment” is highly gendered within fire fighting. Thus “safe” in the context of this study should be taken to mean
“safe for men and women fire fighters” and should have implications for equipment as well as human factors. 71% of women agreed or strongly agreed that unions could advocate for fitness training appropriate for women’s physiology. 9% took a neutral position, and 6.5% disagreed or strongly disagreed. There was a hint in written responses that some women fire fighters felt that were gender to be taken into account this would constitute “special treatment”. It is worth noting here that the norm upon which the “one size” has been based is a masculine one. Thus it already privileges – or if you like gives “special treatment” to – those that best fit the masculine norm. Typically in Australia those who best fit this norm are white Anglo-Saxon males of certain physiology at the time of entry to fire fighting, particularly in paid urban fire and rescue agencies. Thus, as logic has it, these males are best privileged by the “one size” norm.
It is hard to convince a male fire fighter that their presence within a fire fighting agency could well be argued to be based on “special treatment” – that is, they met the culturally predetermined norm as represented by a deeply gendered and racially based fitness test, using equipment based on designs that were deeply gendered and racially based. Am I arguing that anyone can be a fire fighter? Front-line fire fighting is hard physical labour for some of the time, as women in this study confirmed. No-one would argue against this simple truism. Robust argument, as well as cross-disciplinary research, however, is needed into the cultural assumptions implicit within fitness testing and the consequences of these assumptions on diversity. 11. Is there anything you’d like to add? There were opportunities throughout the survey for participants to add comments. Here are some of those comments.
About how I defined “women in fire fighting” • • • • • • Along with those duties that you have stated, I also think that fire fighting includes educating the community and fire safety. I think all aspects of fire fighting are applicable. Women should be involved wherever they wish to be, and should not be told or intimidated that it’s a male dominated industry. Whether its bushfires, structural fires, and [no matter what agency]. Fire fighting work can be dome in many ways from planning through to actively being on the front line. I’ve been involved in active fire fighting through the planning process…to an IMT role It’s hard to be a female fire fighter when you are young, in a fire service where there is a lot of prejudice and ridicule from older male counter-parts. As a 19 year old volunteer fire fighter I have had many great experiences and met many new life long friends. You could add [to your definition] administrative/paper work, community educators, welfare for other fire fighters, cafeteria. As active fire fighters we are not only fire fighters but cover many and varied tasks.
CONCLUSION www.firegirls.info provided the first opportunity to ask questions of female fire fighters living and working across Australia in 2004. These questions were posed on the web as a broad based survey. The findings of this study were based on a view that there was commonality to be found in the experiences of female fire fighters, regardless of whether they were paid or not, or whether or not they dealt with structural or bushfires; worked in urban, urban fringe or remote areas; and so on. For this reason, female fire fighters viewpoints were combined in the reports and conjectures were made on the basis of this data. It may be the case that subsequent studies focus on a national study of paid fire and rescue female fire fighters; or a national study of female volunteer fire fighters. Such studies would be welcome, and may depart from and build upon the findings of the firegirls study.
What seems clear from firegirls is that the experiences of female fire fighters are mediated by their own strong commitment to the job; capacity to manage male attitudes; worldviews and wider life experiences; and the nature of local support in local crews, sometimes influenced by the attitude of crew leaders. A receptive crew or champion can make a female firefighter’s experiences positive and rewarding. A disrespectful crew or resistant crew leader can make life pretty tough. It is clear that some pretty outmoded ideas about females still exist, and that agencies are not doing enough to ensure that females fire fighters are treated as if they are a normal part of a fire fighting work force.
Until such time as it is no big deal that a female is part of a crew, and no changes need to be made when a female joins a crew, their presence is not normalised. My question to fire services agencies and unions is therefore this – what do you need to do in terms of policies and practices, fitness tests and uniforms, cultures and histories, for it to be as normal for a fire fighter to be female as it is for a male?
References Baigent, D. (2001) “Gender Relations, Masculinities and the Fire Service: a qualitative study of firefighters’ constructions of masculinity during firefighting and in their social relations of work”. DPhil thesis: Department of Sociology and Politics; Cambridge Ruskin University Cambridge. Baigent, D. (2001) “One more last working class hero: a cultural audit of the UK fire service, Cambridge”: Fitting-in and Cambridge Ruskin University Barber K, Miller K and Rosell E (1995) “Firefighting Women and Sexual Harassment”, Public Personnel Management, Vol. 24, 1995. Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY. Lather,Patti (1991). Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/in The Postmodern. New York: Routledge.
Moore S Kleiner B.H. (2001) Steps to help prevent sexual harassment and discrimination from occurring in fire fighting organisations International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy Sep v. 21 i.8/9/10 pp. 206 – 218. Moore S, Brian H. Kleiner B.H. (2001) “Steps to help prevent sexual harassment and discrimination from occurring in fire fighting organisations” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy Sept, v.21 i. 8/9/10 pp.206 – 218. Shuster M.P. ( 2000). “The physical and psychological stresses of women in firefighting”, Work. Volume 15, Number 177 – 82 www.mfbb.vic.gov.au/asset/PDF/GenderProjectPaper2.pdf www.wfsi.org/women_and_firefighting/issues.php?issue=3
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