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Women in the Fire & Rescue Service

Author: Dave Walton

If you hadn’t noticed, this week marked International Women’s Day 2016 (8 March). The campaign theme this year was #PledgeForParity, a call to speed up progress towards gender parity. It caused me to think about our service – in part I guess that’s the point of such days.

The Fire & Rescue Service doesn’t provide the best demonstration of gender parity does it? The gender mix in our own service in West Yorkshire is heavily male biased, and I know from my Twitter analytics that my followers are also mostly male – a reflection that the gender of many of those that follow an FRS tweeter are males from the service ? The story around the country varies slightly, but is fundamentally the same. On that basis I guess that many who read this blog are likely to be men. This presents an opportunity…..

I’m going to make the assumption that most of us get that women have as vital a role to play in our service as men do. We all get that don’t we? If you don’t get it, then where have you been? It’s 2016 you know!

I heard a challenge a year or so ago which, whilst quite simple in its own right has prompted me to think about the whole ‘women in the FRS’ issue in a different way. The question is this one – would you want your wife/sister/daughter to work on a fire station? I’ll limit the question to fire stations to make the point, but the challenge applies equally elsewhere in our service. My answer to the question, honestly, is that I’m not sure. I’m not proud of that, and I don’t think that the picture is wholly bad, but it’s not completely good either. I’ll qualify that by adding that I think many other professions have the same issues, but I’m most concerned about ours. So what can we do about it?

With most FRS currently in the middle of a recruitment freeze, we are not going to change the gender balance significantly any time soon. Of course I’m focussing on operational firefighter numbers here but that’s where the volume of our staff work. The time is right as we start to think about recruitment once again to do some work to make sure that our service appeals to women seeking a profession. This will be heavily influenced by what our service looks and feels like, and in the main this will be driven by how we behave and what we promote.

I asked Emily, our diversity and inclusion officer what more I could do as a senior leader in the service? Emily gave me a fact sheet, all common sense stuff really, and more importantly gives some ideas about what we can ALL do. I’ll share some of them with you.

• TELL other people that you believe in gender inclusiveness, and mean it. This is me doing it for all that read this blog.
• LISTEN to the experiences of women that you work with, and what it feels like to be a woman in the FRS. Don’t try and defend it, don’t try and explain it, accept it and think about it.
• Try and focus on any UNCONSCIOUS actions that you detect in respect of male behaviours that may diminish female colleagues – talking over, interrupting and the like. Challenge yourself and challenge others if you see it.
• Sexist jokes are corrosive in the workplace, and they have no place. Laughing at them or ignoring them are equally negative behaviours.
• Challenging another man’s masculinity by the use of words like ‘sissy’ and ‘whipped’ only serve to reinforce the gender differences.
• Words like ‘chick’ and ‘bitch’ are demeaning and have no place in our workplace.
• If you hear terms that your aren’t comfortable with, and I believe that we all know what they are, then challenge them. Would you want your daughter or wife to be the subject of them?

Of course these are just a few ideas, but they are easy ones to carry out. I can’t believe that any male can’t do these, even if it does make you stand out from the crowd a little.

I believe in all of this stuff, I know that there are many others that also do. I hope this blog may have gone a little way to convince any doubters. Our service will be a better, happier place for all of us if we can all work together better. I’ve focussed on one of the issues that makes us different as human beings, there are of course others. Out of all of those differentiating factors this is arguably the one where we have the greatest imbalance in our service. We live in a world that is approximately half and half in terms of men and women. I’d love to see a Fire & Rescue Service that looked the same.


13 comments on “Women in the Fire & Rescue Service

  1. I know of a female FF who would make an absolutely brilliant Crew commander, however she will not go for promotion because early in her career she felt hounded by the brigade who continuously contacted her to go for promotion. This individual is hands down one of the best and most professional fire fighters I have ever worked with. I also have been guilty of asking her to consider a temporary promotion with my shift. However I respect her view and she will go for promotion when she feels ready as all members of the service do. I guess the message in this is to not go too far the other way too. By continuously mentioning this it makes it more of a factor to the individuals. I’m not sure how we make the job more appealing to females. The police seem to have more success in this area and perhaps we can learn more from them.
    In relation to future recruitment, we must ensure we take the best people, the outstanding candidates no matter of sex or race. People will feel the value of knowing they are the best and not just there for statistics, then you are not creating a working environment where individuals are trying to prove themselves.
    Lastly I do believe its not as bad on stations as some may think, we were turning a corner as a brigade before the recruitment stopped. It will be a decade of recruitment missed to help build on the numbers in the brigade. This is not the brigades fault but maybe this is something that should be mentioned higher up the chain when we see articles saying we are not doing enough to bridge gaps.

    1. I think that you make some very valid points. It’s important for everyone that we all seek to create the right environment and culture in which individuals can flourish. I’ve spoken to many women in this, and other FRSs, and in a range of roles, it’s fair to say that both their outlook and experiences are mixed. In terms of ‘do we talk about it or not?’ I get your point, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that we HAVE to talk about it. Recruitment is a massive opportunity that we must not waste, but we must get it right in so many ways.

  2. Food for thought Dave.

    Culture is a very difficult thing to change – particularly when one aspect is focussed on.

    This goes beyond the posters or intranet campaigns with the big words in the corridor. It’s about creating a campaigning mentality and a capacity to listen and encourage dialogue around the organisation. It’s about opening up channels that encourage comment and debate and exploiting informal channels. It’s about the use of subtle nudges to encourage behaviour change.

    There has been many examples in my career in WYFRS where the talk is talked but the walk is not walked.

  3. Chris – fair point on culture, but not a reason not to try – and I appreciate that is not what you are saying. It is about a change in the way that we do things and that’s what I’m trying to promote. Thanks for the feedback and thoughts.

  4. Culture changes with the recruitment of new individuals. We have missed a decade of people who come from all backgrounds who can help develop this service and change the culture within it. Each individual brings with them experience and values which are changing in day to day life. We have not had a fresh injection for a number of years and I believe this will help shape the fire service going forward. By valuing all individuals not as numbers but as individuals, getting the best they can offer.

  5. Chris – Again, I agree. There is also an element of ‘chicken and egg’ too. Recruitment will certainly be very important to us, but unless we can attract the right people then we may miss an opportunity. The right people may not be interested unless the culture is right. I want to see the most excellent people that we can possibly attract, and excellence is measured in many diverse ways!

  6. Boss,
    I’ve spoken at length to you about my experiences as as female fire fighter, many positives and many negatives too sadly. I think there are many reasons why females don’t join the job, the biggest one being that it’s tough to get past the recruitment process but I do think it has to be tough because it’s not an easy job. The public still aren’t aware that females can even join the fire service, I went to a fire last week, the gentleman I was talking to actually said, “I’ve never seen a female fire fighter before”, I’ve got 20 years service in this September!
    I do love my job, I don’t think it’s a job that anybody can do whether you’re male or female but the public perception of who does do the job needs addressing. And as I’ve said before, it’s not always a case of recruiting females, it’s sometimes a case of keeping hold of the ones we already got.

  7. Sally – thanks for joining in the conversation and without wishing to be seen as even the tiniest bit patronising I’m really pleased that one of our women firefighters has joined in. I admit to being a little concerned with this blog posting in as much as it has not been shared and ‘liked’ as much as most others. That’s not me being precious about whether or not people read what I write, more about me wondering if it is a message that is not ‘liked’ or deemed worthy of sharing – perhaps it’s just a coincidence? I attended an exercise today, a large one, and in an entirely unscientific survey there were a good number of women on the fireground, doing their job and doing it well. It was even commented on by someone who I was with from another agency. I’m in two minds as to whether or not it being commented upon was a good thing – either it still feels ‘unusual’ and therefore worthy of comment, or it was an acknowledgment of the fact in a positive way. I’ll take the latter. I think that to develop awareness of women in the FRS we need more public role models, and once again that is highlighting difference – albeit in a positive way, but something that only women can do – however supportive I can be of them doing it. …and your point about retention is a key issue for us. I hope that the currently ‘live’ staff survey gives us more insight and evidence into what our female staff feel about working for WYFRS, and that we are able to make improvements.

  8. Dave,
    An interesting read and brilliant that a man is bringing this up rather than it always seeming to be women and seems as a woman’s issue.
    I have shared on the Wmfs Affinity page asking for comments which I will feedback to you.
    As you know I worked on a Station for years and in all honesty my heart will always be with Ops but I was support staff which gave me a very different perspective.
    Would I want my daughter to become a fire fighter? That’s a tricky one. I know she could do it and be great at it but is she emotionally resilient enough, probably not. I’m a woman of mature years and no shrinking violet and also not being right on the inside of Watch culture I felt confident enough to challenge some of the behaviours I saw. Occasionally directed at me or visiting support staff but also towards female fire fighters. It’s interesting the words you use because that’s exactly what I used to say when I saw women being vilified for daring to have children thereby letting the Watch down. I used to ask how they would feel if this was their wife in their workplace. I also used to ask if they felt taking their paternity leave was letting the Watch down.
    I have seen women try to be more like men so that they fit in, keeping their heads below the parapet so to speak. Instead of celebrating being women and the differences that brings.
    It’s sad that so few women feel confident enough to go for promotion or attend women only events or groups because of the backlash. The fact that we had to change the name of the women’s support group to not have the word women in it as feedback showed women weren’t comfortable attending because of that saddened me. The fact that when a women gets a promotion it must be because she’s been given an advantage rather than just bring the best candidate.
    I’m not saying its everyone not by any means but too many times people choose to ignore behaviours rather than challenge.
    I do also want to speak about support staff. Yes the majority are indeed women so perhaps better supported within their own network but why is it the the majority of support staff managers are men and quite often operational men? Are we saying that none of those many women wouldn’t make great managers, because I think we know they would but they are either not considered or not supported so it’s not just an issue for Ops, it’s the whole organisational culture.
    It was women who were disproportionately affected by redundancies and job changes in the first round of austerity cuts and with the new changes coming I fear it will be the same. Having to move location, change hours when they tend to be the main care givers is difficult.
    I think the challenges facing the service will also make it increasing difficult to recruit and retain women fire fighters.
    Gender parity is a long way off.

    It’s not all negative though. I have seen changes and improvements but we can’t sit on our laurels, there is a long way to go and more men need to support the idea for it ever to become a reality.

  9. Gail

    Thanks for the detailed comment and thoughts. I’d like to say that some of the experiences that you report come as a surprise, sadly they don’t. I would be really interested to see what your get back by way of comment from the Affinity group in WMFS. I note that I’ve yet to be told that I’ve written something that doesn’t resonate with people, I thought that I may have done, though maybe it’s not an acceptable view to make public?


  10. I think we’ve come along way in someways and it’s easy to think especially the higher up the tree that you go that things are ok but I’m not adverse to giving managers a reality check now and again. Sadly these sorts of things still go on even if only in pockets of culture. Only recently I’ve heard of a shocking case of what can only really be described as bullying and emotional abuse of a female fire fighter who put up with things for a long time as she didn’t want to rock the boat or be seen as a trouble maker. This can never be acceptable nor can the actions of those turning a blind eye, they become complicit and maybe that’s an area we could work on.
    I’ll keep you posted on any returns.

  11. Hi Dave funnily enough I asked my dad this question, after 32 years service he still encouraged me to join what he will forever describe as the best job in the world. He knew I was physically strong enough but always had reservations about the emotional side. 6 and a half years into my service I think I have changed as a person mostly through the experiences I have had in the workplace some for the better and maybe some for the worst. Recruiting females will always be a challenge because I genuinely think it’s a job a lot of females don’t want to do. I don’t mean that in a bad way but if I asked fifteen of my female friends not one of them would want to join. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing as those that do apply have generally thought about it a great deal. I agree with Sally that looking after the ones we have and ensuring that the support systems are there is critical, but the same goes for males in the job. after speaking to a few people about this issue I think that an important message is that most females that join don’t join to be a female firefighter we join to be a firefighter

  12. Thanks Laura, and I appreciate your honesty and pragmatism. I’ll be happy when we can say that the job is equally attractive and accessible to everyone, and that their experience in our employment is a wholly positive one. It’s at that point that people will make straightforward choices, unfettered by prejudgments, inherent unfairness or plain and simple bias from some. That’s a while off, and there is work to do. I’d love to be confident that anyone who wants to can join and be a firefighter, and if they don’t then that’s fine too. Dave

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