Gender Discrimination in Firefighting

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This paper examines how systemic discrimination against women results in lower female participation in firefighting jobs. Firefighting jobs are a microcosm of the overall issue of systemic sexism in the workplace. Females have lower workplace participation than men overall. While there has been some improvement in the past half-century, the rate of change is slow and it will maybe decades until we reach full equality. More troublesome, there are reports of harassment, sexual discrimination and other negative treatment of women in fire departments. This is causing an epidemic of mental ill-health among female fire fighters characterized by alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide. This paper will explore the driving factors of this systemic sexism and make a number of recommendations in order to rectify this. This paper reinforces the position that our society is characterized by deep, pervasive, systemic sexism which disadvantages women and can only be fought with major policy, and societal, changes.

Objectives & Background

The objectives of this paper are to understand the nature of how systemic discrimination against women results in lower female participation in employment with firefighting jobs. This paper will explore this issue holistically to look at the sexism factors both within the firefighting industry and in broader society which drive lower female workplace participation. This paper has a secondary objective of identifying policy choices which can assist us in rectifying the workplace differences between men and women in the firefighting occupation.

Literature Review

This literature review considered ten academic articles, books, and other sources of high repute which explore the issue of gender discrimination in employment in general and the firefighting workplaces in particular. Key themes emerged around workplace harassment, women’s feelings of being treated differently, the massive underrepresentation of women in this work force and the ways in which the sexism women face in fire fighting forces is symptomatic of broader sexism is society.

First to establish whether women ought to be treated equally, a review of the United National Universal Declaration of Human Rights was conducted. In Article 2 of this declaration it notes that people ought to be treated early irrespective of gender (United Nations, 1948). Thus, equipped with a transnational legal document which evidences the fact that the genders ought to be treated equally we can dive into an examination of how the genders are actually treated in fire departments.

Denise Girad's analysis for the National Fire Academy entitled 'Gender Bias and Its Impact on Woman’s Advancement in the Fire Service' explores the systemic racism and sexism that is pervasive in fire departments across America (2003). Girad demonstrates how women make up less than 30% of fire departments and outlines the ways in which system sexism has made fire departments be mostly male and white. This toxic environment is hurting womrn. The prevalence of suicide among female fire fighters is explored in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in the article entitled 'Women Firefighters and Workplace Harassment: Associated Suicidality and Mental Health' authored by Melanie Hom, Ian Stanley, Sally Spencer-Thomas, and Thomas Joiner (2017). In particular this paper demonstrates how (Hom, Stanley, Spencer-Thomas, and Joiner, 2017, page 910). 21.7% of women firefighter have been sexually harassed, 20.3% have been threatened in ways that (Hom, Stanley, Spencer-Thomas, and Joiner, 2017, page 910-912).

The International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services publishes a 'A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting'. The report card authored by report card on Denise Hulett, Marc Bendick, Sheila ; Thomas, and Francine Moccio indicates that the issue of female underrepresentation in fire departments is part of a broader trend where women are excluded from other emergency response occupations (April 2008). Shockingly this report card illustrates that an overwhelming majority of women (84.7%) report that they have received different treatment because of their gender (Hulett, Bendick, Thomas and Francine, 2008, page 3).

The issue of managing diversity in the workplace is a longstanding item which has been under exploration for many decades and was seen in two older articles. Mary Centile’s writes in her 1991 article explores the ways in which gender discrimination can subtly enter into a workplace to influence decision making. This serves to highlight the ways in which gender bias can often a subconscious issue. To further explore the history of discrimination past views on discrimination are also explored. For example, Felice Schwartz wrote “Management Women and the New Facts of Life” in the Harvard Business Review in 1989 in which she explored many of the same themes found. In particular, the issue of maternity leave is often held up as a driver of workplace discrimination; her article highlights the deep roots of behavioral and cultural biases about how women are different than men.

Our theoretical basis for understanding how culture drive sexism and racism is explored by contrasting McIntosh’s position to a counterpoint. Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal account of coming to see correspondence through work in Women Studies” serves to outline a coherent argument for how systemic discrimination. McIntosh highlights the ways in which issues of gender and race exist as a systemic, pervasive privilege which results in white men having a disproportionate advantage in society. McIntosh notes that this “unearned advantage” and “arbitrarily awarded power” is used by white men to bolster their own societal power (McIntosh, 1988). McIntosh’s view on the subject of male privileged can be contrasted with Esther Vilar’s Der Dressierte Mann (1971); translated into English as “The Manipulated Man” in 1998 Vilar argues that females effect an appearance of weakness in order to manipulated men. While an interesting argument, if Vilar’s case were true then it would suggest that the other academic research on systemic sexism reviewed here is somehow part of a broader female tendency to use the appearance of weakness in order to gain resources from men. If this argument were valid, then modern feminist theory is simply an attempt to cherry-picked examples of inequality to use state power to channel resources from men to women’s advantage. This patently absurd! Hence it appears that McIntosh’s position on unearned privilege in an invisible backpack appears the more plausible explanation of the gender differences than Vilar’s concept of female manipulation.

Nicholas Eberstadt’s 2016 book entitled Men Without Work explores the overall gender composition of the workforce from the mid-20th century to the early-21st century. Eberstadt highlights the ratio of employment to population to explore long term trends in gender and work. Since 1948, female workplace participation has risen from under 40% to about 70%; in contrast male workforce participation has fallen from over 90% to about 80% (Eberstadt, 2016, page 34). Thus, overall society is becoming more equal as women gain increased workforce participation while men step back. However, Eberstadt’s work serves to highlight that women still lag men in the workplace and that more progress is needed.

Finally, to understand some of the behavioral factors driving gender conflicts the writing of Dr. Farrell were considered. Warren Farrell, PhD, was on the board of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and authored several books on male behaviour. His PhD thesis was written on changing male behaviour when women enter into compatriot roles (Farrell, 1986, page 412). Farrell’s 1986 book Why men are the way they are has been selected to assist us in identifying male behaviours which may contribute to female inequality. Cultural issues connected to female lower workplace participation are also explored, for example the limited examples of female career progression in popular magazines (Farrell, 1986, page 45). Farrell offers added insight into why men are hoarding work positions to the detriment of women’s workplace opportunities.

Discussion & Analysis

Based on my review of literature connected to female participation in firefighting jobs, it is made abundantly clear that low female participation in fire-fighting jobs is part of a broader issue ob lower female participation in all employment sectors. Insights may be gained into t If we extrapolate the long term trends since the mid-20th century, we can see that female workplace participation has risen from under 40% to about 70% (as compared to male participation of 80%) an increase of about 0.5% per year (Eberstadt, 2016, page 34). This will take another 20 years to catch up with male employment to population ratio of 80%. Simply waiting for female employment to rise and male employment to fall is unacceptable. Inequality is clearly indicative of systemic anti-female bias.

Women may not feel comfortable working in fire departments due to the behaviors of men. Women experience high levels of ostracism, social isolation, discrimination and other sexist behaviors which can include harassment (Girad, 2003, page 29) Male workplace behavior directly contributes to lower female workplace participation. For example, males tend to express anger in a very explosive and outward fashion which women may find threatening (Farrell, 1986, page 334-335). The solution to this would have to be to institute a system of punishment on makes who make women feel uncomfortable; if such a system of punishment had the effect of driving men out of the workforce this would have be desired effect of increasing female employment relative to male employment.

When women do not feel comfortable in the workplace they often engage in self destructive behavior. The toxic and harassment filled environment of fire departments has led to female fire fighters being more susceptible to alcoholism, insomnia, drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide (Hom, Stanley, Spencer-Thomas, and Joiner, 2017, page 910-912). Thus, male behaviors perceived as harassment by women can push women into a state of extreme mental distress to the point that some commit self-harm. Shockingly, the majority of women fire fighters (65%) report that there is no procedure in place they are aware of to address discrimination complaints (Hulett, Bendick, Thomas and Francine, 2008, page 3). Thus, we have an environment where male behavior drives women to self-harm without providing them assistance they need.

These behaviors are culturally determined not biologically determined. Cultural factors are more important than biology when it comes to differences between the genders; therefore difference of outcome is due to sexism in our culture and not any innate biological difference between men and women (Girad, 2003, page 10). Women of color (i.e. African American women) face higher levels of discrimination indicating that there is both sexism and racism at play within the firefighting culture (Hulett, Bendick, Thomas and Francine, 2008, page 2). Thus, in order to rectify differences in outcomes between the genders we may need to deconstruct and rebuild the parts of our culture which encourage traditionally “masculine” behaviors in order to encourage more gender neutral and feminized behaviors which make women feel comfortable in the workplace.

This analysis leads us to three key main conclusions. Firstly, that the manifested gender inequality in the workplace is prima facia evidence of underlying sexism in society. Secondly, sexism in society is only fully eliminated when the outcomes of men and women are made equal, especially in regards to workplace participation rates and wages. Thirdly, that government policies aimed at rectifying inequality have been inadequate to date and therefore must be extended and escalated to rectify gender inequality. Based on this analysis, a number of recommendations are presented below.


We must implement policies to make it easier for women to work, or perhaps policies to discourage male employment. There are a number of policies which one could implement in order to encourage more female employment. Enhanced workplace protection of women, affirmative action, job quotas, female-only scholarship, female mentoring programs and programs aimed at encouraging men to leave the workforce to make space for women could all be considered. Each of these policy options will be explored in turn.

Affirmative action programs demand that when companies are faced with two equally qualified candidates that they hire the female applicant. The challenge is that affirmative action policies have largely existed for many years and still there are inequalities in the workplace. Consider how laws have been in place since for decades against sexism. For example, in the USA Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender and yet women still only make up 30% of the fire departments in the USA (Girad, 2003, page 2) Thus, laws aimed at equality of opportunity are insufficient and we must make laws to force equality of outcome.

Female mentoring programs existing some workplaces but should be expanded. Women feel socially isolated in fire departments which is evidence of rampant sexism (Girad, 2003, page 2) Making female mentorship programs mandatory would eliminate issues of men refusing to mentor women (i.e. due to subconscious sexism or male fears of being accused of harassment). Companies that do not have focused mentorship programs on advancing female leadership could be subject to heavy fines to encourage their compliance with the program.

Job quotas could be implemented to force 50% of jobs be held for women. The simplest way to immediately rectify female underrepresentation in firefighting departments would be to pass a law that all new hires must be female until at least 50% of the workplace was made up of females. Once 50% of the workplace is made up of females, then the quota could be reduced from 100% to 50% to maintain gender balance. Naturally, all hires would still need to meet the prerequisites for the job but by putting a complete halt on hiring men until women make up 50% of the firefighting work force we could quickly rectify this issue.

Female-only scholarship currently exist and should be expanded. There is widespread discrimination in education which may disadvantage women (Girad, 2003, page 11). In order to counter this we need to give more resource to female education. One way to expand female job participation would be to pass a law which mandates that 100% of all scholarship funds must go to women until they make up 50% of the workforce and have equal workforce participation to that of men. Thus, we could slow the volume of new male workers by denying men scholarships across the board in favour of women. In particular, no scholarships should be given any male in firefighting training programs until male and female participation in firefighting jobs is equalized.

Enhanced workplace protection of women would remove the threat of male violence to women to make women feel more comfortable in the workplace. Studies have shown that over 40% of women are either sexually harassed or threatened on the job by male fire fighters (Hom, Stanley, Spencer, Thomas and Joiner, 2017, page 910-912). To address issues of male on-female violence and harassment, we should implement workplace policies which focus on believing the victim, rather than the concept of guilty-until-proven-innocent. Effectively, if a women accuses a man of harassing, berating, insulting or otherwise upsetting her then the man should be terminated immediately. Expanding this policy into the criminal law system (i.e. setting a presumption of guilt for any man accused of harassing or assaulting a woman) would be a step n the right direction. The elimination of evidentiary standards in favor of female testimony would allow a higher conviction and incarceration rate of men who are accused of assaulting or harassing women. If this has the effect of discouraging men from applying for jobs to avoid contact with potentially litigious females, then this would be a positive side effect since it would more room for female applicants.

Finally, there are only so many jobs in the economy so at some point men need to leave the workplace to make space for me. Thus, we need programs aimed at encouraging men to leave the workforce to make space for women could be considered. For example, men could be offered a government subsidized incentive payment to quit their jobs if a female wants to apply for the position. This buyout concept would encourage men to take early retirement, go be stay-at-home fathers or otherwise leave the workforce to make way for women firefighters. One challenge would be the need to reeducate men to get rid of old patriarchal attitudes men hold towards work as a means of providing for their families. Farrell notes that men tend to associate their hard work with expressing love to their family, thus married men tend to work more hours and try to produce more to provide for their family (Farrell, 1986, page 268). Men must be reeducated that work is not a valid expression of affection; rather they need to be educated that a truer expression of affection is to leave the workplace to make space for women.


In summary, this paper has demonstrated that there is a pervasive sexist against women in the workplace. The lower female participation in firefighting jobs is part of a wider issue of systemic sexism against women which discourages women from working. Gains made in the past with female employment rising from under 40% to over 70% (Eberstadt, 2016, page 34) are meaningless until female workplace participation is equal to that of men. Policy recommendations have been shown here to increase female workplace participation and decree male participation. These policies should include enhanced workplace protection of women, affirmative action, job quotas, female-only scholarship, female mentoring programs and programs aimed at generally encouraging men to step aside in favour of women. Men should step aside to allow women to lean into the workplace. Only when we achieve full equality with men and women having exactly the same occupational outcome can we consider the issue of rampant sexism to have been adequately addressed; anything short of full equality is clearly indicative of systemic anti-female bias in society.

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Gender Discrimination In Firefighting. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved June 19, 2024 , from

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