On 10th March 2010, we published an article about the launch of the Metropolitan Fire Board’s Gender Inclusion Action Plan. After publication of the article More Women encouraged to join the ranks of Firefighters in Victoria, we were advised that Maxine Morand, Minister for Womens Affairs in Victoria, was meant to officially launch the action plan but had to pull out after she was threatened by the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and advised not to attend.
Dr David Baigent consults with police and fire services about a range of issues, including sexism in the ranks and gender equality. Dr Baigent weighs in on the current debate between the unions and the fire services who are making attempts to create more diversity within the ranks.
There can be little doubt that whenever women enter a workplace where men rule then there is resistance. Why wouldn’t there be? Fairness may be a virtue and equal opportunities its practical application, but for most men levelling any playing fields involves a loss of status, identity and power.
Resistance can take many forms. The biological determinist may argue that men have special skills and that this leads to women’s work and men’s work. They may also argue that men and women think differently; men are rational and likely to stay cool in a crisis. For fire(men) it seems that both arguments apply. My research leads me to the conclusion that when it suits men they will say anything to maintain their hegemony. And firefighters are very much a part of masculine hegemony because firefighting and masculinity become a self-fulfilling prophecy when there are so very few women to be seen. Not because women can’t be firefighters, but because the majority of men in the fire service don’t want them to be.
In a country that hosts the world’s leading gender academic, Raewyn Connell, few firefighters want to hear about the social skills (learnt not inherited) that are key to who we are and what we become. Has anyone yet been able to persuade fire(men) that gender segregation is not in our genes but determined by people with power? Therefore it comes as no surprise when firefighters act to stop women from joining their ranks. The fact that some women have managed to become firefighters is a testimony to their perseverance, but for every woman who stays there are a great many more who are forced to leave.
In the short term most women who stay soon become ‘one of the boys’. Some of those pull up the drawbridge behind them or are so keen to fit-in and they will go to almost any lengths to stay. I am not suggesting that women do not know what they are saying when they challenge Melbourne’s Gender Inclusion Action Plan, but research suggests that women’s acceptance only lasts until they try to exert their own personality at work. Then men are quick to remind them of their position as women.
The current response by women to the age article and to the Melbourne Fire Service’s action plan gives us some insight to what is happening.
Women are speaking out against an opportunity enshrined in state law. Their arguments are put in print by Ben Schneiders, “nearly half the women firefighters at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade have publicly rejected claims of a ”closed culture” and say setting diversity targets is ”patronising and forever taints applicants”. If only this was not so reminiscent of arguments made by most women whenever they get ‘accepted’ in a male environment. Feminists have an explanation for this. However the reality is that as individuals these women believe what they say is true. Who are we to challenge their arguments without a program for change that will convince them that using their agency in such a way only adds to the male hegemony?
The UFU is of course full of good comrades. I met a number of the brothers the second time I was invited to Australia to research firefighters and equality. They defend firefighters throughout the state and are part of the worldwide union of firefighters. Nonetheless, do they ever consider why it is that the firefighters they defend are mostly male (about 97%) and almost exclusively white? The UFU may argue that they defend equality but do they ever question why there are so few women in the fire service? Or could they expand on why it is that most women who join the fire service are likely to witness sexual harassment?
I applaud Melbourne for trying to make a difference and hoped that more women in the fire service would do so too. But it is no surprise that they don’t. Most of them are probably trying to keep their heads down and fit-in. Trying to avoid the spotlight that identifies them as different. That’s why it is that men win in these circumstances. Not because they are right. But because they think they are right and who questions the hero who is a firefighter?
When a group of men find themselves challenged in this way; when their whole identity is threatened then one has to suggest that arguments and training for them to see things differently have failed. Until new approaches are found then this response (by men and women) is almost inevitable. It may be false consciousness but to the firefighters that have responded to this article so far (and for most of them that I have interviewed throughout the world) their argument is right and becomes true in its consequence.
For more information about Dr David Baigent and creating diversity within the ranks of police and fire services visit the website www.fitting-in.com
Photo credit: Wellford Tiller – Fotolia.com