Igniting a change: Recruiting and retaining female firefighters in a male-dominated occupation

By Christine Pao; Jana Tran, Ph.D.; and Consuelo Arbona, Ph.D.

There’s no doubt that firefighting is and always has been a male-dominated occupation. Although women have been firefighters for almost 200 years, according to the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, women currently make up only about 4-5 percent of the fire service in the United States.

What’s even more alarming is that this number has barely increased by 1 percent in the past two decades – in fact, in 2010, the percentage dropped down to 3.7 percent. And when we compare this startlingly low rate to the rate of 13 percent of women in the police force, 14 percent in the military and 17 percent in other male-dominated occupations, clearly, something is wrong.

Either we are not putting enough effort into recruitment and retention of women in the fire service, or there are other factors at play that are undermining these efforts. What’s stopping women from becoming firefighters? What are the barriers to recruiting and maintaining female candidates to the fire service? It is critical that fire departments begin to study and understand this gender disparity.

Firefighters face a number of unique occupational hazards and stressors that place them at high risk for mental health outcomes that may interfere not only with their performance on the job, but also their personal lives. More and more studies are looking at firefighters and how their work influences their psychological health and wellbeing. High exposure to trauma as a firefighter has been found to increase their risk for posttraumatic stress, depression, alcohol use, and suicidal ideation. However, because there is such a small representation of women in the fire service, very little is known about the mental health of female firefighters.

Differences between male and female firefighters

The Houston Fire Department has an active research team that is currently prioritizing the study of women firefighters. Based on findings presented at the American Psychological Association convention this past year, female firefighters differ from their male counterparts in many important ways. The study has found in comparison to their male counterparts, female firefighters:

  • Tend to be younger;
  • Are more likely to be unmarried;
  • Are less likely to have a second job;
  • Are less likely to have previous military experience;
  • Tend to have higher levels of education;
  • Have higher levels of PTSD, depression, stress and suicidal ideation; and
  • Are more likely to have seen a mental health professional.

Although work is still being done to see what factors are linked to these mental health outcomes, the findings from this preliminary study demonstrate that female firefighters are a unique group with different experiences and needs than men.

Gender-related issues in the fire department

One major concern that women face in fire departments is the threat of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. According to the National Report Card on Women in Firefighting, harassment and discrimination problems are common experiences for women firefighters. In another study led by HFD researchers, female firefighters reported bullying by their crews, being told they are not good enough and not having the same opportunities as men to prove themselves.

What exactly is the impact of gender discrimination and sexual harassment on female firefighters? Our study found that higher levels of gender discrimination and sexual harassment are associated with lower overall job satisfaction and worsened emotional and physical health. With lower job satisfaction and overall wellbeing, it’s clear that gender-related experiences are one major contributor to the low rates of women in the fire service. Female firefighters may leave their jobs due to the negative consequences of their work environment.

Additionally, because firefighting is such a male-dominated occupation, women are expected to be twice as tough and “man up” in the face of challenges. In many cases, they are up against widespread skepticism and doubt over their competence and ability to be good firefighters. The stress associated with working in this type of environment, along with the potential for harassment and discrimination on the job, are factors that need to be addressed if we are ever going to see a change in the fire service’s gender imbalance.

Recommendations to address the gender disparity

If fire departments want to see an upward change in the number of women in their workforce, they need to take action now to address the staggering gender disparity. Little is still known about female firefighters and the barriers that prevent them from joining and staying in the fire service. Based on the research that’s out there right now, however, the following are a few recommendations for fire departments moving forward:

  • Address and follow through on issues related to sexual harassment and gender discrimination in order to provide a safe environment where women want to be
  • Ensure that women have properly-fitting equipment and private restrooms
  • Conduct focus groups with female firefighters to see how work conditions can be further improved in their respective departments and divisions
  • Consider monitoring job satisfaction and burnout on a regular basis, and provide resources and education through outreach efforts to stations
  • Ensure that recruitment efforts take a stance of respecting and valuing diversity
  • Establish policies that allow women to maintain a healthy work-family balance, including fair restricted duty policies while pregnant and reasonable maternity leave policies

Firefighting is a rewarding, well-respected career that should be opened up to more female candidates. Fire departments miss an untapped pool of qualified, competent workers when they fail to direct recruiting efforts towards women. If fire departments want to diversify their workforce and retain more women, then they have to do more to remove the barriers preventing women from becoming firefighters.

As more research is performed that informs us about the unique experiences of women firefighters, we can begin to target our efforts to reduce this gender disparity.

About the author
Jana K. Tran is staff psychologist for the Houston Fire Department.

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