Women firefighters can take the heat, but too few firehouses give them the chance, study finds

Fewer than 4 percent of the nation's firefighters are women, and more than half of paid fire departments have never hired a female firefighter, finds a new report issued by Cornell's Institute for Women and Work in the ILR School in partnership with several co-authors.

"The underrepresentation of women in firefighting is an alarming inequity that needs to be immediately addressed," said Francine Moccio, director of the institute and co-author of the report, "A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting," which was presented at the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services meeting, April 24, in Phoenix.

"Women are not getting recruited and hired because of an occupational culture that is exclusionary and unequal employment practices in recruiting, hiring, assigning and promoting women generally -- and women of color in particular -- in fire service," Moccio added.

Working with two civil rights lawyers and an economist specializing in employment and human resource management, Moccio and the research team analyzed surveys from 675 firefighters from 114 departments in 48 states and interviewed 175 female firefighters in depth in the first study of its kind.

The researchers found that despite more than 20 years of legislative reform and litigation, women are simply not being hired. When women are hired, the study found that 85 percent interviewed reported that they were treated differently; 80 percent said they were issued ill-fitting equipment, 37 percent reported that their gender creates barriers to career advancement; 50 percent felt shunned or socially isolated; and 37 percent were verbally harassed.

"This landmark study shows that more than half (51.2 percent) of the nation's largest metropolitan regions still have no paid female firefighters," said Moccio. "The New York City Fire Department receives one of the lowest grades, with fewer than 0.25 percent women firefighters," added Marc Bendick, an economist and co-author.

That compares with the top 10 percent of firehouses (29 departments) with the most women, where women comprise, on average, 14.5 percent of firefighters. Locations with the highest percentage of women are Tuscaloosa, Ala. (24 percent); Kalamazoo, Mich. (almost 23 percent); Springfield, Ill. (19 percent); Racine, Wis. (almost 18 percent); and Redding, Calif. (17 percent).

Although women account for about 47 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force, "the conventional wisdom [in the field] is that women simply aren't interested, and they can't handle the job," said Moccio. Yet, when the researchers looked at the percentage of women in comparable jobs requiring strength and stamina or involving dirty or dangerous work (e.g., drywall installers, loggers and welders), women represented 17 percent of workers. And, almost half of women firefighting candidates pass the physical ability tests.

"We need to start in our own backyard, New York City, which has scored at the very bottom of this report card," Moccio said. She stressed the need for immediate intervention from mayors, fire chiefs, legislators and fire service managers to recruit, hire and retain culturally diverse women into this occupation.

The report highlights ways in which fire departments across the country can develop and reward best practices that address these issues and promote inclusion.

The report's other co-authors are civil rights attorneys Denise Hulett of the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center in San Francisco, and Sheila Y. Thomas. The study, which was supported by the Ford Foundation, will be presented at the Eighth International Conference on the Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, June 17-20, in Montréal. For the full report, see http://www.i-women.org/.

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