Thursday, July 24, 2014

Women as firefighters in Australia: how far have we come?
I've enjoyed a long history of involvement with the fire services, and with women and fire fighting, in Australia.  I was fortunate to win an Edna Ryan Award in 2005 for this work, Life Membership of the Women and Firefighting Australasia (WAFA) at the 2012 Conference, and in 2013 was successfully nominated by WAFA in the Diversity Category as one of the "100 Women of Influence" in Australia. 

Now and again something happens to inspire me to make comment, hence this post today. A number of triggers have happened. The first trigger was that @UN_Women tweeted the following story about a Bronx female firefighter who has become the first woman featured in FDNY Calendar of Heroes.The second trigger was the release of the Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review by the Australian Human Rights Commission, offering " indisputable evidence that pregnancy/return to work discrimination continues to be widespread and has a cost - not just to women, working parents and their families - but also to workplaces and the national economy,” she said (Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick). 

The third trigger is that I will I soon facilitate a plenary session at the biennial conference of WAFA. This event is significant to me personally and professionally. Nearly a decade has passed since I convened the first Women in Fire Fighting Conference in 2005, and eight years since I published Counting Women in the Australian Fire Services. As the WAFA Conference won't happen next year, for me the 2014 Conference is a significant milestone.

When the @UN_Women tweet first landed in my feed, I felt two simultaneous things. I felt tremendously proud of the achievements of Firefighter Danea Mines. I don't want to take away from her in any way. I also felt frustration and annoyance over three underlying issues that have nothing at all to do with Firefighter Mines. 

Firstly, it took 11 years for the NDNY to stop telling this firefighter, who is one of only a few female firefighters in this city, that the Calendar was for men only. Why was the media not gobsmacked about this ongoing evidence of sexism? Secondly, Firefighter Mines is referred to as "Miss March" by the Daily News, as if she is a winner of a beauty pageant. She deserves respect for her uniform! Thirdly, and most infuriating and complex, is the fact that firefighters continue to produce sexualised calendars portraying "hot and smoking" male firefighters- and presented in a way that finally, begrudgingly female firefighter has "made it" because she has joined calendar raunchiness. In no other proud uniformed or military service does this muscle-bound-hero-worshiping happen. It says to the world: to be a firefighter is to be buff young male and a hero. Melt. Swoon. 

I love the many firefighters I count as friends. I don't love aspects of firefighting culture that is at times misogynist, and continues to fall short of much needed cultural change. A modern fire services is about incredibly well trained fire fighters, making good decisions that aim to achieve no fatalities and no injuries. 

I don't love the persistent and continued use of firemen. Or phrases like you climb that ladder like a girl. I don't admire that I am supposed to be proud that one woman was allowed to make it. It's rubbish. 

In the Australian context, some important changes have happened recently. In 2014 the Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australian released a brilliant campaign specific to women and Indigenous Australians. In NSW it is no longer unusual to see media images of female firefighters. 

We have grounds to be disappointed however. While the Australian Defence Force (ADF) partnered with the Human Rights Commission to investigate the treatment of women in it's ranks in 2012, we don't have a national picture of the treatment of women in the paid fire services [unlike the ADF fire services in Australia have state-by-state jurisdiction]. Like the ADF, military tribalism exists in the fire services. Unlike the ADF, this is not being studied, outed publicly, nor has a Commissioner come out, as Australia's Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison did when he said: If being civil toward female soldiers and respecting their contributions to the service does not suit you, "then get out." 

The fact is, no state jurisdiction has publicly reported the state of affairs of the treatment of female firefighters. We also lack insight, and a national picture, of the treatment of male fire fighters - for example, the experience of bullying regardless of gender.

We lack insight from the perspective of the inside of jurisdictions. What we do know from my early studies, and those more recently, that some female firefighters (paid, volunteer and retained) tolerate, put up with, sometimes endure, mistreatment, sexism, marginalization and trivialization rather than calling it out. It doesn't matter if only some women are poorly treated because of gender. It should be a zero tolerance situation. We don't know in 2014 how many; nor do we know what those experiences are like. We can't congratulate progress in the absence of this information. 

There are things we do know. Dr Christine Eriksen is currently doing great work looking at gender and fires. McLennan (2008) considered issues associated with gender and volunteers. A gender stream exists in Emergency Management Conference, and Tamika Sharad is doing a PhD at the University of South Australia focusing on a gendered analysis of work organisation and culture in Australian fire services. Branch-Smith & Pooley reported concerning the WA experience in 2010. Since 2005, research has been done - but it is disconnected, and fallen short of the creation of a connected body of knowledge, even after the Bushfire Research CRC became involved via the 2013 work of Tyler & Fairbrother.

It is possible to point to positive recruitment campaigns that attract female firefighters. It is possible to identify, through annual reports, that some fire services have successfully increased percentages of female firefighters, but also possible to see that last year the lack of female firefighters in the Northern Territory was creatively obscured in statistical reporting.

We should not feel grateful if the numbers of paid female firefighters are somewhere above 5%. We should congratulate those fire service agencies that have clearly tried to recruit more women by asking questions like: 

"What else can you do?"

 "How many of female firefighters have been promoted?"

 "What are you doing to ensure the next Commissioner, or the one after that, might be a distinguished female firefighter who made it through the ranks?" 

We should be asking "What message have you given to firefighters who treat women poorly, that they are not welcome in the fire services - that they are the problem?"

In 2006 I gave the keynote address to the 2nd Women in Fire Fighting Conference. I made a joke at the start of the keynote- I imagined it was 2016, and I had been called back from retirement, everything was changed, and I was there to celebrate the diversity of the fire services.

There are 2 years to go.

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Dialogue about blended learning

Visit a project I built using Wix in 2010 where colleagues and I explore the meaning of "blended learning"