Only 6% of the fire services are women. That’s today – in 2014! I was shocked! Women comprise 14% of the police force and 32% of paramedics, so why are the fire services so low?!
We’ve been hired by Women and Firefighting Australiasia (WAFA) a non-profit professional organisation that supports women in the Australasian firefighting industry. They’re looking to boost recruitment of female firefighters and speed up the much needed attitudinal shift regarding women in the fire services.
Tess Tran from Breathing Light Photography and I went down to Canberra for 3 days to cover a conference hosted by WAFA, ‘Women at the fire front: Innovation, Motivation & Inspiration’.100 female firefighters and a handful of forward-thinking male firefighters from all around Australia and New Zealand attended.
Day 1 was at the training college and had the women honing their skills in large animal rescue and other things.
Day 2 was focused on culture change in the firies. It seems there are still sexist ideas about women not being physically or psychologically fit for the job, both within the fire services and in the community. Comments I heard over the days countering these ideas;
“we work in teams, the job never comes down to one person’s strength”
“some jobs are suited to tall people, others small people”
“we only spend 7% of our time actually ‘on the hoses’ anyway, there are loads of different jobs that need doing the other 93% of the time”
‘it’s proven that diversity in the workplace improves service and innovation”
“i’ve been on the scene inundated with hysterical people and the blokes didn’t know what to say to them, it was me who talked to them and calmed them down”
I met some real trailblazers at the conference. Like Dawn Maynard and Michelle Young who were two out of the four first female firies in Australia to be recruited into the brigade in 1984. You could just tell they were stalwarts – good-natured but determined.
While there are definitely incidences of sexual harassment in the firies, like the woman who was secretly filmed by a colleague in the change rooms, the majority of the women said that the guys in their platoon were supportive. My favourite comment was, “the guys at my station let me be a firefighter and a woman.”
Something everyone seemed to agree on though was that for women in the brigade it was a case of ‘incapable until proven capable’. I got comments again and again that women had to prove themselves more than men with one woman saying, “to get the same recognition as men you have to prove yourself to be twice as good.”
Other foibles of the job included logistical problems with uniforms made for men with no designs suitable for women. This means that when women are out on a job, fighting a fire or otherwise, they have to take their whole uniform off to go to the bathroom – which can be rather undignified if they’re working on a highway with no bathroom nearby. One of the women whispered to me that she has a shewee in her kit, allowing her to urinate privately and hygienically while standing up.
I’m excited about this project. Yay for gender equality in the firies and yay for an action packed project
Photographs by Tessa Tran at Breathing Light Photography.