Not just fitting in – shaping the fit. A preliminary overview of raw data developed in response to the 2004-2005 "firegirls" national web survey.
Dr Merilyn Childs, Fire Services Research Program, University of Western Sydney, Australia, April, 2006.
In 2005 I conducted a web-based survey that asked female fighters working in Australia to answer some questions about their experiences. The results have been collated in a report and can be downloaded in pdf format.
In late 2004, I posted a web-based survey on-line at www.firegirls.info that aimed to gain preliminary insights into the experiences of female fire fighters across different types of fire fighting agencies in Australia. The web survey was the first of its kind in Australia (see Appendix 1 for a full version). The research aimed to build knowledge and insight about the experiences of female fire fighters working in paid, retained and volunteer labour in Australia. Prior to its conduct, there had only been one other study of the experiences of female fire fighters, conducted as an in-depth and longitudinal study within the Melbourne Fire Brigades, (Lewis and Prattis 2005). Since then, Beatson and McLennan (2005) have reported some of the experiences of female volunteer fire fighters in South Australia.
The web survey was very successful, receiving 200 replies within days and a total of 389 by the survey close. The findings will be duly reported in academic journals subject to peer review. However I made the decision to report them first, and in the form of raw data, on the web. It is to female fire fighters I am accountable, first and foremost, given that it is through this and related work, that a spotlight has been shone on their roles within the fire services.
This survey received wide support and considerable interest within the fire fighting industry, and in the media. It also received some criticism by some informants to the survey as well as by some commentators. Some female fire fighters felt the survey was a witch hunt against men. Some wrote to me that they felt some questions were poorly worded; and some questions biased. These are always fair criticisms of any survey. I was asking questions that meant I had to ask about "bad stuff" that could point a finger at some male fire fighter behaviours, fire fighting agencies and fire fighting unions. This was unavoidable, as questions were drawn from research findings in overseas studies that indicated some of the issues female fire fighters face.
Some were alarmed that asking questions on the basis of gender exposed women when they had worked hard to "fit in" and operate below the radar. Asking questions about gender in the UK fire services has been seen by some to have caused a backlash amongst minority groups (Johnson 2004). Whilst I am sensitive to this interpretation, it needs to also be weighed against the consequences of keeping silent.
A few female fire fighters didn't want to encourage a "poor me" or "victim" view of their experiences of fire fighting work. Some felt any implication of weakness undermined their sense of identity and threatened their places amongst "the boys" - which some felt they had earned through hard labour. Others were quite simply loyal to their crew regardless of gender, an important quality amongst fire fighters. Still others simply had not had any issues or problems and felt that women who did were the problem.
I invited feedback from male fire fighters who might come across the survey, but be unable to respond to it. Some male fire fighters took the opportunity to write to me. At the end of this report, I include selections of these for interest. One email I received was written by a self identified "new age feminist". This too is included in the appendix. All identifying features of all emails have been removed.
Finally, one professional peer [Bushfire Research CRC] expressed the view that a web survey "wasn't science" [he was right, it wasn't] and argued that the methodology meant that "anyone" could fill the survey in, and this would therefore corrupt the data. Of course, this is true of any broad based survey when completed by informants without a researcher as witness, and it is a limitation of all such surveys, regardless of who conducts them, or for what purpose. The census, for example, is left in people's homes and anyone can fill them in and fabricate as much as they like. A researcher therefore builds in mechanisms to discourage misrepresentation, and attempts to account for misrepresentation in the analysis process. As is normal in any research project, where I feel there are doubts about the meaning of the findings, I refer to these as I go.
Some of the criticism I received was political. There was a strong sense in some feedback that I had no right to ask women about their experiences of fire fighting. My survey was, in the minds of some correspondents, divisive, and all fire fighters should be given a voice. Others indicated that if women couldn't handle the world of fire fighting they were whingers and should get out of the work. More recently I was told by a key national union official in a public forum that women fire fighters have no right to speak outside their union; and that this research was an attack on the union movement. Attacking the validity of this research has been one way some within this industry have attempted to avoid grappling with some hard realities. The fire service has within it a culture that may not always welcome women, and where sometimes some women may be devalued, bullied or excluded. As a senior colleague of mine said recently, the fire services has a "dark underbelly" that people who love fire fighters don't want to acknowledge or change.
In reporting these findings, I am mindful of all these criticisms, whether they are a fair call, a statement of trepidation, a political game play, or an attempt to keep these findings unreported or their validity undermined. I don't want to make the lives of female fire fighters harder by reporting these findings; indeed the opposite is true. But on the other hand in order for female fire fighter's working lives to improve there is a need to understand the diverse nature of their experiences. This tension was the fine line that I walked along as I wrote the survey, and as I report it here.
One of the ways I attempted to manage these tensions in the survey was to provide women with an opportunity to talk about what they loved about their work. This was then balanced against the issues they faced in workplaces shaped by "masculinist" traditions. My front-line assumption was that women were resilient; and women fire fighters were gutsy - or they wouldn't do the work.
My second-line assumption was informed by international studies that have shown that women have faced workplace hostility and at times, sexual hostility, in fire fighting workplaces (for example, Barber et al 1995, Shuster 2000, Moore and Kleiner 2001). Thus, while I did not ask direct questions about sexual hostility, I did ask questions that might provide some insights about the ways in which women were welcomed and supported within their agencies- such as the "fit" of PPE, and the ways in which they felt supported and welcomed - or otherwise.
The voices of women in this survey were the views of female fire fighters regardless of where they did fire fighting. Thus the voices of female fire fighters who worked in a full-time paid capacity in fire and rescue agencies have been embedded with women fire fighters working in volunteer and land management agencies. The rationale for this was quite clear - it was, and remains my hypothesis that commonality existed in the gendered experiences of female fire fighters, regardless of locale and context - even if there was also difference in terms of the tasks undertaken, the scope of the agency, and remuneration or otherwise. Not only was there commonality, but through the collective voice I hoped to better understand what female fire fighters felt could be done to change their situations, should change be needed. Thus paid urban professional female fire fighters had an opportunity to speak within the survey, as did fire fighters in land management and volunteer agencies.
This approach was criticised by some who felt that the experiences of paid full-time women fire fighters should be seen as vastly different to those women who did volunteer fire fighting, were retained, or did fire fighting as part of other duties. A powerful example of this politics of division was promulgated quite recently by the United Firefighters Union (Victorian Branch). It wrote to paid female fire fighters within Victoria in March 2006 arguing why it had not sanctioned the formation of a proposed Women and Fire Fighting Australasia Association, and why it was proposing to form its own Womens' Network.
Membership of the Network will comprise only professional female fire fighters, unlike Women and Fire fighting Australiasia (WFA) whose ranks comprise volunteer fire fighters, academics, senior bureaucrats and others. [The proposed UFU Women's Network] will have the autonomy to champion the issues that apply to professional female fire fighters and not be skewed by the vested interests of other groups." (Marshall, P, 9th March 2006.)
This type of attitude, which I have named "the hierarchy of realness", could be seen to be endemic within the fire fighting industry. But as an independent researcher I purposefully challenged the territoriality that characterises this industry, as it does not reflect where nor how women are involved in fire fighting labour.
At one level this study was an intervention in one small corner of civil society in the name of human rights, and therefore sits firmly within qualitative research traditions that value social justice and empowerment as key tenets of social enquiry (Lather 1991). As an independent researcher I wanted to go to the heart of the experiences of women doing fire fighting work, regardless of the settings of that work, or the agencies within which they did their work.
Finally, my intention was to create a broad brush research starting-point, not to have the final say in the matter. Others may have conducted the survey differently. I hope in the future this is the case. I hope by 2015 a pool of studies have been conducted that help this industry, and the people who populate it, to understand not only the experiences of women in fire fighting, but diversity more generally. Much work remains to be done.
In closing I wish to reflect on the limitations of this study, and for a moment speak as an academic might.
The design of any study shapes the way in which knowledge is constructed (Berger and Luckmann 1966). For example, in this study I constructed an original definition of "female fire fighters" as a category that was cross-agency.
By fire fighting work, we are referring to fire fighting as part of urban fire & rescue, bushfire, land management, air services, defence services. All fire fighting done by women, regardless of whether it is paid, casual or volunteer.
I asked questions about the experiences of female fire fighters; and therefore I constructed "female" as a category. I referred to previous studies about females working within so-called non-traditional trade areas, drew on theories about sexual violence, and constructed the meaning of the "treatment" of fire fighters by constructing a list of items through which I might understand what "treatment" means. I built this research on an apriority assumption - which I think is well established in the literature - that female fire fighters need their stories told in order that their experiences are celebrated, and to expose exclusionary and harmful practices that should be subjected to social and policy change. The research procedure was developed on an assumption that biology (male or female) was a factor in how fire fighters were treated, and that females were subjected to "treatment" as if they are "objects" without identity, agency, power or persuasion (Arendt 1956).
I defend the need to establish base line data as a starting point for further research; and the starting point inscribed in this report will undoubtedly provide others with a launching pad for further questions. It was and remains important to provide women with an opportunity to talk about their diverse experiences of being female fire fighters. However, I caution future researchers against remaining solely within this paradigm, or of seeing the gendered nature of fire fighting as being based on a single factorial analysis - that is; biology (sex).
Human and social organisation is complex. Contemporary post modern theories about identity, gender and performance, for example, could well be applied to future analysis of fire fighting culture by examining masculine performance as a culturally transmitted phenomenon, rather than looking at the binary of "male and female" as a biologically determined, or experienced, phenomenon. That male fire fighters are A, and female fire fighters are B remains a shallow argument that cannot stand up under the scrutiny of time or post modernity. Dominant forms of masculine performance are arguably well developed within the fire services, inscribed in what I call the three R's: ritual, rank and routine. These forms exist as an expression of culture, not as an experience of biology, and can be inhabited or resisted by males and/or females. Undoubtedly, it is males in a biological sense that continue to inhabit and reproduce this culture; this can't be ignored. But culture itself is changeable and transmutable, rather than organic and immutable. Change within the fire services won't simply be achieved by recruiting more women. It will be achieved through a complex process of cultural change, for example, by weakening some of the "driving forces" (Lewin, 1951) that maintain the status quo, and by strengthening others.
That said, individual women enter, inhabit, and experience fire fighting organisational culture in gendered ways. It is important that understanding about these experiences continues because individual women can and sometimes do suffer the consequences of fire services cultures. Those "ways" are mediated by many factors. One of those factors is a capacity to negotiate a space in relationship to fire fighting culture. In local settings, this research showed that women negotiated culture with individuals, a crew, or a captain. This negotiation was shaped by the ways in which these [typically] male fire fighters had themselves inhabited the fire fighter role.
It is possible to argue that individual men enter, inhabit, negotiate and experience fire fighting culture in gendered ways and express their identities through this negotiated process. "Gender" is therefore a performance, and this is an expression of a theory that argues "we are not genders, but rather we do gender" through "a reiteration of a norm or set of norms" (Wood, 2000, pp. 139-140). According to this theory we perform masculinity and/or femininity as an expression of identity rather than as a biological outcome of our sex, and as shaped by what society defines as masculine or feminine. In the case of a fire fighting agency, masculinity has particular characteristics that are a reiteration of a set of norms - the three R's I referred to previously. More needs to be understood about these characteristics.
It is possible - in fact essential - for the reiteration (expression) of fire fighter identity to change. For example, as the performance of "being male" changes in wider society, patterns of resistance to older forms within the fire services will emerge. For example, a younger male who is anti-racist, may resist and reiterate in new ways what it means to be a male fire fighter. It is also possible to reproduce existing forms of masculinist norms. For example, a female who is racist, highly individualistic and anti-feminist, and who sees other females as a threat to her position of acceptance and privilege, may have a vested interest that leads her to reinforce more traditional notions of male performance and to devalue the experiences of female and male fire fighters who struggle against fitting in1. The performance called "being a fire fighter" needs to be open to challenge, change and redefinition.
Similarly, as long as the occupation "fire fighter" remains inscribed with hegemonic (old fashioned, iconic) notions of masculine identity, there will be many in the community who won't consider doing fire fighting labour. Males and females at the intersections of different identities, indigenous, ethnic, sexual, class, and faith backgrounds should be able to contribute to civil society in all its diversity - including fire fighting and other community safety activities. Future scrutiny of fire fighting in Australia should encompass qualitative studies that help us understand, and strengthen, the capacity for civil society to iterate itself in new ways - even in its heart-land where white male fire fighter heroes and icons are manufactured.
(Dr) Merilyn Childs
14th May 2006.
(Dr) Merilyn Childs
14th May 2006.
1 A personal note: As someone who is not a fire fighter and yet has the capacity at times to "fit in", I have during a decade of research largely had a wonderful time working alongside this industry. On the down side there have been times, now and again, when I have experienced mild to more unpleasant forms of bullying. These can be summarised as "just jokes" [such as "can't you take a joke?"], "put downs" [such as telling blatantly racist and sexist jokes, "you're an academic" as a put-down, or aggression in the form of "justify yourself to me because I'm a fire fighter!"]; and "it's my way or no way" [such as being required to speak or behave in certain ways to be acceptable]. Bullying behaviours such as these have been "performed" regardless of the gender of the fire fighter. In my experiences outside the fire services, such behaviours are unusual - but I have worked in balanced male-female dominated industries.