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Sexual harassment is impacting female firefighters at alarming rates- a call to action.

Updated: May 4, 2021

As years progress, the fire service is shifting from a male dominated career field to a more gender inclusive environment… so we think. More and more females are being onboarded to fire departments around the country, which looks great from an analytical point of view. However, getting an offer, pushing through a tough academy, and adapting to the physical and mental challenges the job demands is the easy part.

I often find myself looking back to even just a few months ago and I have realized that since day one of being involved in the fire service I have been conditioned to turn the opposite direction to harassment.

As women, we’re told, “if you want to play with the boys you have to act like the boys” and that “it’s just the culture of the firehouse” when in reality this is a major dilemma that impacts many female firefighters around the country. I had been conditioned to believe that the things that are often said (or done) both on and off shift are part of this career, but they shouldn’t be a part of any career.

I started to open my eyes to the things being said to me on shift and began to reflect on the past three years of my career. I began to really listen when others would share stories of the types of things that were said or done to them while they were on shift and the examples of this are endless.

It’s a story I hear all too often: A female reports an incident, the incident is “investigated” and then the incident is dropped. The female is presented with comments such as “I don’t have time for personnel issues” and “maybe if you weren’t so nice you wouldn’t have these problems.”

This is why women don’t report sexual harassment or employee conflict cases.

I’ve seen this happen more than once to people other than myself. The female feels uncomfortable, the female reports it, and oftentimes the issue is brushed under the rug. The female feels her concerns aren’t valid when they most definitely are, and then is reluctant to report future incidents that are often worse in nature.

I began to do some research to see if there had been any studies on sexual harassment experienced by females, specifically in the fire service, because I knew this was far more common than anyone would like to admit. What I found was absolutely heartbreaking.

Hulett and associatescompleted a study involving both men and women firefighters. Of those that participated 457 of them were female. Their results involving females in the fire service are illustrated below.

Of the 457 female firefighters interviewed 84.7% of women stated they had experienced different treatment based on gender, 50.8% of women reported isolation and exclusion on the job, 42.9% experienced verbal harassment, 30.2% experienced sexual advances, and 6.3% experienced sexual assault.

Twenty-nine of these individuals experienced sexual assault while on the job. Absolutely no one should have to walk into work worrying about being sexually assaulted on the job yet, there are many women who are.

This study only interviewed 457 women in the fire service. Imagine if every single firefighter was interviewed across the United States. According to Women in Fire, 6,200 women currently work as firefighters in the United States. Theoretically if this study was performed on every female firefighter and maintained the 6.3% assault rate, 372 women have experienced sexual assault while on duty.

Is this alarming yet? Because it should be.

It is believed that only 15.8-35% of assaults are actually reported. The statistics from this study only include those women who felt brave enough to admit to the horrific things that were done to them so it’s likely the 6.3% statistic is much higher.

The health and safety of your department’s employees should be everyone’s top priority, yet when it comes to employee conflicts and complaints of sexual harassment often times we look the other direction. We cover it up with comments often including “oh come on it was just a joke” “maybe you shouldn’t be so sensitive” and “I didn’t mean it; it was just funny.”

This behavior is gaslighting women, forcing them to believe that this behavior is normal and that they’re overreacting. Over time it forces women to be desensitized to this type of behavior and contributes to why so many incidents go unreported.

Annual sexual harassment trainings are not enough

Every year we sit down in front of our computers for about an hour and complete the mandatory sexual harassment training. It’s the same one we have to complete every single year and we often find ourselves clicking through them to get it over with. Once the training is done, we don’t think about sexual harassment until the next year.

This is not enough.

We need to hold each other accountable for our actions.

We need to start standing up for one another.

We need to start normalizing conversations around these topics.

We NEED to take complaints seriously and we NEED to handle them appropriately.

All workplaces should be harassment free, is yours?

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