Sunday, December 03, 2006

Women Firefighters Battle Male Firehouse Culture

The Los Angeles Fire Department was embroiled in controversy this last week as a key racial harrassment case neared resolution. One casualty of the dispute is William Bamattre, the embattled Fire Chief, who on Friday announced his resignation, effective January 1st.

The case involves Firefighter Tennie Pierce, who filed suit against the city in 2004 after a firehouse incident in which dog food was slipped into his meal. The case has apparently revealed persistent problems in cleaning up a good-ole-boy station-house culture marked by widespread racial and sexual harrassment.

Now more and more female firewomen are coming forward to tell their stories. Today's Los Angeles Times has
a troubling article on the battle of female firefighters in the LAFD to gain equal treatment and respect:

Women are a tiny fraction of the department, numbering 95 out of its 3,625 firefighters. They are newcomers — the first female firefighter was hired in 1985 — to a field steeped in tradition and long considered the domain of men.

Many of the stories they tell never make it into official reports. Some women say they have been afraid to share incidents, even with one another. Most are loath to complain because in the firehouse, reputation is everything."

You want to have a solid, iron-clad reputation: You're a hard worker, a team player," said Capt. Alicia Mathis, a 17-year veteran and one of 19 female captains.

But women are beginning to break that silence; the "go along to get along" ethos has begun to crack.

In September, firefighter Ruthie Bernal was paid $320,000 by the city to settle a sexual harassment and battery lawsuit, in which she alleged that her captain made continual sexual requests, tried to kiss her and treated her harshly when she rejected him.

A lawsuit filed by firefighter Brenda Lee, alleging that she was harassed and discriminated against as a woman and a lesbian, is slated for trial next spring.

And Mathis, 40, has laid the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women by filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, harassment and retaliation.

"Almost every female firefighter on the LAFD has suffered unwanted touching, leering or derogatory comments," her complaint contends. "A dildo was put in a women's locker, a female firefighter was told to sleep in a closet, and women have often been referred to as 'bitches.'

"Earlier this year, an audit of the department by City Controller Laura Chick found widespread perceptions of discrimination. More than 80% of female firefighters surveyed said they were personally aware of or had experienced sexual harassment.

Chick's findings suggest little has changed since a 1994 audit found that 40% of female recruits failed to graduate from academy training — twice the rate for men — and those who did were often targeted for harassment.

Back then, public outrage was triggered by a controversial videotape mocking female firefighters. Dubbed "Female Follies," the tape — filmed by male training officers and circulated among fire stations — portrayed female recruits struggling with physical tasks, interspersed with snippets of footage showing men handling those jobs with ease.

Fire Department managers defended it as a "bloopers-like tape" intended to be humorous. City officials blasted it as humiliating evidence of institutional sexism intended to ridicule and discourage women.
Read the whole thing. The story suggests that hazing and pranks are a persistent and ingrained party of the firehouse culture. Apparently, most of the women appreciate a chance to bond with their male coworkers, but some of the pranks are intense, even physically threatening. Stepped up efforts to accomodate the increasing number of women in the department -- separate locker rooms, bathrooms, and sleeping facilities -- have been met with resentment:

Allowing women in the inner sanctum means ceding bathroom space, toning down rough language, hiding racy magazines. Some male firefighters admit they relish "female-free" days, when no women are around.

"It means they can do locker-room stuff," like bragging about sexual exploits and peering down from the firetruck at attractive women in passing cars, said one male fire captain, who did not want to be identified because he fears being ostracized.

Some resistance to women is rooted in concerns about the physically demanding nature of the job. Firefighters have to lift 200-pound ladders, pull heavy lengths of hose and climb stairs wielding giant power tools. One in three female recruits washes out of the department's grueling 17-week training program, compared with one in 10 male candidates.
As regular readers here will recall, I'm a big booster of gender equality. But as the story of L.A.'s female fighters revels, achieving full inclusion for women in the workplace is more difficult is some sectors than in others. Cultures change slowly, and it takes women of particular fortitude to endure the push for that kind of social transformation. It's worth the struggle, of course. For while I'm a consistent opponent of politically correct, quota-driven social policies, a culture of male privilege and harrassment is antithetical to the principles of a political and social system based on human freedom and opportunity.

No comments: