During international Women’s Week recently the Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB) released their Gender Inclusion Plan (PDF 66KB). This was the result of research tracing back to at least 2004 and a number of reports produced by Swinburne University and the MFB that recommended aiming to add some diversity to the predominantly white male workforce.
There has been a considerable debate on this topic since - some of it supportive, some challenging, and some comments from women who are already employed as firefighters that are difficult to understand when the data on women’s harassment in the service is considered.
The Age has also reported the resignation of the head of the MFB board “just days after he alleged that Women's Affairs Minister Maxine Morand had backed out of an MFB function on gender inclusion after being threatened by a union”.
So what is it all the fuss about?
There can be little doubt that whenever women enter a workplace where men rule then there is resistance. Why wouldn’t there be? Fairness may be a virtue and equal opportunities its practical application, but for most men levelling any playing fields involves a loss of status, identity and power.
Resistance can take many forms. The biological determinist may argue that men have special skills and that this leads to women’s work and men’s work. They may also argue that men and women think differently; men are rational and likely to stay cool in a crisis. For firemen it seems that both arguments apply.
My research leads me to the conclusion that when it suits men they will say anything to maintain their hegemony. And firefighters are very much a part of masculine hegemony (PDF 1.52MB) because firefighting and masculinity become a self-fulfilling prophecy when there are so very few women to be seen. Not because women can’t be firefighters, but because the majority of men in the fire service don’t want them to be.
In a country that hosts the world’s leading gender academic, Professor Raewyn Connell, few firefighters want to hear about the social skills (learnt not inherited) that are key to who we are and what we become.
Has anyone yet been able to persuade firemen that gender segregation is not in our genes but determined by people with power? Therefore it comes as no surprise when firefighters act to stop women from joining their ranks. The fact that some women have managed to become firefighters is a testimony to their perseverance, but for every woman who stays there are a great many more who are forced to leave.
In the short term most women who stay soon become “one of the boys”. Some of those pull up the drawbridge behind them or are so keen to fit in that they will go to almost any lengths to stay. I am not suggesting that women do not know what they are saying when they challenge Melbourne’s Gender Inclusion Action Plan, but research suggests that women’s acceptance only lasts until they try to exert their own personality at work. Then men are quick to remind them of their position (as women).
The current response by women to the Melbourne Fire Service’s action plan gives us some insight to what is happening. Women are speaking out against an opportunity enshrined in state law. Their arguments are put in print by Ben Sneiders, “nearly half the women firefighters at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade have publicly rejected claims of a ‘closed culture’ and say setting diversity targets is ‘patronising and forever taints applicants’”. If only this was not so reminiscent of arguments made by most women whenever they get “accepted” in a male environment. Feminists have an explanation for this. However, the reality is that as individuals these women believe what they say is true.
Who are we to challenge their arguments without a program for change that will convince them that using their agency in such a way only adds to the male hegemony?
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