SALT LAKE CITY — In the Salt Lake City Fire Department, women show interest but still seem to be on the outskirts of the “boys’ club” that’s been cultivated.
Part of this is historically, firefighting has been men’s work. This dynamic has real-world consequences, and those are becoming increasingly apparent. In order to survive in industries like this, women often adapt by distancing themselves from each other or trying to become ‘one of the boys,’ which furthers preexisting norms. One of the biggest issues, however, is sexual harassment. In a study by Pew Research Center, 62% of women in male-dominated fields said that sexual harassment was an issue in their industry, as opposed to 42% in female-dominated fields. In that same study, women in male-dominated industries reported 10-20% more discrimination on the basis of sex than those in other fields.
When it comes to the SLFD, it’s evident that there are stories to be told, but victims are too scared to speak openly about it. Of the five people that were approached to be interviewed for this story, only three were willing to talk and all of them did it on the condition that the interviews would be anonymous.
Liam*, a 25-year-old male firefighter, said part of it is a culture that punishes those that speak out. He’s seen many women forced to prove themselves in ways the men aren’t required to and has friends who have experienced sexual harassment or assault but don’t want to tell anyone out of fear of being “blacklisted.”
“If you haven’t had at least five years of experience, you aren’t expected to have an opinion on anything.” Even after that, he says it is nearly impossible to make real change, saying the system just “isn’t set up for it.” The men in positions of power are, for the most part, happy where they’re at. As long as they continue to benefit from the systems, Liam doesn’t have a whole lot of hope. “It’s not a system that’s based on change. There’s a lot of opposition, culturally and otherwise.”
For the women in the department, it is evident they love their jobs. When so few of them are women, it is something they have to love, or it wouldn’t be worth it. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2018, 33.9% of EMS personnel and 5.1% of firefighters were women. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why one EMT called it a “boys’ club” or, as Liam said, a “fraternity.”
As for the actual women in the department, they’re obviously competent and passionate about what they do. Katie*, 18, and Sarah*, 22, both work with Gold Cross as first responders, and therefore spend significant time with the firefighters on calls. Sarah feels like she’s built a rapport with the men, to the point where she’s not worried if they try anything with her because she knows she can tell them to back off, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t notice the differences between how they treat men and women.
When new people come on to the team, especially guys, she tells them that although she’s treated nicely, she “is a female, so that changes the way they treat us.” It’s not always a “creepy” kind of nice, she emphasizes, but it doesn’t happen with the men on the team.
Aside from that, there are more concrete incidents or actions that get brushed off out of practicality. She’s there to do her job, and although they know better than to give her a hug and “leav[e] their hands on [her] lower back,” she doesn’t have the time to do anything about it. It’s a matter of picking your battles, and she finds it easier to say “no” and expect them to listen. “It makes me uncomfortable and then I just leave it alone.”
That said, there are some things that can’t help but put a woman on edge. “[I] knew a specific crew that had little nicknames for every woman at Gold Cross,” says Sarah. Even if some of them weren’t derogatory, some of them were, which left her wondering “well what on earth were they calling me?”
This uncertainty is echoed by Katie, saying “I feel like I need to be on my guard” around the firefighters. She’s happy with what she does, and doesn’t feel like she’s in a hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have reservations. It’s not just about the small comments here and there that could be construed as sexual, it’s also about the attitude towards women in general.
There’s one part of the physical exam to become a firefighter that is especially difficult, says Katie, one all of the men say “when they watch it, none of the females pass.”(?) It’s this type of attitude that’s frustrating for Katie, and part of what she called the “boys’ club.” Despite her own experiences with harassment, her hopes for the future are high. “In my career, I don’t want it to be ‘cool’ to be a female firefighter. I want it to be normal, not just nine out of 400.”
*Names have been changed for privacy.