Fighting fire with societal norms

Penn State researcher Lorraine Dowler takes on gender differences in firefighters

Three women firefighters hone their skills at a United Women Firefighters training event.  Credit: United Women FirefightersAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There are a few statistics about women firefighters that stand out to Penn State researcher Lorraine Dowler.

Women account for about 7 percent of firefighters nationwide. Men and women firefighters have the same average age, but women are paid $10,000 less, on average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Even in the San Francisco Fire Department, which has made great strides toward equal representation, just 15 percent of firefighters are women. In the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY), that figure is less than 1 percent.

That’s why Dowler, an associate professor of geography; women, gender and sexuality studies; and international affairs, has spent the past decade interviewing women firefighters about their challenges and thinking about ways to improve opportunities for women.

"Ask most people to draw a firefighter, and you'll see a man with an ax breaking down a door, or a man with a handlebar mustache, but this just isn't true anymore," said Dowler.

Dowler, a self-proclaimed feminist scholar, first began her research in this area after driving through her old neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, when she mistakenly thought a firefighter was a male, until that firefighter removed her helmet.

"I thought, 'Aren't you the fancy feminist scholar? You just fell into an identity trap,'" she said, referring to the phenomenon of assuming someone's gender based on stereotypes.

After that, Dowler found herself wanting to know more about how firefighter gender identities were formed. She attended the annual meeting for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, where she learned about the challenges women face as the minority gender in firehouses. She built connections and was invited to attend Camp Blaze Firecamp, a leadership training program for young women, including aspiring firefighters.

"They told me as long as I participated in the activities during the day, I could run focus groups with participants at night," she said. "From that, I acquired so much data on what it means to them to be women firefighters. Some of the women I met were the only woman in their firehouse and feel incredibly isolated because of their gender."

What it's like to be a woman firefighter in New York

Dowler's research kicked into a higher gear after she was contacted by Sarinya Srisakul, the first Asian American woman on the FDNY. The two had first connected through Dowler's initial research, and Srisakul, head of the United Women Firefighters, an organization that advocates for the welfare and interests of women FDNY firefighters, saw a gap in academic research and thought Dowler could help.

"There had been no real research conducted on women in the fire service in New York City, and they were having some recruitment challenges," Dowler said.

In 1982, following a class-action lawsuit, 40 women joined the FDNY. Today, their numbers have only risen to 67 members, with another five graduating on April 18. In contrast, San Francisco employed its first female firefighter in 1987 and now has nearly 300 on its staff. Dowler's research involves interviewing active firefighters to learn about their experiences. So far, she has interviewed 18 of the 42.

"Every woman firefighter I've interviewed tells me it's the best job in the world," said Dowler. "They like the flexibility of scheduling, the pay and the pride they feel from doing a service to their community."

Yet, looking at the number of women in the FDNY workforce, it's clear to Dowler that obstacles still exist. Dowler chalks this up to the "hypermasculine" culture associated with the job, and the assumption that women can't handle the same tasks as men.

"There's a warrior culture. They even use paramilitary terms like 'attacking' a fire and it doesn't reflect the job," she said. "Most firefighters' work is around accidents or conducting inspections. They can go through their career without having to put out a big, raging fire, but when it does happen they are prepared for it. That's something men and women can both do. There have even been demonstrations that, in full gear, women can go up flights of stairs faster than men because they are smaller and their oxygen efficiency is better."

Despite this, there are vocal critics of women in the FDNY. Srisakul has received death threats, Dowler said, as a result of her advocacy. The same is true for the first cohort of women FDNY firefighters from the 1980s, and male supporters at the time had their tires slashed.

"What I really want to understand is how these culture issues are affecting women who may be future firefighters, and how we can streamline different parts of the recruitment process for both women and men."

Fighting media bias

Public perceptions can be influenced by media, and one of Dowler's projects involves analyzing how women are portrayed in New York media. This project has become the focus of her spring 2018 graduate-level course, GEOG 508: Feminist Methodology. Her goal is to come out of that class with a paper ready for publication in an academic journal, with each student listed as co-author. Students in the course come from a range of disciplines, including psychology; women’s, gender and sexuality studies; adult education; and geography.

"We're using software to do a content analysis of specific reporters and media outlets to see if there is a bias, especially in terms of how they cover women firefighters versus men firefighters," she said. "This will be able to tell us the tone of verbs being used, whether they are hostile or supportive."

Dowler said that some journalists will report on firefighting failures and portray them as mistakes women are making, even if it was a team effort or if the firefighters did their best. To Dowler, this shows the importance of her research.

Challenging stereotypes

This research is part of a larger book project Dowler is working on related to social justice in the professional world, and how women and minorities have been excluded from career opportunities. She is also looking at the women who trained to be astronauts aboard NASA's Mercury mission but were never allowed to take flight.

"In recent history, and this still persists today, men were often seen as disposable, as the only gender that can go to war or to space," she said. "Men are no more emotionally equipped than women for these jobs, though. What happens when people of color only see white firefighters coming into their neighborhood, saving the day? What does that tell us about the role of race and gender in our society?"

Dowler said if she could do one thing, it's to get people to take a step back and ponder how stereotypes affect women and minorities in the workforce.

"Putting women into the fire service isn't going to change the way things are," said Dowler, "but questioning why they were left out, and why people of color were left out, can start to shift societal norms — and that's what I'm trying to do with this."

Last Updated April 17, 2018