Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Firefighting Women and Sexual Harassment

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Firefighting Women and Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

Combating fires is often perceived as a fireman's job. Dragging heavy hoses off trucks and up the stairways of burning buildings, hoisting and climbing ladders, packing and using tools for forcible entries, and carrying victims requires physical strength, ability, and stamina. Living in fire stations and sharing sleeping quarters, restroom facilities, housekeeping chores, and equipment maintenance tasks are integral facets of firefighting life. Firefighters work in a para military organization where "aggressive performance on the fire ground" is "the main criteria for acceptance into the fire fighting culture".(1) Women are slowly infiltrating the ranks of the fire service, one of the last bastions of the male-dominated occupations.

The Arlington, Virginia fire department hired the first woman firefighter in 1974. By the early 1980s there were nearly 500 women in paid firefighter positions.(2) A survey of these early female firefighters found them identifying "the attitudes of male fire fighters: skepticism, prejudice, hostility, harassment" as the major obstacles in their careers.(3) Career female firefighters have increased their numbers to approximately 3,000(4); however, little has changed in the treatment of women in the fire service. Over half of the women firefighter respondents in a 1991 nationwide survey reported experiencing sexual harassment.(5)

Sexual Harassment in Male-Dominated Occupations

Women entering other male-dominated occupations have encountered negative reactions and harassment in the sex-segregated workplaces of blue collar jobs, sanitation work, law enforcement, corrections, and the military.(6) Male resentment ranges from subtle discrimination in job assignments, performance evaluations, and promotions to overt hostile treatment. Studies report that women in traditional male jobs experience more sexual harassment than women in traditional female jobs.(7) Sexual harassment, whether demeaning verbal comments and jokes, touching, sexual propositioning, or acts of violence, is an occupational hazard for women working in male-dominated occupations.

Explanations for sexual harassment point to power and control issues in the workplace. Those in control, usually men, use sexual harassment as a form of power over lower status employees, usually women. Personal attributes of women such as age, education, marital status, and physical size and strength contribute to their lower status and hence, vulnerability to harassment.(8) Surveys have found that unattached and younger women do experience more sexual harassment in nontraditional jobs.(9) The literature does stress that structural factors in organizations buttress the sexually harassing behavior in male-dominated work settings.

The gender ratio in an organization plays an important role in how female employees are treated. Kanter contends that the numerically dominant group views the minority group as outsiders and tokens: "as representatives of their category, as symbols rather than individuals."(10) Such stereotyping encourages differential treatment of underrepresented female employees: as tokens they are expected to act like women by maintaining feminine sex-role expectations. Gutek and Morasch explain sexual harassment as a "spillover" of sex-roles into the work place.(11) The numerically dominant males perceive their female co-workers "as women first, work-role occupants second."(12) Whether explaining differential treatment or sexual harassment, male-dominated work settings are linked with gender stereotyping and negative working environments for underrepresented female employees.

Women firefighters are prime candidates for sexual harassment. The literature suggests that their minority status in the fire service may magnify their vulnerability to sexual harassment. Not all women in male-dominated organizations, however, are sexually harassed. Although a significant number of the female firefighters in the 1991 nationwide study experienced sexual harassment, there were women firefighters not reporting it. …

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