Fighting fires: Diversity and inclusion in life-threatening work (Part 2)

I have spent a lot of time with likable sexist guys this week [1]. As a feminist, many of you would be quick to suggest that is an oxymoron. Let me explain. Most of the guys in my brigade are gold. They are friendly and practical ‘Aussie blokes’ who have a good sense of humour and are quick to help out wherever needed.

Some of them went out of their way to let me and my fellow brigade members know, on more than one occasion this week, that my safety is their priority (as we pulled up to yet another potentially life-threatening call-out).

A number of these guys have spent the majority of their lives living in small rural Australian communities, most have spent their careers working in male-dominated industries and, for them, a sexist culture fuelled by patriarchal ideals is (and always has been) their normal. I don’t doubt that in the examples I share below, the male brigade member had little to no insight into how harmful and problematic his behaviour was. As recently articulated by Australian musician, Angie McMahon: “Sometimes people don’t realise how upsetting their behaviour is, because something has fallen from their mouth which is learned from this culture where we all have the same kind of sickness, wounds inherited from the same patriarchal ideals”.

There was a situation early on in the week where my female brigade member was tasked with driving a more senior male member and I around for the morning in a 4WD, to attempt to locate the fire front. We were driving poorly maintained dirt tracks on vast private properties for which there are no maps. My colleague was doing an excellent job navigating the terrain and she knew this particular property very well. At one point, she opted for a different route to the one the senior member would have taken. He proceeded to question her judgement and then to mansplain how to drive a 4WD. My female colleague has been driving 4WDs for over a decade and is in the process of acquiring her heavy rigid licence. She let him know in no uncertain terms that she was entirely capable of driving, and that should he not trust her abilities then he was welcome to take the wheel. He declined her offer. It was a quiet trip back to the fire shed.

Casual everyday sexism takes many forms. This week it was a reference to my chest as a radio was removed from my pocket (‘just playing with your chest’); it was being told to not forget to ‘put lipstick on’ on arrival to a call-out; and to ‘go shag your husband!’ when I headed home for a short break.

At the peak of the Currowan fire impacting on our little village, on the afternoon of Thursday December 5, my female colleague and I were positioned at the rear of our fire truck – operating the pump - to assist our crew with water as required. A senior member of another brigade drove past in a 4WD and pulled over beside us to let us know that we had approximately five minutes before the fire front would be upon us. We thanked him for the heads-up and waved goodbye. He hesitated as he pulled the car away and proceeded to repeatedly ask whether either of us ‘had done this before?’. We weren’t entirely clear on what he meant by the question. I answered ‘yes’, and my colleague said ‘no’ (she was under the impression that he was asking whether we had had a fire front hit Bawley Point like this before). After he repeated the question for the third time, I gave him a brief summary of the three call-outs we had been on in the previous days - these were high-profile jobs that included saving a fellow RFS members life and saving two properties. It was only then that he proceeded to drive off. I couldn’t help but assume that were we two male RFS members positioned behind the fire truck, there is no way he would’ve asked them the same question.

As with most male-dominated workplaces, sexism is commonplace in the RFS. However it’s pleasing to read in their most recent annual report that they have committed to developing a gender diversity plan and have an ambitious gender benchmark in place. One of the RFS’ key values is mutual respect. Upholding this value will be key to the successful integration of women into local brigades.

Further reading:

Fighting fires: Diversity and inclusion in life-threatening work (Part 1)


[1] It’s important for me to disclose my privileged position here: Whilst I have experienced sexual harassment, and carry anger and fear in my body as a result of memories of experiences where I have felt violated, I don’t carry the trauma of sexual assault, and I don’t carry the same risks as those who are part of the many vulnerable groups and/or intersecting minorities.

Joy Townsend is a Senior Consultant at Rapid Context. Her expertise is in qualitative research design, analysis and implementation. Specialist expertise in gender and sexualities research, and qualitative research methodologies including life history interviewing and narrative analysis.

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