Including Women in the Fire Service

A Strategy Toolkit for Fire Departments

Section 8

Next Steps

This toolkit has focused on identifying and addressing the barriers that prevent women from becoming firefighters and advancing in the fire service. Many of the strategies are based on the results of our study Insights from the Inside: A window into the experience of female firefighters in Ontario. More research and effort are needed to identify and remove the barriers that other underrepresented groups face in achieving inclusion in the fire service.

Many participants in our Insights survey made the obvious observation that as long as women are a small minority, they will be treated as others. As one senior female firefighter describes:

We need more women to join the fire service, if only to get to about 10-15% … That will help with systemic stereotyping. As long as we are in such a minority, issues will remain. If one woman does something wrong, it’s because of her gender. That same issue does not apply to men. … I have had a great career so far, but I am still seeing younger women struggling and hear the men speak about them in derogatory terms. They don’t understand that women’s experience will always be different than men’s. The entire workplace has been built from the male perspective from station design, tools we use (all made for men’s hands), uniforms and PPE. I am reminded every day at work that I am different than my peers, not necessarily in a negative way but it can be exhausting… The Ontario fire service needs to be better.” (Insights Study page 81)

Many participants in our Insights study made the observation that as long as women are a small minority or underrepresented, they will be treated as “others”. As long as women remain underrepresented then any questions concerning their work performance become gender based. The same questions are not asked when a man performs inadequately as there is a larger pool of work-related incidents to draw from. For example, should a woman reverse an apparatus into a bollard their performance is judged based on gender. If a man were to do the same thing, their performance would be judged based on fatigue, mechanical issues, or movement of the bollard. There is a need for more women to enter the fire service to help reduce or eliminate systemic stereotyping.

As the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs report "A Fire Service For All" notes, too many organizations focus gender initiatives solely on changing women, which overlooks structural causes and reinforces the perception that these are “women’s issues”. This approach suggests that men do not have to be involved for change to happen. The support of men as allies in creating diversity and inclusion is a key step towards ending gender disparities. The CAFC report quotes evidence recently published in Harvard Business Review,[2] that states when allies are engaged in gender inclusion, 96% of organizations progress, compared to 30% of organizations where allies are not involved.

More study is needed to understand diversity and inclusion in the fire service, such as:

  1. How do we formalize the collection and sharing of basic data on firefighters in Ontario so that we may better understand our workforce?
  2. How are other underrepresented groups, such as racialized people and LGBTQ Two-spirit people, disenfranchised from and in the fire service?
  3. How does a firefighter’s career stage interact with the level of inclusion they experience?
  4. Why do women leave suppression or the fire service entirely?
  5. What mental health supports do women need when faced with the double challenge of dealing with traumatic calls and dealing with exclusion and harassment by co-workers?
  6. Why do some departments succeed with diversity and inclusion initiatives while others fail?

More modules will be added to this toolkit as specific strategies from departments and organizations are collected. Please check back as these resources continue to be developed and refined.

[2] John, B. & Smith, D. (2020). Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in The Workplace. Harvard Business Review Press