Hair-length and grooming standards for fire service personnel have been problematic ever since the first woman firefighter came up against standards that were created for men but had become etched in the stone of fire department tradition. One of the problems in getting fire departments to become more flexible on this issue was the coincidence that at the time women were beginning to enter the career fire service -- the late 1970's -- long hair was fashionable on men. Male firefighters had been agitating for some time to be allowed to wear their hair longer, usually to little avail. When women came forward with the same request, the answer was often a pre-scripted "No."
As the fire service finally begins to break away from its traditional, authoritarian approach to its employees, fire service managers have been adopting more flexible approaches to employee grooming standards. A fire chief who takes an extreme approach, such as requiring all employees to have military-style short hair based on male norms, is demonstrating the department's hostility to the presence of women and will find recruitment and other diversification efforts difficult.
Unfortunately for those who would like legal support for their attempts to change fire department hair policies, the courts have generally allowed employers to establish and enforce work rules for hair length. Constitutional protections afforded to employees in this area are clearly limited. Numerous cases have been brought on constitutional grounds, with employees arguing that appearance is an aspect of personal liberty, so that any interference with that "right" must be justified by a legitimate state interest. The courts, in response, have generally upheld a public safety employer's right to impose grooming regulations that can be justified by the need for discipline, uniformity and esprit de corps, even where no safety considerations exist. (1 )
A 1992 case filed under Louisiana constitutional law, however, resulted in a ruling against a public employer. At issue was the city's recent attempt to restrict firefighters' hair to shoulder-length or shorter. (Women had been on the fire department for eleven years and had previously been permitted to pin their hair up to conform with the hair standard.) In issuing an injunction against the city, the judge found that "the regulation (was) not gender neutral" because it affected women differently from men and "ha(d) the effect of classification of individuals on the basis of sex." The ruling continued:
Similarity of appearance can be and was in fact achieved by requiring fire personnel on duty or in uniform to have their hair, if longer than regulation length, pinned to meet a length requirement established by their employer. The esprit de corps and equal treatment as to grooming standards are easily achieved by uniform enforcement of hair length while on duty or in uniform with a recognition of an individual's right to have whatever length of hair he or she desires as long as while on duty or in uniform it is kept to a level set forth in the employer's regulation... While similarity of appearance has been recognized as an appropriate and rational goal in a "paramilitary" civilian service, commonality may not and should not be required at the expense of reason and purpose.(2)
Because Louisiana constitutional law differs significantly in this area from that of other states, the ruling is not likely to have a major impact outside Louisiana.
Many early hair-length cases brought by men, including police officers and firefighters, challenged standards that prohibited long hair on men but allowed it on women, alleging sex discrimination. Some fire departments continue to insist that they can not have two separate standards for men's and women's hair. Since the mid-1970's, however, the courts have consistently held that prohibiting long hair for male employees is not sex discrimination if the employer's grooming standards for both sexes are related to community standards and are applied in an even-handed manner. (3) The courts have made a distinction between hair standards and issues where discrimination affects "fundamental rights" or is based on immutable (unchangeable) characteristics. (4)
The judicial and administrative branches of the government disagree on a basic point of sex discrimination law as it affects hair and appearance standards on the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has consistently treated different appearance rules for men and women as constituting sex discrimination under Title VII. (5) The courts, however, have decided that anti-discrimination law was not intended to interfere with employers who wish to set reasonable appearance standards required by their business.
Apart from the legal aspects, hair-length issues are also confusing because fire departments have, in the past, required firefighters to have short hair for two different reasons: because, given the protective gear then in use, it was safer during firefighting operations, and because it looked neater, more professional, or more uniform. Where these two reasons have become intertwined into one policy, it is necessary to sort them out in order to create a new policy that addresses current needs.
A safety standard is gender-neutral: fire will burn exposed hair regardless of the sex of the person whose head it's on. Advances in protective equipment in recent years have made it possible for firefighters to have much longer hair than in the past and still be much safer than ever. SCBA facepieces and flame-resistant hoods and helmet liners insure that all surfaces on the head are protected. For this reason, many fire departments have adopted a safety-based hair standard that simply states that "No hair shall be exposed during firefighting activities." This approach avoids the need to regulate the actual length of the hair, and bases its restriction simply on the justifiable need for firefighter safety.
Establishing a policy based solely on grooming and appearance concerns has a more favorable impact on women, for while a safety standard must be gender-neutral, a grooming standard need not be. Even though the EEOC disagrees, the courts have consistently held that employers can legally require male employees to wear their hair shorter than female employees and that such policies do not constitute illegal sex discrimination.
Most fire departments that employ women firefighters allow at least women, and in some cases all employees, to have long hair. Most policies specify that hair longer than a certain length must be restrained or pinned up during all duty hours, or during emergency operations. Policies of this sort are usually achieved through formal or informal negotiations with fire department management, not through legal action.
1 Quinn v. Muscare, 425 U.S. 560, reh'g denied, 426 U.S. 954 (1976) [male firefighter challenge to hair standard]; Kelley v. Johnson, 425 U.S. 238 (1976) [male police officer].
2 Sellers v. City of Shreveport, et al., 1992. The employer defended the policy as a grooming standard, stipulating that the safety of firefighters was not at issue.
3 Dodge v. Giant Food, Inc., 488 F.2d 1333 (D.C. Cir. 1973); Baker v. Calif. Land Title Co., 507 F.2d 895 (9th Cir. 1974) cert denied, 422 U.S. 1046 (1975); Longo v. Carlisle DeCoppet & Co., 537 F.2d 685 (2d Cir. 1976); Earwood v. Continental Southeastern Lines, Inc., 539 F.2d 1349 (4th Cir. 1976); Barker v. Taft Broadcasting Co., 549 F.2d 400 (6th Cir. 1977); Knott v. Missouri Pac. R.R. Co., 527 F.2d 1249 (8th Cir. 1975).
4 E.g., an employer's refusal to hire women with small children [Phillips v. Martin-Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542 (1971)] or the firing of women who marry [Sprogis v. United Airlines, 444 F.2d 1194 (7th Cir. 1971)].
5 E.g., EEOC Dec. No. 71-1529, 3 F.E.P. 952 (5/9/71).
This article is adapted from material developed by WFS under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's U.S. Fire Administration, and published by FEMA/USFA as Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager's Handbook on Women in Firefighting. It may be accessed free of charge from our site: Info Packets.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE