A Radical Take on Recruitment

Fire chiefs are often in search of the latest ideas on how to recruit women firefighters. In an era of backlash against affirmative action, when the future of women in non-traditional jobs sometimes seems at risk, this interest should be a good thing: it means those chiefs want to increase the numbers of women on their department.*

Many fire departments, however, define recruitment too narrowly and ask too much from it. Recruitment has become a quick fix, a band-aid approach to improving workforce diversity that can not really work. "We don't have enough women," the fire chief or EEO officer or personnel manager says. "We need to do better recruitment."

What does this approach really mean? For one thing, it implies that someone has an idea of what "enough" women would be. Is it five percent of the department? Ten percent? Twenty? Whatever the actual number, it is apparently something finite: if that many women are hired, the department won't "need" to hire any more.

More importantly in practical terms, the focus on "enough" alters the overall purpose of the recruitment effort. Since the goal is simply to hire some women right now, it becomes a numbers game. It's not complicated. You develop a dog-and-pony show that you take to your selected targets — colleges, women's athletic teams, military discharge centers, gyms and fitness clubs — and you spread the word through attractive flyers, eye-catching posters, and one-on-one contact, that the Hometown Fire Department wants to hire women firefighters.

Does this kind of recruitment work? If you define "working" as "keeping the fire department out of court," it probably will work. Or kind of. It will certainly comfort city and county legal departments, who see a big red flag waving over numbers like "a department of 1,300 men and two women," or "97 men and no women." Shifting the percentage of women on the job over to the left side of the decimal point makes it look so much better: the Hometown FD is now 2% female instead of 0.6%.

But even from the limited and ultimately harmful perspective of staying out of court, recruitment may not be all that effective. When a fire department fails to address the factors that change the culture of the workplace and improve retention, the result may simply be that lawsuits are filed by women firefighters who have been discriminated against on the job, instead of by women applicants who have been denied jobs.

The entire focus on lawsuits is overblown, in any case. Media attention to lawsuits has reinforced the popular belief that just about every woman who works in a non-traditional job must have filed a lawsuit to get there. In reality, most women who are discriminated against, whether in hiring or on the job, don't file a complaint. The reasons for this are illuminating. The woman who has been unfairly denied a job may not want to sue an employer and then try to go work there. She may not have financial access to an attorney or know she can file a charge of discrimination without an attorney. She may choose not to endure the long battle and the personal attacks that a lawsuit involves. Or she may simply not want to work in a place where women are generally unwelcome.

A woman who is already on the job confronts the same issues when she deals with discrimination. In addition, she may have been made so miserable at work that the job no longer seems worth fighting for. She may also have been personally demoralized and traumatized to the point that she no longer has the emotional, mental, or physical resources that would allow her to fight back.

This is not to say that fire chiefs shouldn't be concerned about lawsuits. A smart manager will pay attention to his or her legal responsibilities and exposure, no matter what the odds are. But someone who's also a good manager will care about -- and address -- the central issues involved.

What happens when women are hired and just dropped into the soup of an unchanged work environment? Few women are so adapted to male culture that they can feel completely at home when they're immersed in it. Even those who are will face acceptance issues: some men don't want any woman to be part of their culture. Some of the rest of the women, probably the majority, will survive, often at great cost to themselves: overadapting in order to be accepted, putting up with any harassment that may occur, and hiding or denying the resulting stress. The others will drop by the wayside and leave the job. In situations like this, solving the problem by recruiting more women is like fixing a bucket with holes in it by pouring more water in.

This is painful and costly for the women involved. It is costly, too, for the fire department that hires and trains new firefighters only to have them leave in a few months or years, and to have the productivity and morale of those who remain be impaired by discrimination and cultural discomfort. It also fails to take advantage of the presence of women on the job to pave the way for new women. With little done to effect change in the culture of the firehouse, the next women hired will find the way nearly as difficult as the first. Individual initiatives such as informal mentoring are less likely to emerge if women on the job feel they will jeopardize their acceptance by reaching out to the new woman firefighter.

To escape from this pattern, it's useful to review the evolution of fire service ideas about recruitment. This evolution happens at different rates for different fire departments.

Perspective A

"Recruitment" consists of putting an ad in the paper to let people know the Hometown Fire Department is hiring. Information is also spread informally, through word of mouth. Who is hired under these circumstances? People who were already looking for firefighter jobs: sons and friends of firefighters, volunteer firefighters, and a few others; few or no women.

Perspective B

"Recruitment" consists of putting an ad in the paper and posting or distributing information at targeted sites where women are likely to come in contact with it. Who is hired? Mostly the same as Perspective A. Some women may show up to take the test, and a few may be hired. Their retention is questionable.

Perspective C

"Recruitment" consists of early intervention to persuade people to consider fire service careers, followed by aggressive outreach efforts once a test is announced. The shift in perspective is a crucial one: instead of letting people who already want to be firefighters know your particular department is hiring, recruitment now involves educating traditionally excluded groups about the job and encouraging them to consider firefighting as a career. Who is hired? A wider range of candidates in general, and therefore fewer of those hired under Perspective A, hence some resistance from incumbent firefighters. The ability of the department to retain the women hired is still an open question.

Perspective D

"Recruitment" consists of systematic efforts to make the fire department a place where the people you're trying to recruit would want to work: review and revision of department policies; training on communications skills, conflict resolution, and diversity issues; implementation of programs such as peer mediation. Only then are the efforts of Perspective C undertaken. Who is hired? A wider range of candidates, including women and people of color who are much more likely not only to stay but to succeed. Their success is your success, not just a pat on the back because you did it right, but because they are able to bring their skills and talents to play -- not blocked by discrimination or turned off by a hostile work environment.

The crux of the matter was summed up neatly by one fire chief who simply said, of his department's past recruitment efforts, "It was hard to recruit women, because the guys didn't want them there." The practical and ethical ramifications of this very true statement are worth considering. Why would a woman want to come work somewhere she's not wanted? And why is it right to try to convince her to?

To go from C to D is to make a significant leap. Most fire chiefs today would probably agree with the statement: "I want to hire women who feel comfortable in an all-male work environment." Certainly, there is nothing wrong with hiring such women. For many years to come, these may indeed be the women who have the easiest time adapting to the job. What is wrong is limiting your effective hiring (those who are hired and stay on the job), now and in the future, to those women.

Are you interested in making the fire department a professionalized workplace where everyone feels free to share their talents and abilities? Or do you just want to hire a few women — two, five, seven percent — so the department looks good on paper? This is not a rhetorical question. Many chiefs will answer "yes" to the latter, if they're being honest. But those who said "yes" to the first question will want to know how to get from C to D.

Moving toward a new perspective

  1. Assess where your department is with respect to this change in the workforce. How do current firefighters feel about working with women? Individuals will vary, but the overall climate will be stronger than any single person's attitude. Are they actively hostile? Do they ridicule the idea and refuse to take it seriously? Are they suspicious of how women will be hired or how they will have to alter their own behavior? Are they willing to be convinced, generally positive, or even supportive? This assessment will give you an idea of the magnitude of the task ahead of you.
  2. Review departmental policies and facilities, and make changes where appropriate. What is the department's policy on hair length? Is it suitable for women as well as men? What about sexual harassment? Are workable procedures in place to stop it from happening, to see that it gets dealt with at the lowest possible level, and to make sure it isn't covered up? Do people know how to use the system, and do they trust it to be fair, speedy and confidential?

    What about reproductive safety? Are firefighters guaranteed reasonable alternatives to hazardous duty when they request it for reasons related to childbearing? Is maternity leave adequate to the demands of firefighting?

    Are fire stations suitable for a workforce that includes men and women? Is appropriately sized protective gear available? Are training instructors chosen for their competence, knowledgeable about alternative techniques for physical tasks, and generally positive about training women?

  3. Provide meaningful diversity training for all levels of the department, beginning with its top management.
  4. Provide training for all department members in communications skills and conflict resolution. These seemingly irrelevant skills contribute significantly to workforce harmony.
  5. Consider implementing other helpful programs such as mentoring and peer mediation. Clearly, it will not be possible to make all of these changes before the next time your department hires firefighters. If you are trying to take your fire department from the Age of the Dinosaurs into the 20th century, you will probably not make it before the century ends. And of course you can't stop hiring in the meantime. Nonetheless, gettting a new take on recruitment can help you view it in the proper perspective: one step towards workforce diversity, but not the entire solution.

Copyright © 1997 Women in the Fire Service, Inc. May not be reprinted without permission.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

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