Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service

Sexual harassment is... a form of sex discrimination. It is illegal, it can devastate those who experience it, and it often destroys the morale and productivity of the work environment. It is widespread in the fire service, and the numbers are not getting better. As many as 85% of women firefighters have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work or as volunteers. (1)

Sexual harassment is... a power play that is degrading, humiliating and intimidating to its victim. It is based on aggression and hostility, not sexual desire. The physical appearance and behavior of the victim do not cause harassment. Sexual harassment is not "natural attraction," a "compliment" to the victim, or a "normal" way for men to react to women in the workplace. It is a way men assert their dominance over women and, in some cases, try to force women to leave the job. Compliments that are welcomed, attention that is mutually desired, and truly friendly jokes and teasing do not leave either participant feeling uneasy or intimidated. Sexual harassment does.

Sexual harassment is... an intimate violation that often occurs without witnesses. Its victims generally feel powerless to stop it, which is what allows it to happen in the first place. Women in non-traditional jobs, who are often subjected to strong pressure to "go along to get along," and to fit in and be "one of the guys," often lack support in trying to stop workplace harassment. Women firefighters may come to believe that harassment is what they have to expect as a newcomer or minority in a male-dominated workplace.

Sexual harassment is... anything from blatant acts such as physical assault and quid pro quo pressures ("Sleep with me, or you won't get hired") to more subtle behavior such as persistent, unwanted requests for dates, displays of pornography in the workplace, and jokes that put women in subordinate, sexual roles or call attention to their gender.

Sexual harassment is... a problem for both legal and practical reasons. Employers are liable for acts of harassment that occur in the workplace, whether or not they themselves knew of the acts. Harassment makes the workplace hostile and unproductive for many in it. It can cause stress, poor job performance, heavy use of sick leave, and high employee turnover. Complaints and litigation result in time-consuming investigations and create poor public relations.

Why sexual harassment is usually not reported

Even though it is illegal and a violation of most employer's policies, sexual harassment is rarely reported. Only about five percent of victims report incidents of harassment. Instead, a victim is much more likely to leave her job, request a transfer, or suffer in silence and hope the problem goes away. That this is true in the fire service is evidenced by comments from women firefighters who were harassed but chose not to report it:

  • I didn't want to be labeled a troublemaker, and I didn't feel a positive outcome was possible.
  • Much of the harassment occurred when I was on probation and felt I could not speak out... I did attempt to speak to my officers; all of them shrugged off my appeals for help.
  • I didn't want to be "singled out" even more.
  • I want to keep my job. It's clear that those who seek legal recourse can't come back to work.
  • I didn't want to get someone suspended or fired. I just wanted it to stop. (2)

There are many reasons women do not report sexual harassment. Some are complex and subtle, having to do with how women are brought up to view themselves and to behave. Others reflect the dynamics of a male-dominated workplace. Following are some of the most common reasons sexual harassment is not reported.

  • Reporting the incident usually means an invasion of the victim's privacy. Harassment involves very personal interactions. Many women are uncomfortable with the prospect of having to discuss such subjects with their supervisors or other investigators, or of having to explain and relive the incidents. This is particularly true where the work environment in general is unsupportive, or where the victim has reason to believe the complaint process is not confidential. She may also fear, with good reason, that her own personal life or events in her past will be investigated, exposed and presented as being somehow relevant to the harasser's behavior.
  • Victims of harassment often believe that pursuing the matter would do no good and might even make matters worse. These concerns are often justified. Women on many fire departments have little reason to believe management will do anything to stop the problem. A woman may endure years of unwelcome, abusive behavior without ever finding herself in a position where filing a complaint would actually solve the problem.
  • Victims also legitimately fear retaliation: that the harasser will increase the harassment, or that co-workers or the employer will strike back in some way. The more the victim depends on her income -- for example, if she is a single parent -- and the fewer options she has for finding another job, the more likely she is to put up with harassment rather than jeopardize her paycheck by complaining.
  • Because women are taught to be caretakers and nurturers, a woman may feel sorry for the harasser and not want to get him in trouble. She may try to find excuses for his behavior, or attempt to convince herself that something in her own behavior caused or contributed to the harassment.
  • Victims of harassment may fear isolation and the loss of any friends or allies they have in the workplace if they rock the boat by complaining about the harassment. This is particularly likely in a workplace that fails to support those who report harassing behavior by filing a complaint.

A fire chief is therefore on shaky ground if he or she believes the department to be free of sexual harassment simply because no one has reported it. Ideally, an employee who is harassed will confront the harasser, report the behavior to a supervisor, or seek support from counselors or from friends who have been harassed. But most victims of harassment are disempowered and feel they have few options. This leads them to react in ways that neither stop the behavior nor let the employer know a problem exists: denial, trivializing or excusing the behavior, or trying to appease the harasser in the hope that he will stop. If a harassment victim takes any action, it is usually either to request a transfer or to quit her job.

What constitutes illegal harassment

Federal law defines illegal sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct or sexual nature... when
(1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
(2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
(3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. (3)

It is impossible to make a comprehensive list of all behaviors that could constitute sexual harassment. Many situations must be examined individually; what is harassment in one case may not be in others. This can seem confusing until one focuses on the key concepts: "unwelcome," "intimidating or hostile," and "interfering with work performance." What is important is the effect of the questionable behavior on its victim. Behavior that is highly amusing to one person may be very unwelcome to another.

In cases that go to court, the court must determine whether the victim was offended by the behavior, and whether that reaction was "reasonable." Courts have differing ways of determining what is "reasonable." Some use a "reasonable person" standard: besides being actually offensive to the victim, the harasser's conduct must be such that it would affect the work performance and psychological well-being of a reasonable individual. But because a woman's perspective may differ substantially from a man's, some courts have adopted a "reasonable woman" standard instead.

A "reasonable person" standard does not consider the difference between women's and men's views of appropriate conduct. For example, in one study, 67% of men surveyed said they would be complimented if they were propositioned by a woman at work. When women were asked if they would take such a proposition from a man in the workplace as a compliment, only 17% said yes. (4)

The manager's role in stopping sexual harassment

Many fire chiefs find it difficult to learn of harassment going on in their department. Harassment, after all, rarely goes on in front of those who would take steps to stop it. Other chiefs may be reluctant to deal with sexual harassment at all, believing that writing policies or providing training will increase the number of harassment complaints. But a head-in-the-sand approach is counterproductive: it will only make things worse, and it ignores management's legal responsibility for providing a harassment-free workplace.

Complaints of harassment may indeed increase slightly for a short time after anti-harassment training is done. This is a good sign. It means employees have learned that they don't have to put up with harassment as a price of their job, and that management will support them in getting problems resolved -- not blame them for being the whistleblower. Employees who are knowledgeable about harassment and confident in management's stance against it are much more likely to try to resolve harassment informally, before it becomes a major problem.

Fire service leaders should work aggressively to prevent sexual harassment in their departments, and to deal with it promptly and effectively if it occurs. The attitude from the top should be one of "zero tolerance" of inappropriate, harmful workplace behavior. Following are some basic steps for managers to take in this area.

  • Adopt written policies prohibiting sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and a workable, confidential, step-by-step procedure for the filing of complaints. Give every employee or volunteer a copy of the policies. Include a list of individuals and agencies to which one can go with complaints.
  • Provide training for all personnel -- firefighters, officers and support staff -- on interpersonal issues, including sexual harassment. Anti-woman behavior is part of the dominant culture of many fire stations and should be addressed as such.
  • Do not ignore harassment. To do so sends the message that you agree with the behavior or its underlying attitudes. Do not place all of the burden for reporting and correcting the problem on the harassed person or targeted group. Each stage of prejudiced behavior encourages the next; extreme behavior will develop when subtle behavior is condoned.
  • Support people who bring complaints of harassment to your attention. Handle complaints with the utmost confidentiality, and treat all parties with respect.
  • Encourage solutions that stop harassment at the lowest possible level. An open-door policy, a multiple-option complaint procedure, and training in interpersonal communications can all go a long way towards resolving problems long before the chief is faced with a polarized situation or an expensive lawsuit.
  • Investigate complaints promptly and make decisions on them in a timely manner. Do not let the process drag on unnecessarily, particularly in situations where the harassment or the complaint are common knowledge.
  • Prevent retaliation against people who file complaints, and against any witnesses who support their allegations.
  • If the charge is found to have merit, discipline the harasser. Don't solve the problem by transferring the complainant/victim to a new station unless this is what he or she wants.
  • Find out the reasons behind an employee's request for a change in status, whether it is an application for transfer or a notice of resignation. Use exit interviews (interviews with people who leave the job) as a reality check.
  • Be a role model. Your language and actions should set an example for the rest of the department. Be aware of your own prejudices and make sure your behavior does not reflect them.


  1. Women in the Fire Service, Inc., unpublished survey data, 1995. Earlier surveys by Women in the Fire Service (1990), by Diane Sanchez of Sunset Associates (1991) and Rosell, et al. (1995) found from 58% to 75% of women firefighters had experienced sexual harassment on the job. [Rosell, Ellen; K. Miller and K. Barber. "Firefighting Women and Sexual Harassment," Public Personnel Management, Vol. 24 no. 3 (Fall 1995): pp. 339-350.]
  2. Women in the Fire Service survey, 1990.
  3. EEOC Guidelines, 29 C.F.R. §1604.11.
  4. Goleman, D. "Sexual Harassment: It's About Power, Not Lust" New York Times, October 22, 1991; C1, C12.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

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