In an article printed in the Harvard Business Review, a UCLA professor argued that there are too many white male firefighters in America.
Corinne Bendersky, Professor of Management and Organizations at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, who does research on “gender bias,” posited “black firefighters still face challenges with social exclusion and explicit racism,” and “firefighters tend to default to a reductive set of traits (physical strength evaluated through strict fitness tests, for example) that serve to maintain white men’s dominance in the fire service.”
In addition, Bendersky opined that because 64% of calls for firefighters are triggered by medical emergencies, being male is often insufficient, writing, “To succeed as a firefighter, stereotypically masculine traits like brawn and courage are simply not enough. Firefighters also need the intellectual, social, and emotional skills required to deliver medical emergency aid, support each other through traumatic experiences, and engage intimately with the communities they serve.”
Bendersky noted that 96% of career firefighters are men, and 82% are white. She claims, “Many fire departments recognize that their lack of diversity as a problem and say they’re committed to increasing racial and gender diversity.” She cites research she has done that prompted her to write, “when the topic of female firefighters came up, the importance of physical strength was consistently and spontaneously invoked to justify the relative absence of women in the fire service, but the importance of compassion (a female-stereotyped trait) was rarely, if ever, brought up to argue for bringing more women into the profession.”
Bendersky claimed she heard women firefighters say, “I have to prove myself on every call, every time” and “Everyone expects you to fail.”
Bendersky segued to sexuality issues: “Openly gay men are exceedingly rare in the fire service; the few who are out of the closet face severe social exclusion.” She writes, “Ultimately, most firefighters who are not heterosexual white men must be extremely resilient to overcome relentless scrutiny and exclusion in their careers.”
Bendersky offered her advice: “I also encourage leaders to elevate the value of skills that align with stereotypes about women and minorities through concrete actions. For example, to promote the social and emotional strengths commonly associated with women, one might look for ways to acknowledge and celebrate crew members who demonstrate what we call the ‘heart and soul’ of a firefighter in the station and out in the field.”
Then she intimated that black Americans are generally in better humor than whites:
Joviality — defined as “markedly good humor” and one that helps process emotional trauma — is a positive trait associated with black Americans somewhat more than with white Americans, so explaining that a jovial culture can increase crew effectiveness may reduce some of the skepticism about and exclusion of black firefighters.
Hopefully, the departments that have implemented my training approach with will see continued improvement in their efforts to confront the diversity challenges of the fire service, and will serve as examples to others across the country, as well as different types of organizations that would like to become more meaningfully diverse. Perhaps most importantly, it will make a difference in the careers of talented and hardworking firefighters.