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   Home » Issues My Account   |   Thursday 24 April, 2014   

Issues Concerning Women & Firefighting

Sexual Harassment Survey: Women Firefighters' Experiences

The data compiled below is from Women in the Fire Service's 1995 survey of fire service women on sexual harassment and other forms of job discrimination. It is drawn from the responses of 551 women in fire departments across the U.S. Of that total, 471 were career firefighters or officers, 62 were volunteer firefighters, and 18 were women with non-suppression careers in the fire service. (26 of the career firefighters and six of the women with other fire service careers were also volunteer firefighters; their data is included in the appropriate career category.)

Of 471 career firefighters responding to the survey, 69 held the rank of captain or higher. Ten of the 62 volunteer firefighters were captains or higher.

The survey listed eight areas of overtly sexual harassment and asked women to indicate their experience with each behavior, including how often they had experienced it and whether the behavior had occurred only in the past or was happening at the time of the survey. The eight areas were:

  • Unwelcome requests for sexual favors from co-workers
  • Unwelcome requests for sexual favors from supervisors
  • Unwelcome demands for sexual favors from supervisors (i.e., favors the woman had to perform in order to get or keep her job, position or promotion)
  • Unwelcome physical contact
  • Sexually explicit posted material (photos, cartoons) the woman found offensive
  • Sexually explicit material present, but not posted, that the woman found offensive
  • Sexually explicit movies or videos the woman found offensive
  • Sexual or sexist jokes or comments the woman found offensive

Two other areas of harassing or discriminatory behavior were surveyed:

  • Denial of training, promotion, or special assignments based on gender
  • Otherwise being treated differently (in negative ways) based on gender

Overall experiences with sexual harassment

Sixty-four women, or 12% of respondents, reported they had never experienced sexual harassment. Thus, 487 women -- 88% of fire service women responding-- had experienced some form of sexual harassment at some point in their fire service careers or volunteer time. Twenty-two percent of the women who reported one or more types of harassment said the harassment had occurred only in the past, which means nearly 70% of the women in the survey were experiencing ongoing harassment.

Requests or demands for sexual favors

One third of the women harassed (33%), or 29% of the women responding to the survey, reported requests or demands for sexual favors from co-workers or supervisors. More than two-thirds of the women (71%) reported the behavior had happened more than once. The survey options for indicating frequency were: "Never," "Once," "Several times," "Occasionally," and "Often."

The frequency breakdown was:

Never: 391
Once: 47
Several times: 72
Occasionally: 17
Often: 23

107 women (22% of women who had been harassed) reported co-worker requests for sexual favors; 99 (20%) reported supervisor requests. Twenty-two women (4%) reported they had been subjected to supervisor demands for sex that they had to perform in order to get or keep their position; in 16 of the 22 cases (73%) the behavior had occurred more than once.

Unwelcome physical contact

Half of the women responding to the survey -- 277 women -- said they had experienced unwelcome physical contact on the job. For 191 of them (69%), the contact had happened more than once.

Offensive sexual materials

Fifty-four percent of women responding to the survey -- 297 women -- had had sexually explicit pin-ups, calendars, cartoons or other visual materials posted in their workplace; the vast majority (85%) more than once and 43% "occasionally" or "often." Two-thirds of the women (371 women, or 67%) had had such materials in the workplace inside co-workers' lockers, stacked in the bathroom, tucked away in a closet, or otherwise present and available but not posted. Half of the women (275 women) had experienced offensive, sexually explicit movies or videos in the workplace; 75% of them more than once.

Offensive sexual/sexist jokes or comments

Not surprisingly, this was the most common form of harassment: 78% of the women responding to the survey, and 90% of the women who had been harassed, reported they had experienced this type of behavior. The frequency breakdown was:

Never: 123
Once: 17 (4% of those reporting this form of behavior)
Several times: 149 (34%)
Occasionally: 138 (32%)
Often: 124 (29%)

While this type of behavior is clearly common in fire stations, it was almost always accompanied by other forms of sexual harassment: in only 22 cases (less than 5% of the women reporting harassment) were sexual/sexist jokes or comments the only form of harassment experienced.

Ongoing harassment

While the survey included harassment that had occurred only in the past, 382 women -- 69% of the women responding to the survey -- reported they were experiencing some form of sexual harassment at the time of the survey in 1995. This included:

Co-worker requests for sex: 13 (3%)
Supervisor requests for sex: 19 (5%)
Unwelcome physical contact: 58 (15%)
Sexually explicit materials posted: 111 (29%)
Sexually explicit materials present, not posted: 192 (50%)
Sexually explicit movies or videos: 106 (28%)
Sexual/sexist jokes or comments: 329 (86%)

Harassment correlated with rank and career/volunteer status

Only three of the 69 career firefighters who were captains or higher reported never having experienced any of the harassing behaviors on the survey; thus 96% (66 women) had been harassed. The percentage for career firefighters below the rank of captain was somewhat lower: 89% had been harassed.

For ongoing harassment, the situation was reversed: 64% of the captains and higher were currently experiencing one or more forms of harassment, as opposed to 72% of the firefighters and lower-level officers.

Of the ten volunteer firefighters who were captains or higher, four had never been harassed (40%) and one other had been harassed in the past only. Thus, 50% were currently experiencing some form of harassment, as compared with 60% of the 52 volunteer firefighters who were not captains or higher. Ninety percent of the career firefighters (424 women) reported experiencing one or more of the sexually harassing behaviors listed in the survey, compared with 76% of the 62 volunteers.

Other forms of discrimination

Two other areas on the survey -- denial of training, promotion, or special assignments based on gender ; and otherwise being treated differently (in negative ways) based on gender -- are much more general than the eight categories discussed above. They encompass a wide range of behaviors, many of which might not be considered to constitute sexual harassment, even though they would usually still be illegal forms of sex discrimination.

Forty-five percent of the women responding to the survey (246 women) said they had been denied training, promotion or special assignments because they were female. For 78% of those 246 women, this had occurred more than once, and more than a quarter (27%) said it had happened often. More than half of the women who had been denied such opportunities (138 women) said the problem was still going on.

Nearly three-fourths of the women responding to the survey (404 women, or 73%), said they had been treated differently from their male co-workers, in negative ways, due to their gender; the vast majority (96%) more than once. For 301 women (55% of respondents), the negative treatment was ongoing. Nearly one in five women firefighters surveyed said they were "often" treated differently from and worse than their male counterparts because they were female.

How harassment is handled

The survey asked respondents to indicate how their fire department's management had responded when they reported the listed behaviors, if they had reported them. The options were:

  1. Investigated the problem and took care of it
  2. Disciplined the person who caused the problem
  3. Moved me to a different station against my wishes
  4. Did little or nothing to take care of the problem
  5. Retaliated against me for complaining, or allowed others to retaliate

141 women -- 30% of the women who had been sexually harassed -- had not filed a complaint or advised their department of the harassment, even though most of them had experienced harassment numerous times.

Of the 339 women who said they had complained about harassment, only a third (115 women) listed only positive outcomes: investigating/taking care of the problem, and disciplining the harasser. [Note: Many women listed more than one outcome, often a mix of positive and negative ones, sometimes from the same complaint and sometimes reflecting how different complaints were handled.] More than half -- 55% -- listed only negative outcomes in response to their complaint.

Overall, the responses were:

Investigated/took care of problem: 139 women (41%)
Disciplined the harasser: 51 (15%)
Moved the woman to another station: 37 (11%)
Did little or nothing: 192 (57%)
Retaliated/allowed retaliation against the woman: 89 (26%)

Several women who checked "investigated the problem" wrote explanatory notes such as: "investigated but did nothing," "did not let me know the results," "made a token effort only," or "investigated, but did not take care of the problem."

Other comments from respondents on this section of the survey

"The officer was talked to; I was dismissed from the volunteer department without investigation or explanation."

"They offered me counseling! I guess the guys I worked with for months (with them not speaking to me unless absolutely necessary regarding work) didn't have a problem, just me."

"Sexual comments by new 'progressive' chief, no less, just a couple of years ago."

"They moved me to another station; I was for it. My old station was beyond repair in terms of sexism and hate against my presence."

"Once, they moved the harasser. The remaining crew members refused to talk to me or work with me until the harassing male was returned and I was transferred. After a month, the department did just that. I was moved to the station furthest from my home."

"I went to the fire chief for help and was fired two weeks later after an investigation on me. He didn't believe me."

"I took care of the problem by talking to the person; in every case successfully. The only reason it keeps happening is because it comes from a different person the next time."

"Never, never, never! Our chief will not tolerate any of the above-mentioned things and everyone knows it from Day One!"

Of the women who reported only positive outcomes to their complaints, 67% were still experiencing sexual harassment (the first eight behaviors listed) at the time of the survey. Of the women who reported only negative outcomes to their complaints, 86% were still experiencing sexual harassment. This appears to show a correlation between how harassment complaints are dealt with and the incidence of harassment on a fire department.

Copyright © 1996 Women in the Fire Service, Inc. May not be reprinted in any form without specific written permission.

Also see our online collection of articles from our print newsletter.

The U.S. Fire Administration in November of 1999 published two handbooks written by Women in the Fire Service, covering issues such as those above.

  • Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager's Handbook on Women in Firefighting, and
  • Many Women Strong: A Handbook for Women Firefighters

These booklets update and replace the 1992 document, The Changing Face of the Fire Service. Both may be accessed free of charge from Reports page, and we encourage you to do so.


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