Out of all people working as firefighters today, less than 10 percent are women, and it looks the same all around the globe. Being a female in such a male-dominant profession does come with some challenges. It can be anything from harassment and sexism to the lack of research about health issues and cancer risks.
We had a quick talk to Stephanie White, a 19-year veteran of the fire service to hear her thoughts. Stephanie has spent the past 17 years as a professional firefighter/paramedic in a metropolitan fire department in Northern Virginia. Throughout her career, she has been actively involved in firefighter health and safety as a personal trainer, cancer awareness educator, and a trained mental health peer.
How long have you been working as a firefighter and why did you decide to become a firefighter?
I’ve been a firefighter for 18 years now. I originally wanted to just do medicine and be a paramedic for the fire department. However, the first time I did a training fire and realized how much of a physical and mental challenge it was I became hooked.
How many female firefighters work at your department/station?
We have around 130 female firefighters in our department, and my current captain is a female as well.
What is your experience, as a female firefighter, of working in such a male dominant profession?
I’ve faced some pretty ugly challenges when it comes to the male dominated side of things. Every time I’ve been in a bad situation though it’s always been solved by men noticing and doing something about it. In the end, the male colleagues that stepped up and did the right thing is what I’ll always remember.
In the end, the male colleagues that stepped up and did the right thing is what I’ll always remember.
What are some of the challenges that women face in male-dominated professions like firefighting, and how can they be addressed?
I think very often men assume that when they work with a woman we won’t be as fun as if the crew was all men. The truth is sometimes we have an even better sense of humor than they guys. Taking the time to get to know your new female coworker is really the best way to solve that fear. Mutual respect goes a long way in making everyone feel comfortable and have fun.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your profession?
Learning how to balance work and home. That sounds like a cliche answer, but often when we see horrible things, we take that severe reality and apply it to the rest of our life. The people at home don’t see the same things we see, and we can’t expect their reality to be the same as ours.
What unique qualities or skills do you feel you bring to your line of work?
A different perspective. Calls are a dynamic thing, and you need people with a different view so you can tackle every call efficiently.
We know that firefighters run a higher risk of getting cancer than the general population but there isn’t much research on the subject for female firefighters. Do you know any female firefighters that have developed cancer and was it then classified as an occupational decease?
I do know several, and they were classified as occupational. In my state breast and ovarian cancer are considered presumptive, but not every state has that basic right.
Why do you think the number of female firefighters is so low today?
I think departments need to do a better job of letting people know what a cerebral career this is. The physical side is a lot of fun, but I think advertising the mental challenge would help recruit more women.
How do you envision the future of the fire services, and what changes do you think could be made to attract more women to the field?
My perfect view of the fire service would be an environment where all coworkers are watching out for each other and there’s never any unease when a woman gets assigned to a firehouse. I also hope that the policies surrounding pregnancy, recovery from birth, and breast feeding/pumping exist in more places. Having a child is a not a new thing, and departments need to acknowledge that women becoming mothers is a very normal thing, and protect their health accordingly.
Do you believe the fire service would benefit from having more female firefighters and if so, why?
I think with the recent normalization of women being strong instead of skinny there are just as many capable women as there are men in some places. What I think matters the most is why people are signing up for the job: they have to be signing up because they love it and not because it’s a job. Compassion and mental resilience will always be factors that benefit the fire service, and I do think women have those strengths in abundance.
What is the most notable change you have seen in your profession during your career?
I think the generation that is coming in now cares more about defending their health than generations in the past. In the past we knew we were going to get sick and injured, and just accepted it. The men and women coming on the job now aren’t just accepting that and they’re fighting back in all categories: mental health, physical health, cancer - you name it and they’re paying attention to it.
What is the best thing about your profession?
Sounds cliche, but being there on someone’s worst day is an amazing privilege. It’s also a very amazing thing to experience it with a team of people that you have a very close bond with. You get the chance to push yourself physically and mentally and learn how much you’re capable of as a human being, and that’s an opportunity that not every person gets.
What would you like to say to women who might consider firefighting as a future profession?
Have a solid “why”. Know why you’re becoming a firefighter because the job can be physically exhausting, and some days you’ll need to focus on that goal as you learn the job. Be physically strong AND mentally strong. Have a good support network of people that can help you learn how to handle and cope with the tough things you’ll see.