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Female Firefighters Speak Out About Sexual Harassment

Female Firefighters Speak Out About Sexual HarassmentEven in this current day and age, there are occupations that are still male-dominated and difficult for female employees to navigate safely. When we think of police officers and firefighters, for example, we tend to see more police officers and firefighters who are men than women.

One of the reasons why these types of occupations continue to remain male-dominated is because there is a type of culture that encourages sexism between men and women. The handful of women who decide to pursue careers in these types of occupations encounter many hurdles, from bullying from their male counterparts to outright sexual harassment.

Recently, there was public outcry from a combination of Los Angeles firefighters and advocates for women demanding a resignation from the department chief. According to the Los Angeles Times, Department Chief Terrazas was asked to resign over allegations that female fire fighters have endured hazing, bullying, and sexual harassment under his leadership.

Several representatives for women from groups such as the Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California came together to publicly condemn the treatment of female firefighters at the hands of the LAFD. The president of California National Organization for Women, Kolieka Siegel, called for an end the traditional “good old boys club” at L.A. Fire. A 13-year veteran of the Fire Department named Jennifer Wilcox declared that there is rampant sexism, racism, harassment, and abuse occurring within the department, and stated that Mayor Eric Garcetti must follow through on his promise to bring an important change to the culture.

Examples of harassment and abuse of female firefighters at the LAFD

Lauren Andrade, a veteran firefighter from Orange County, shared a letter from a woman who was at the LAFD. The woman stated in the letter that she had been sexually assaulted by another firefighter at a firehouse. According to Andrade, the incident occurred six years ago and the woman wanted to remain anonymous.

The Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Larson, who also serves as president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, expanded on the woman’s experience, stating that the woman did not want to cooperate with investigators because she was scared of retaliation from her male counterparts and losing her job.

What type of culture has the Department Chief encouraged for the LAFD?

The Los Angeles Fire Department has been criticized for encouraging a frat house type of culture. Female firefighters face threats of retaliation and discrimination from their male counterparts, and often enduring hazing and bullying. From LAist:

The city upgraded its fire stations— more than 100 of them — with women’s restrooms and locker rooms about 20 years ago, but the quality of the facilities varies widely from station to station. Sometimes, women firefighters must walk through men’s locker rooms or sleeping quarters to get to their designated area.

That was the case at one station where [a female firefighter] was posted during her rookie “probation” year. She says a male firefighter exposed himself to her, grabbed his genitals, and said, “This is what a real firefighter looks like.”

[…]

[Her] experiences echo the stories female LAFD firefighters have shared for decades: while serving the city of L.A, they face verbal abuse, isolation, hostile pranks and training exercises designed to humiliate.

One female firefighter expressed that she encountered threats of sexual violence after filing a workplace complaint. The frat house type of culture was once more endorsed when Mayor Garcetti declared his full support of Department Chief Terrazas hours after the news conference was held.

The mayor expressed that he had full confidence in Terrazas and the LAFD leadership, and that he expects the organization to act with urgency when they receive news of any alleged allegations of abuse.

How common is sexism in fire stations?

Common. The Los Angeles Times reports that “a 2019 study by Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service found widespread sexism at fire stations. The women said they were targeted with sexist remarks and nearly half said they hesitated to report misconduct, lest they be labeled ‘that kind of girl,’ according to one female firefighter.”

One of Garetti’s commissioners on the Fire Commission named Rebecca Ninburg testified in a court deposition involving Garcetti’s former advisor, claiming that female firefighters are not allowed to speak about the abuse that they are enduring at the hands of their male counterparts.

Why are female firefighters not reporting incidents of abuse and sexual harassment?

Larson also had the opportunity to testify at a fire commission hearing. Larson declared that female firefighters do not feel safe enough to file complaints about the sexual abuse and harassment they endure out of fear of retaliation.

Female firefighters do not have trust in the department’s complaint system, and believe even less that their complaints will be addressed. Even if the department were to investigate their complaint, the issue of sexual harassment and abuse would be swept under the rug by the department.

What are some of the statistics surrounding female firefighters across fire stations?

In a study conducted by Hulett and Associates, there were 457 female firefighters who were interviewed. Of those 457 female firefighters, there were 84.7 percent who stated that they had experienced different treatment based on their gender.

From the same 457 female firefighters, there were 42.9 percent of female firefighters who experienced verbal harassment, 30.2 percent experienced sexual advances, and 6.3 percent experienced sexual assault. While the percentage of female firefighters may seem low, keep in mind that many incidents of sexual assault are unreported, especially in an environment that silences victims from seeking justice and encourages retaliation.

Support for female firefighters is increasing

Advocates believe that filing lawsuits and taking the matter to court is sometimes the only effective solution for women who represent a minority of workers in an industry. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are about 93,700 female firefighters in the United States, or eight percent of all fire departments. About 15,000 are “career” firefighters – approximately four percent.

Although there is a smaller number of female firefighters, female firefighters who pursue justice in the legal field are on the rise. Female firefighters who have filed lawsuits against their departments in states such as Illinois, Texas, and Virginia have won their lawsuits, especially if the complaints stem around sexual discrimination in the workplace.

Bringing a claim for sexual harassment is a daunting step. The knowledgeable and compassionate Los Angeles sexual harassment lawyers of Taylor & Ring will sit down with you to explain your rights and help decide how to proceed. We will aggressively pursue compensation for the harm that you have endured, including going to trial to achieve justice. Call our office 310-776-6390 or complete our contact form to begin the process.

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