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Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service

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Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service

Nowadays, the bond between male and female occupations is a little bit erased. Women successfully master various professions which were only up to men some years ago. However, in mixed-sex work collective, it is often extremely difficult for females to express their opinion, as our society tries to keep the distance between masculine and feminine. Sexual harassment is a great problem, especially in the fire service. There are many reasons for it.

First of all, it’s deeply ingrained in popular culture that the world has to be sharply divided into feminine and masculine parts, not because that is how the world exists, but because that is the way everyone believes it should be. It also stimulates us to make some unfair judgments, particularly about the career. Many men strongly believe that the place of a woman is at home, near her children and when she tries to fit herself in some male-dominated workplaces, they stand against it. It appears in the form of sexual harassment. What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is one of the forms of sexual discrimination. It is a horrible drawback of the effective working process. The crux of the matter is in its destructive power, which ruins the productivity of work, moral values and triggers stress. Moreover, it provokes heavy use of sick leave and high employee turnover. Sexual harassment is widely spread in the fire service. Almost 85% of women firefighters suffer from it at work, not only as workers but as volunteers too. For women firefighters, sexual harassment is what they have to deal with as a minority in male-dominated workplaces.

As it is the big problem of modern society, federal and state laws in the United States have been enacted making sexual harassment illegal, and thus it cannot be tolerated in the workplace (Lanier, 2005, p. 93). However, the law is only the paper and it cannot influence and can not change the conscience of the men. It is a pity, but women and men do not have equal status in some fields of life. Men believe that they have more privileges in such types of professions where their physical superiority is obvious.  Men point out that females are not suitable for such responsible work and it is not definitely women’s cup of tea.  Such judgments and stereotypes allow them to behave in the wrong way against female colleagues.

What can we treat as sexual harassment in the fire department? Firstly, it is telling some jokes with sexual content or commenting on one’s physical attractiveness or unattractiveness. In addition, it can appear also in the form of jokes that emphasize all drawbacks of the female gender. Secondly, compliments and romantic overtures are unwelcome too as a woman is at work, so, first of all, she is a worker, and only after that she is a woman. Women in men-dominated workplaces are always annoyed with unwanted requests for dates, which make them very angry. Because of it, some companies even have strong prohibitions against dating among employees. However, the sexual harassment in most a case is not based on natural attraction and is not a normal way of expressing admiration. It is the manner, with the help of which men make women leave the workplace. Moreover, the sexual harassment in the comparison with natural friendly jokes and compliments, which are mutually satisfying, forces the women to feel uneasy and intimidated. Thirdly, it can occur in the form of an intimate violation. Women, who are the victims of it, feel powerless to stop this horror from happening because of the lack of support, as they are not so numerous to stand against men colleagues. Sometimes they do not show their dissatisfaction as it is the straight way to lose the job. Many men who believe that they are bosses and their gender allow them to rule the world, especially women, express their disrespect in the form of such phrases: “I am a man.  Sleep with me or I will dismiss you.”

Despite all these inconveniences, which sexual harassment provokes, it is in most cases not reported. It is easier for a woman to leave her job, to suffer alone, or request a transfer than brings this problem into the public eye.  There are some examples of women’s explanations. The first woman said, “I didn't want to be a troublemaker, and I didn't know what to do”. The second also has almost the same opinion, saying  “I want to work there. It's clear that after this big quarrel I could not do it”. Sometimes it is strange to hear that they do not want to get someone fired, but simply they want to lead a quiet life without trouble from the sexual harassment: “I didn't want to get these men punished. I just wanted to have peaceful life”. It is a pity to hear their notes of despair, which make us sure that women simply do not have the shoulder to cry on. “Much of the harassment took place when I was a volunteer and felt I could not tell this the manager... I tried speaking to my colleagues; all of them were indifferent”. There are some other reasons. Firstly, it is the unwillingness to allow someone to invade the victim’s private life.

Therefore, many women feel uncomfortable revealing the truth as sexual harassment involves very intimate moments. No one wants to have his bad past events discussed that is why the women do not talk to everybody about this bad experience. Secondly, a great number of women believe that reporting will not bring any benefits and might even make matters worse. Women, in fact, have few reasons to hope that management will do something to change their position.  Thirdly, it is a minimum fear of retaliation that keeps many women apart from reporting sexual harassment. They are afraid of both coworkers’ and the employer’s nemesis. Whereas they are dependent on their income, it is better for them to keep a secret than reveal the truth. Moreover, if the woman is a single parent and does not have the possibility to find a new well-paid job, it is a more convenient way for her to bear the sexual harassment than leave her children without food clothes, and so on. Sometimes the crux of the matter is in the upbringing. Many women are taught to be nurturers and take the blame on themselves. In addition, they may feel sorry for the harasser and not want to make his troubles or spoil his life. It is easier for such types of women to find the drawbacks that cause sexual harassment in their own behavior rather than accuse others. The last reason is the lack of support. Many victims always feel very alone. They do not have a shoulder to cry on that is why they do not have the strength to resist violence and harassment. Others are afraid of public condemnation and understand that complaints can make them isolated from the whole community.

To my mind, sexual harassment is the problem that concerns all fire services not only the biggest ones.  Personally, I face it too. We are a small department of 5 fire stations and 122 staff in Palm Beach Country Florida. I am a Lieutenant who works 24 hours on 48 hours off. It means that I spend a lot of time with my women colleagues. To be precise, we live a third of our career together. It is very easy for sexual harassment to happen in our current shift time. That is why I am interested in this problem. In my opinion, things like this should be seriously taken into consideration. It is also essential to see the difference between normal kidding around and true sexual harassment and to keep a clear bond between them. To prove my idea and to underline the importance of discussing such types of topics, I want to demonstrate the examples of other fire services in which both men and women work.

In Japan, it is a Tokyo Fire Department. There were 666 female firefighters in 2003. It is 3.8% of the total. The number of them had been growing steadily. There was 17,000 female fire service staff in 2009. Nowadays, the Department has 9,351 permanent staff of which 6,330 are full-time firefighters - 899 officers and 5,431 other ranks. (Tam, 2003, p. 11)

In the United States, more than 6,200 women now have the career of firefighters. Hundreds of women also work in Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Panama, South Africa, Trinidad, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Furthermore, there are about 40,000 women in the volunteer fire service in the U.S. In the UK the first woman firefighter was hired in 1982 to the London Fire Brigade. The proportion of operational firefighters, who were women, in the UK was 3.1% in 2007. Nowadays, there are 257 female firefighters in this brigade (Tam, 2003, p. 3). The history of Hong Kong Fire servicewomen recruiting started in 1994. The first women firefighters were control and ambulance staff. Nowadays, there are 111 uniformed female firefighters. However, only eight of them are operational firefighters. (Tam, 2003, p. 1)

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The history of female firefighters in the history of the Netherlands went back to 1939. In 2000 there was 3.3% of female firefighters out of the whole amount of firefighters (Shizue, 2002, p. 9).

Taking into consideration the number of female firefighters in different countries, one may conclude that the problem of harassment is acute. However, many fire chiefs are not aware of harassment going on in their department. On the one hand, it happens because of the hidden nature of these harassments. On the other hand, chiefs simply do not want to take care of it, as they believe that attention to this aspect can trigger embarrassment and quarrels between workers. However, this indifference does not help to solve the problem, as it makes the matter worse. In my opinion, the manager has to take a proactive stance on this issue. It is necessary to provide staff with all-important training and writing policies. Of course, harassment complaints may increase slightly after this anti-harassment training, but it is a good sign of future positive changes. Employees who are definitely aware of the management’s anti-harassment attitude are much more likely to cut it off at the beginning and they do not let it become a significant problem. It is essential not to blame people who complain about sexual harassment and not treat them as whistleblowers. They need to feel stable support from the manager. Otherwise, it will be impossible to find the solution to this problem. I want to propose the next steps for a chief manager, which presumably will help him to overcome this problem. Firstly, it is necessary to adopt written policies, which prohibit sexual harassment. The second step is to provide a workable procedure for the filing of complaints. Every employee should have a copy of the policies and a list of individuals and agencies to which one can go to complain about sexual harassment. Secondly, the good idea is to provide training seminars for all staff every month and discuss any interpersonal issues on them, including violence and harassment. Anti-woman attitude is deeply ingrained in the dominant culture of a great number of fire services and it is necessary to show the disadvantages of it. Thirdly, a manager does not have to ignore harassment. All those guilty must be punished! In addition, the victims, as well as those who provide the department with the information about harassment, have to feel stable support. It is important to keep their names secret in order not to cause any discomfort in the collective for them.  Moreover, sending victims to a new station will not bring any benefits, as it will not solve the problem of harassment. The most important rule for all managers to be followed is to be role models.  Everything, starting from language and gestures to tone and behavior has to be perfect to give a good model for imitation for all the employees.

To sum up, nowadays, women can easily do the works that some years ago were particularly performed only by men. A great example of it is the appearance of female firefighters. However, social stereotypes make this profession very hard for them. It is believed that men have more privileges in this sphere. In my opinion, female firefighters should have equal rights with male ones. No one is allowed to perform sexual harassment against women as the law prohibits it. Chief Manager has to perform special training and seminars to make men more conscientious and to help women get a relaxing atmosphere at work.

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