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Firing up Women

Sex Discrimination

Firing up Women

Pru Goward Sex Discrimination Commissioner

National Women in Fire Fighting Forum, Holiday Inn, Bourke Rd & O"Riordan Street, Sydney Airport, Mascot, Friday 13 May 2005


Thank you for inviting me here this morning. I am delighted to have been asked to speak at this historic national gathering. I hope and trust this forum is the beginning of a more permanent forum for women in the Australian fire services.

No industry, with the possible exception of water, could be more fundamental to the survival of the Australian environment and the Australian nation.

Fire is that undisciplined, uncontrolled and overwhelming force which has shaped in a unique way what Dorothea Mackellar has described as our "wilful, lavish land".

Fire, like droughts and flooding rains, has marked our summers, our national tragedies and been used to remake the landscape by man from time immemorial.

Fire and fire management are essential to the Australian story, to our culture, to our halls of heroes. In the Australia of this new century, women must also be seen in those halls, women"s achievements and contributions must be part of that story.... or the story is incomplete.

So the formation of a women"s fire services forum is a matter of great significance- it is about women stamping their image on one of the symbols of Australian identity.

It is certainly clear that the determined efforts of Dr. Merilyn Childs and the Fire Services Research Project at the University of Western Sydney have provided the impetus. Congratulations to Dr. Childs and her team- and the enthusiasm of Fiona Millhouse.

There are a number of reasons why today is such a good idea.

More prosaic reasons that have led to the formation of women"s industrial groups throughout the country.

Almost every industrial and professional group in Australia has a women"s forum- with obvious exceptions for female dominated professions such as teaching and nursing. Even women cardiologists have their own support group.

So you are not radicals, there are those who would ask what took you so long.

This national forum for women fire fighters might be a first for Australia but is part of a much longer international effort by women in fire fighting to raise their issues and profile.

Women in the Fire Service, a US organisation, was founded as long ago as 1982, Networking Women in the Fire Service was established in Britain ten years ago.

Events such as this are important networking and mentoring opportunities, but they also provide the forum for sharing your war stories and your pain for discussions of particular interest to women and may help to address your challenges better and collectively- in a way perhaps not even a union could do.

Women"s industry groups provide support for women in the industry, take up policy matters of concerns to women in the wider community and lobby for the interests of women in the industry, including opportunities for advancement.

Of course there may be a natural diffidence in joining. Outsiders are inclined to shrug off groups like this as sisterhood groups, girls" lunches, and clubs for women who can"t make it on merit.

I"ve heard all of these derisory descriptions before about other women industry groups, often coupled with the contradictory observation that they give women an unfair advantage because the old male bosses get invited to come.

I hope so, it"s about time old male bosses got to spend some time socializing with female colleagues and learning about them.

It"s certainly about time that fire services got with the programme. That females make up thirty percent of volunteer fire fighters in Australia but only 3% of paid fire fighters is not to the credit of this service.

There is no point in blaming anyone for this, it is no one"s fault particularly (although it is a pity that women did not apply to become professional fire fighters after the second world war, when they had done this so admirably during the war as members of the Women"s Fire Auxiliary).

For the main part the small number of professional women fire fighters seems to be the result of the hitherto physical nature of the work and its traditional focus on endurance and superior strength. The archetypical image of the firefighter staggering from a burning building with a body draped in his arms is a picture of supreme strength and courage.

Other images of a group of strong-armed men rapidly turning a high powered hose on a bush fire, or sliding down a fire pole at top speed to a revving fire truck are Boys-Own Annual pictures where weakness or timidity are not permitted.

This in turn has produced the macho culture for which fire services are so famous- and inevitably unwelcoming of women.

I am making this unwelcoming bit up of course, having never worked for a fire service.
But I am guessing this is the case for two reasons; first, how else do you explain the low representation of women in the senior ranks of an industry which is now highly equipment and resource intensive, focused on prevention and experiencing an ageing workforce.

Second, because where ever you look, other male or female dominated industries have similarly gendered cultures.

They take on the cultural tone of the dominant gender, they sexualize the minority "other" gender.

For example ask any woman in the male dominated construction industry about sexual harassment- no, don"t ask her that first up, ask her if she ever wears a skirt to work when she goes onto a building site, and how often she talks about her private life and whether or not she is married.
You"ll get the picture.

Ask men in teaching, which is now culturally feminine. Teenage boys tell me they would be accused of pedophilia if they took up primary teaching and that they don"t want to be seen as soft and girlie.

This morning I would like to address two issues which I believe go some way to explaining the low numbers of women in this industry and also point to the way out of it:

  1. Working in a sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environment and,
  2. Work and family.

Both issues are essentially about the same thing - the disadvantage faced by women in the workforce today.

Why at a time when more women are completing school, entering university and embarking on careers than ever before are we still talking about the workplace disadvantage faced by women? Why are we here this morning?

We are talking about it because there are still pay inequities; gender gaps in many professions; and the existence of a glass ceiling.

Women still only earn 84 cents to the male dollar; they still only account for 3 per cent of senior management positions; and they still only hold 1.3 per cent of executive positions.

Every year at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission we receive complaints of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace and sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environments continue to exist.

Working in the male dominated fire service industry I am sure you are all too familiar with this type of work environment - if not through your own first hand experience, then through the experiences of your colleagues.

The display of pornographic material, the consistent talk about sex, the crude conversations and jokes and sexual innuendos often occur on male dominated work sites - that's why they are called sexually hostile workplaces.

For many women in male dominated industries quiet enjoyment of employment is not a given.

But you don't have to put up with it because you are the 'sheila' amongst the 'blokes'.

Indeed, often this sexual hostility is used as a covert- and sometimes not so covert-way of driving women out and discouraging others from entering the industry.

The attrition rate, for example, of female apprentices with a particular mining company in the 1990s was markedly higher than the male rate. Less than half of their female apprentices finished the four year apprenticeship (5 out of 11) in the early 90s.

In the mid 90s this figure showed no sign of increasing - three out of five female apprentices cancelled their apprenticeships before they were finished.

The experiences of females in male dominated industries - in particular the reality of working in a sexually permeated work environment is undoubtedly a reason why women remain less inclined to enter these non-traditional areas.

Let me give you an example of the type of sexually permeated workplaces that were deemed unacceptable by courts in recent years.

In Horne & McIntosh v Press Clough Joint Venture (1994) EOC 92-556

Two female construction workers were employed as trades assistants in 1990 to clean amenities and 'crib rooms' (recreation rooms) on a building site which employed nearly 3000 men. The women complained about a sexually explicit poster in a supervisor's office.

As a result, more posters and ones of an increasingly pornographic nature were placed around the building site. Clearly with the intention of angering, frightening and harassing the two women. The women were also subjected to verbal abuse and intimidation.

When the women sought assistance from the union organiser of the Metals and Engineering Workers' Union (MEWU), their complaints weren't taken seriously and more explicit nude posters were then displayed in the union office.

The women successfully brought a complaint of sexual harassment before the WA Equal Opportunity Tribunal against the Employer and the Union. The women were awarded $92,000 in damages.

This case was not about the censorship of pornographic images. It was about the right of women to work in a respectful environment where they are treated as equals.

Women, like all workers, deserve the right to work in respectful environments. They will not work in environments where they are not respected. They will not work sexually permeated work environments.

Most women do not complain. They express this dissent by not working in these fields or getting out. Low numbers of women in male dominated fields reflect this.

Women often say they left because they thought they were the only ones- and perhaps a national survey on workplace problems might help dispel this crazy myth.

A comprehensive survey conducted by Women In The Fire Service, Inc. in the USA with their female firefighters on sexual harassment confirms that your sisters abroad, despite there being more of them, suffer a lack of respect in the workplace.

Some key findings from the survey of 551 women fire-fighters (of which 471 were paid career fighters) include:

  • 88% of the women had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their career or voluntary service.
  • 277 women (half) said they had experienced unwelcome physical contact
  • 29% of the women reported requests or demands for sexual favours from co-workers or supervisors
  • 69% of women reported that the harassment was on-going
  • 30% of the women who had experienced harassment had not filed a complaint with their department or reported it.

I"m not aware of a similar survey having been conducted here but my suspicion is that there would be some similar responses.

Women also commonly experience unwanted paternalism from their male colleagues - who seem to believe they need to be looked after and protected.

This 'caring' behaviour is unwarranted and detrimental to women. In your case it could well foster the attitude that your position on a fire site is out of the ordinary, and you are not quite up to it. Killing you with kindness is just as much a problem as male fire fighters who are actively hostile.

The low numbers of women in Australia"s fire services should also be worrying to their CEOs and political masters and mistresses. How is it possible to have only 3% at a time when women are steadily making inroads into other male dominated careers?

What"s the secret? Perhaps it"s the result of the industrial sexualisation I have described.

If it"s good enough for 30% of volunteer fire-fighters to be women then why are women not making fire fighting their career?

I'm interested in the tussle that took place in the Tasmanian Mercury in March this year with letters to the editor by Merilyn Childs, with whom you will all be familiar, and Richard Warwick of the United Firefighters Union over the fitness standards required for the job, particularly for women.

We would all agree that a certain level of physical ability is required in order to perform the job - obviously the job is physically demanding.

Yet it seems it is only now that fire fighters are being required to undergo regular health and fitness assessments.

The Western Australian branch of the United Fire Fighters includes a reference to regular testing in their latest certified agreement - I infer for the first time- but clearly there is a long way to go before a testing regime is agreed to and in place. That is, if the NSW branch"s experience is anything to go by.

As I understand it, there is heated debate about who should do the tests and the importance of employee privacy and confidentiality here in New South Wales. I notice although there is reference to health and fitness, there is as yet no nationally agreed strength requirement.

Without daring to presume to know the appropriate fitness and strength levels for fire fighters, two issues seem clear:

First, the inclusion of health and fitness as inherent requirements in this physically demanding occupation is a reasonable one but not one which should exclude women.

Second, yes there will be many women who not be fit or strong enough, but should be excluded on their individual fitness level, not on their presumed unfitness owing to their sex.

Objectivity is so important- such an important part of managing difference. Evidence-driven requirements are an important and FAIR means of ensuring applicants are suited to the tasks.

I was also intrigued to learn that currently fire-fighters need only do- and pass- a fitness test compulsorily, when they join.

Doesn"t it send completely the wrong signal to have women excluded for failing the fitness test but but on the other hand a middle aged bloke who has been in the service for 30 years and may not be quite as fit as he used to, a bit on the paunchy side perhaps, is considered ok to still serve?

On going fitness tests- and, if strength is required, suitable strength tests- need to be used as a tool for ensuring the service is of the highest calibre- not as a device for excluding people from the industry just because they are different and don"t fit in the same old comfortable way.

I don't think there is a straight forward solution to increasing the numbers of women in the service but it does seem to me that if you apply the work value test, then men"s characteristics are being more valued in this industry.

Needless to say, it is not only the male dominated industries themselves which discourage or oppose women entering their ranks.

Lack of encouragement from schools and families for young women to enter non traditional roles has always been a problem.

Gender stereotypes prevail throughout society and influence the choices we all make.

School career advisors need to be educated on the opportunities for women in the fire service and establishing effective promotional frameworks to challenge the stereotypes. The earlier the better.

Women who have succeeded in the industry should act as mentors for other women and be included in career events for high school students.

There is strong evidence that well tailored mentoring programs for women while they are in training improve retention rates. So do female role models in the industry.

In the mean time, the impact of a sexually permeated environment on a women's career progress cannot be underestimated -if a work environment is unable to accept women fire fighters as equals, you can be sure it is even more unlikely that it will be able to accommodate the particular needs of women in the workforce - primarily the need to balance work and family.

It is difficult enough for women in traditional areas of employment to achieve this balance.

The problem is exacerbated for women in non-traditional areas of employment - where there are fewer women and more hostility. Where it"s always seen as a woman"s problem- not most people"s problem.

The provision of decent work and family supports is essential to any industry seeking to improve its female representation. Paid maternity leave, flexible hours and part time work opportunities are now givens in industries seeking to attract staff.

However a better balance of work and family responsibilities is often presented only as the employer"s responsibility- employers are the ones expected to provide her with part time work after her return from maternity leave, access to child care at affordable rates or flexible working hours or remote access technology. And when employers can"t pay for this, governments are expected to breach the gap.

But the truth is that paid work is only one part of the day. And making paid work more flexible is only one part of the answer.

What about the other sort of work, the unpaid work that men and women do? This too, has a significant impact on equality between men and women.

You have to start with a simple question- how is it that men and women, who start out on their life journeys much the same end up in such vastly different circumstances in the workforce?

One reason dominates over all others.

Time. Time to care.

Care. Who provides unpaid care? Who cares for the children, for the grandparents, for adult children with disabilities, for the house and garden, for the dog? And the less equal is the distribution of unpaid caring responsibilities between men and women, the less equal will be their work outcomes.

There are only twenty four hours in a day.

Let me remind you-
Between the ages of 20 and 24 for example, full time female employees earn about 92 per cent of comparable male earnings.

This gap - although not enormous, should surprise us given the high numbers of female graduates and the almost 50-50 participation in all forms of post-secondary education.

It gets worse.

The average age at which women have their first child is now 29.8.

For men and women in full time work, after the age of thirty, overall that earnings ratio drops to 84 cents in the male dollar.

Some of this is because the paid work women do is "undervalued", or women do not bargain as hard for wage increases as men, or even that women may be more contented on lower wages than men, but mostly it is because women choose jobs, even full time jobs, that enable them to put their families first.

These jobs pay less.

They do not take those periods of "acting manager" at the store on the far side of town, because it makes it harder to drop kids at school or pick them up afterwards.

They do not take the "acting promotion" interstate for two months because they cannot leave their children.

They try to leave the office on time because they have children to collect and care for.

Occasionally they ask for lunch hours at times that fit in with children's after-school needs, earning them the resentment of colleagues and the disapproval of their boss.

Apart from students and trainees, the largest group of part time and casual workers are mothers.

Part time and casual work, ironically, gives women the opportunity to fit around their families.

Sure, it is difficult to find well paid part time or casual work (the bulk is in hospitality and retail) and extremely difficult to find it at the professional or managerial end of the labour market, but it remains the preferred form of work for women with families.

This all happens not only because women bear children, but also the major responsibility for their subsequent care.

Again, it is the time they take to care, the caring responsibilities they bear, that makes succeeding in the world of paid work an optional extra in so many women"s lives.

So let"s talk about a very sensitive and shy subject- men and women at home, in the private world of the family.

Time use surveys tell the story. On average, women spend more time in unpaid work (including domestic and caring tasks) than men, while men spend more time in paid work than women.1

Participation in paid work is linked to work in the family. However, the effect upon women is much stronger, with gender and age being strong factors in influencing what families do in the home.2

Less time in paid work for women means much greater time spent in unpaid work, while for men, even a large reduction in time spent in the labour market results in only a small increase in time spent in unpaid work.3

Considering the broadest definition of unpaid work, which includes "outdoor" and traditionally "male" tasks such as car maintenance, women"s unpaid work accounts for 70 per cent of all household work in Australian households.4

While we might expect that women"s greater share of unpaid work is because they do less paid work and have children to care for, women spend more time on unpaid work regardless of time spent in paid work.

Whether women work part time or full time, on average they perform more child care than their male partners.5 While it has been suggested that part time work is a way for women to balance paid work with a heavy unpaid workload, part time work does not reduce total paid and unpaid workload for women; rather, it appears that women who work part time attempt the full job of childcare in a shorter amount of time by doing more things at once.6

Lyn Craig"s recent time use paper shows that women in the paid workforce don"t reduce childcare significantly but instead sacrifice time spent on other activities such as sleep, eating and leisure.7

Sixty percent of women in full time work do more than 12 hours of housework a week- 11% of men do this.

How come? Afterall, attitudinal surveys show that men and women in Australia believe that housework should be shared between men and women.8

But it"s not the reality- marriage and parenting actually exaggerate the gender differences in unpaid work.
When Australian women marry, for example, the amount of housework they do goes up, not down. Men do less unpaid work when they are married than when they were single.

Among those aged 25-44 who are partnered, for example, women did 71 minutes a day more than men, while lone women did just 12 minutes per day more than lone men.9

It is parenthood which is the most significant factor in determining use of time in families. Even when new age fathers do spend time with their children, time use surveys demonstrate that they play, rather than take responsibility for their physical care.

Women here today will no doubt know from their own experience that they do more child care, more cleaning, more organising and more monitoring and management of the household.

There are plenty of exceptions of course; we can all point to wonderful men who share the housework and examples of highly involved, active fathers, yet the statistics are unequivocal. For every great bloke with a broom, there are obviously plenty of others who don"t know where the broom cupboard is.

We know that where family-friendly provisions like paid carer"s leave are available to men the take up rate is low.10

We can point to a number of possible factors for men"s low uptake, such as concern over damage to career prospects - being relegated to the "daddy track" - beliefs about masculinity, or a workforce culture that values intense and long hours.

I bet you see a bit of that in your industry.

But the gains to be made from a fairer sharing of unpaid work should be recognised. For a start we can speculate that greater gender equality in the home would reduce tensions between husbands and wives.

Financially, it could also be a win-win; if you share the load in the home well, nobody has to leave the workforce, so the family"s and the country"s prosperity remain intact.

We have spent thirty years or more focusing on the advancement of women in the public arena - in education, in the workforce, in senior representational and decision-making roles, in new frontiers like yours.

Yet we can only go so far without change in the more complicated and private world of the home.

And that is why I have embarked on a new project, Striking the Balance, how men and women balance their work and family life....with emphasis on their unpaid work.

We are asking what families need to make real choices in both their paid and unpaid working arrangements.

How might we ease the burden on women, many of whom have three jobs; one paid, child care and elderly parent care? Should their partners do more?

There are also national benefits to be gained from genuine work and family balance, like higher fertility rates and greater overall workforce participation, economic growth and self-funded retirement.

There are benefits to men, who stand to experience the joys of building caring relationships.

There are benefits for children, many of whom express a "time hunger" for the "hyper-breadwinner" working long hours, even in households where the mother is at home outside school hours.11

And spare a thought for care of the aged.

Our aged. Our parents, then us.

Currently 88% of informal care provided to elderly parents is provided by their daughters- a staggering imbalance between them and their brothers and another reason for women leaving work in their mid fifties, even though this endangers their own retirement prospects.

As we baby boomers move into retirement, long retirements these days, governments will need us to stay out of nursing homes and hostels for as long as possible, to cut the cost.

That means the responsibility for caring will rest on the shoulders of our children. And daughters will not be so likely to give up work so their brothers can continue to earn.

Elder care is certain to drive a whole new wave of industrial and private change to accommodate our family responsibilities.

Sons have no less a responsibility to their parents than their sisters.

So let me conclude by urging you to take part in this project, Striking the Balance, and to use this forum to generate discussion within your industry.

We need to work together to ensure that there is a comprehensive change across society in how we balance work and family.

Where caring can take an honourable place in a world that centres on work, where women"s lives will not be compromised.

That is the challenge for women in your industry as it is for women everywhere.

Congratulations again on your historic forum- I look forward to hearing of its results - one of which must be the formation of a national women"s association to ensure this work and passion is carried on.


  1. David de Vaus, Diversity and change in Australian families: Statistical profiles, Australian Institute of Family Studies July 2004 p 281.
  2. Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley, The Double Life of the Family, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, p 101.
  3. Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley, The Double Life of the Family, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, p 102
  4. Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley, The Double Life of the Family, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, p 96
  5. Lyn Craig, "The Time Cost of Parenthood: An Analysis of Daily Workload", SPRC Discussion Paper No. 117, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney October 2002, p 17.
  6. Lyn Craig, "The Time Cost of Parenthood: An Analysis of Daily Workload", SPRC Discussion Paper No. 117, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney October 2002, p 18.
  7. Lyn Craig, "How do they do it? A time-diary analysis of how working mothers find time for the kids", SPRC Discussion Paper No. 136, January 2005.
  8. Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley, The Double Life of the Family, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, p 145.
  9. David de Vaus, Diversity and change in Australian families: Statistical profiles, Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2004, p 293.
  10. Bittman, Michael, Sonia Hoffman and Denise Thompson, Father"s Uptake of Family Friendly Employment Provisions, Final Report prepared for the Department of Family and Community Services, SPRC, April 2003, p 24.
  11. Barbara Pocock and Jane Clarke, "Can"t Buy Me Love?; Young Australians" views on parental work, time, guilt and their own consumption" Discussion paper Number 61, The Australia Institute, February 2004, p x.