A reflection on the field experience that led to new research on leadership and gender in wildland fire.
Editor’s Note: This reflection offers background on the writer’s experience that led to a research article, “The wildfire within: gender, leadership and wildland fire culture,” published in Novembr 2018 in our sister IAWF publication, the International Journal for Wildland Fire. Your IAWF membership provides access to this and all IJWF articles at IAWFonline.org.
by Rachel Reimer, MA.
It’s 2015 and a hot, dry summer in the Fraser Canyon, British Columbia, Canada. I’m juggling two radios and a cell phone in the staging area as firefighters mill about. I’ve just received approval for my plan for the day from the Incident Commander, including aerial burning operations to support our hand ignition later in the day. It’s my first large fire leadership role, and I’m 12 months into master’s degree research on gender and leadership in wildland fire. I’m aware that my every move is being watched. I feel vulnerable, and at the same time, confident that I’m the right person for the job. I’m one of very few women in the crowd of 60 on the south side of the fire. How did I get here?
My path in high-risk professions began in conflict zones in the Middle East. I was attracted to helping people. With a degree in International Development Studies in hand, I headed off into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to research women’s leadership in refugee camps for the UN in Lebanon. After that I was off to Africa to build capacity for small scale drinking water projects in dry villages. When my curiosity and work ambitions eventually led to me Afghanistan in 2011, I left knowing I needed something new.
In 2012 I started work with the BC Wildfire Service. The toughness of the culture resonated with me and the austerity of fireline life felt familiar. Like many other firefighters I developed a tough persona to fit in, but it was still me. I believed deeply in the mission and knew that the physically strenuous work, mental toughness, and commitment required would draw on my deep strengths. I felt strong. I felt brave. I was proud of being a firefighter. I was good at my job.
At what cost? As a rookie, I was the only female on the fire base and was subsequently tasked with cleaning bathrooms and doing dishes for the entire season. The male rookies cleaned trucks. I did this work from alternating places of rage, resignation, and at last, acceptance of the gendered division of labour. I noticed differences in risk tolerance as my chainsaw and falling skills advanced alongside my peers. I took fewer chances, electing to practice basic falling cuts over and over before trying more advanced cuts. My male peers seemed to learn faster but ran from more trees as they spun off the stumps in the process. When I moved into leading my own crew the differences in approach and perspective were amplified. I was modeling the leadership approaches of my male mentors but getting push back. When I softened I was “too sensitive.” I felt like the first firefighter to be both “too hard” and “too soft” at the same time. It was confusing and lonely.
Noticing these differences in treatment over my early career made me feel like I was betraying my loyalty to the crew and my agency simply by perceiving these biases in behavior and expectations. No one else in my work environment shared my observations. I added internal criticism to the external feedback. It was all my fault – my personality, my approach, and my leadership style. I felt like I didn’t belong in fire or in leadership.
And then one day after returning from a fire with my Nomex® covered in soot, I paused, looked in the mirror, and took it all in: dirty, sweat-stained face, scratches, twigs in my hair and covered in ash. “Is this who I am?” I thought. The answer came: Yes, very much yes. I realized that I deserved to be there. I had passed every test, both external and my own internal barrage. I’d fought every fire I’d gone to. I decided that I belonged and that my voice and perspectives had value.
This represented a huge shift. Each day, I started reminding myself that I belonged in fire. It wasn’t just the wildfire service anymore. It was mywildfire service. As long as I was in the uniform I wasn’t going to turn a blind eye. My courage grew. Nothing changed externally in my work environment but my perspective towards my own experience changed. I believed in myself, and I started listening more closely to the parts of me that knew change needed to happen in the job I loved. I stopped seeing the act of asking questions as disloyal. I realized that by silencing my questions I was not serving my crew, my colleagues, the wildfire service, or the public. I thought back to my experiences in the Middle East, to the trauma and the challenges I’d faced and overcome in life, and I recognized that I was perfectly equipped to take on this task.
In 2015, I began research into gender and leadership in wildland fire and inquired, from within, into how this affects us all.
In the 2015 fire season I dusted off my social science research skillset and began the work. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Finding it and defining what was going on was my task. I got up at 4:30 AM to do schoolwork before going to fires. I read every gender study on wildland fire from the last two decades. I sought and received permission from senior leadership to do the study. I began introducing the topic of gender and leadership research within my circles in the agency. I lost friends immediately. Mentors stopped returning emails and calls. It was a dark and lonely time and self-doubt became a constant companion.
Eventually the holes left by former friends and mentors were filled with people who said, “I have those questions too.” My mentorship relationships and coaching conversations now took into account how female leaders are perceived differently. I could be more honest about my experiences at work and I noticed that my male colleagues were more honest too. Over dinner at firecamp one evening, a colleague shared that every fire season he had to leave his “city masculinity” behind and put on the tough persona he has in fire. He was over 6 feet tall, bearded, and an up-and-coming leader on a hotshot crew. I started to see that this was not about men doing things to women. It was a cultural problem that affected men too.
My research goal was to start a conversation about gender and leadership in wildland fire. By gender, I mean the ways that we all perform masculinity or femininity. Women can perform masculinity (e.g. the tough fire persona), and men can perform femininity (e.g. fatherhood, empathy). It’s not linked to biology. By leadership I mean how we each lead ourselves first, and then our crews. When we put on a uniform we are leaders regardless of our position in the hierarchy. In addition, we shape ourselves after the leaders we look up to. From early stages within fire we are taught to fit into the image we collectively hold of how a “good” leader looks and acts. In 2016 I collected data through a survey and interviews. Out of 1645 employees (an average of 24.6% female), 245 participated.
The study found that gender made a difference at work for both males and females. Men shared stories of having to be more “macho” than they wanted to be. Women shared stories of being belittled, having skills questioned, and assumed to be less competent than their male colleagues. Taken as a whole, the stories shared by both men and women revealed that masculinity was seen as strength and femininity was seen as weakness. It didn’t matter if you were a male or female. Anything feminine was seen as weak and shameful. The basic rule of fitting in was not to be seen as weak. This underlying cultural norm affected men and women differently. Some men could hide behind their height, strength, or facial hair but still feel quite lonely and distraught. Women were more easily associated with femininity and therefore respected less until proven otherwise. The more masculine a woman acted the more likely it was that she would gain respect. Sexism and misogyny were described as daily occurrences.
The “ideal” leader in wildland fire was described as someone, regardless of gender, who supported others, created mutually respectful environments, and had the humility to admit mistakes. Stories about females in leadership being perceived differently described a trade-off -respect for any masculine characteristics they exhibited, but not liked or respected as leaders. Some men shared stories of feeling like they had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to fit the cultural expectations of how a leader behaved. Despite a rather open and inclusive ideal of leadership, the firefighters in this study revealed that there are difficult choices leaders must make regarding a performance of masculinity in order to be seen as effective and to gain and keep respect.
What do firefighters in this study want their future to look like? The ideal future was one with equal representation of diversity across the fire agency where skills and qualifications were the only factors for hiring decisions. Diversity was a shared value to be achieved without sacrificing high performance. Diversity was actively linked to higher performance including better decision-making and risk management. Firefighters in this study connected with the benefits of diversity. It was clear that while they desired more diversity in leadership as well as throughout the organization, that it shouldn’t come at the cost of high-performance teams.
What actions should fire agencies take to help bring the profession to a place where diversity is a shared value and doesn’t compromise performance? In this study, firefighters recommended that actions focus on creating conversations about cultural norms. The importance of collaborating towards a better future was highlighted because for many, the hidden costs to men and women are not clear. Sharing stories with time for self-reflection and discussion would help everyone soften their “fire persona”. This would help people engage honestly with their own behaviors and the effects those behaviors have on their relationships with themselves and with others, ultimately improving organizational performance in the face of challenges.
Putting the Fire Out?
This study did not inquire into experiences of sexual harassment and none were shared, however accountability did emerge as an important point. It is very difficult for people to speak openly about gender discrimination and sexual harassment given the history of diversity and gender in the profession. There are perceptions that women are favoured even though the data does not support that. The BC Wildfire Service has never had an affirmative action or preferential hiring system for women, yet strong evidence of resentment from men towards women emerged in the data. This includes perceptions that females are treated “better” than men. It also includes the perspective that women who say they are experiencing sexism do so because they are “bad at their jobs.”
These beliefs are very real and present significant challenges for many women and men who choose to speak out when they witness a peer acting inappropriately. The parable of the frog in the pot is useful here. Cultural change begins with the willingness to see the water we are in before it begins to boil around us. Seeing the invisible is best done in groups by raising awareness through constructive and honest conversations in a safe space. It often takes someone from outside the organization to facilitate these “aha” moments. If we can soften our collective “fire persona” and release the fear of being weak, we’ll be able to transform the negative, mostly unintended consequences in our fire culture.
Should we abandon the “fire persona” completely? As a firefighter I experienced my courage, physical strength, and mental and physical toughness as a gift. These aspects of firefighting masculinity are beautiful and brave especially when they are paired with firefighting femininity. We have not failed when we associate masculinity with strength in firefighting culture. We fail when we single out masculinity as the only strength, excluding of all other forms of strength available in the human spirit. It’s time to open to our full potential as firefighters and leaders. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will enhance our ability to perform and excel at our mission.
About the Author
Rachel Reimer (www.racheldreimer.com) led initial attack crews for the Province of British Columbia from 2013–2016 and worked a total of six years in wildland fire. She holds an MA in Leadership Studies and provides research-based change management for male-dominated, mountain-based professions. She co-founded Open Mountains Project in 2016, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting vulnerable youth with the mountain environment through backcountry skiing and mountaineering.
This article is background of and based on:
Rachel Reimer and Christine Eriksen. (2018). The wildfire within: gender, leadership and wildland fire culture. International Journal of Wildland Fire 27, 715-726. https://doi.org/10.1071/WF17150 (open access).