By Tami Parkinson (USDA Forest Service), Tamara Wall (Desert Research Institute) and Tom Zimmerman (Past-President, IAWF)
[Editor’s Note: This is a synthesis of a two-hour, live panel discussion from two locations — the conference sites in Australia and the United States — that featured the stories and insights from women working in wildland fire and bushfire. To view the entire video of the discussion, visit IAWF’s Vimeo channel at https://vimeo.com/344849805.]
The Why and Who of the Panels
Across the globe there are low numbers of women working and participating in wildland fire management. The reasons why this is the case are many – some historical, cultural, or political. Despite widespread commitment in recent years to improve diversity and inclusion, many organizations are slow to change their ways of doing business and reasons for this are not clear. By slowly or not striving to improve diversity, they miss out on the benefits that flow from having a more diverse workplace. These benefits lead to more innovation, reduced turnover, and wider access to top talent. An article published by the New York Times from a research project at MIT identified three characteristics defining the smartest teams
- Quality and scope of team discussions – team discussions being open, equal, and not dominated by one or two people,
- Emotional state – team members have increased ability to measure emotional state from images with just the eyes visible, and
- Team composition – highest performing teams were composed of more women than men. The article can be found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/opinion/sunday/why-some-teams-are-smarter-than-others.html.
The International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) has markedly reinforced its position on diversity and inclusivity over recent years. As part of these efforts, IAWF wants to provide renewed attention and increase members’ and others’ awareness to these issues. As a global communication leader in wildland fire management, IAWF has unique opportunities to center attention through published documents and at IAWF events such as conferences.
The 6th International Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference was conducted in April 2019 at three locations simultaneously: Albuquerque, NM, USA, Sydney, Australia, and Marseille, France. This conference provided an opportunity to share information between locations, reach a large number of participants in more than one location around the world, and continue communication on these issues. A moderated panel discussion titled Women in Fire was presented and shared between the Sydney and Albuquerque sessions.
The moderators’ questions and panelists’ responses were shared via live streaming that connected the two locations in a single theme — to explore the challenges and successes of women working in wildfire.
North American participants (left to right above) included:
- Annie Benoit – United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, National Wildfire Coordination Group (NWCG) Training Specialist
- Maria Sharpe, Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center (CIFFC), Fire Science and Information Manager
- Michelle Walker (formerly Ryerson), Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Deputy State Director
- Deanne Shulman – Retired USDA Forest Service – International Programs;
Australian panelists (left to right above) included:
- Allison Donovan – District Manager, Parks and Wildlife Services, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions;
- Mika Peace – Research Scientist, Bureau of Meteorology;
- Erika Lind – Prescribed Fire Planning Officer, Forest Fire Management Victoria
These panelists brought a range of career experience including. early, middle, late, and retired career tenures and complimented each other in the breadth of their experience as well as representing international experiences. This diversity of participation with the panelists in Australia and North America provided similar but different stories to tell, regarding success, failure, hope, and ambition.
Panel facilitators included Tamara Wall, Desert Research Institute and Tami Parkinson, USDA Forest Service in Albuquerque and Bronnie Mackintosh, Training Officer, Fire and Rescue New South Wales, Australia on the Sydney side (both of whom are on the far right in the respective photos).
This synthesis of the panel provides background on the topics discussed and a synopsis of panelist answers, experiences, and interactions. To focus on their collective experience and insights, panelists are quoted or paraphrased in the bulleted paragraphs but not identified by name. The online video of the panels (https://vimeo.com/344849805) allows viewers to identify specific speakers and follow along with the dialogue.
The panel discussion opened by framing questions within the context that women and men both bring complimentary but different skill sets and perspectives to problem solving and communication within a team environment. The discussion focused on the value of the skills, perspectives, and successes that can result when women thrive in their fire careers.
Stories of Strengths and Skills
Imagine you are meeting with a new supervisor, and he/she asks you what strengths/skills you feel that you bring to the team that will support the team’s success? What story or example from your past experiences would you use to describe this?
- I was working with international programs at the time, and giving a presentation to India regarding ICS and how it could improve their disaster response system. I submitted a proposal to USAID, an international support agency for the US government. The project was generously funded and still is to this day for international training involving the Incident Command System (ICS). I was given the creative license to pull this together and the results are such that the USDA Forest Service is still very actively involved in teaching ICS to other countries. This initial project had 44 people involved, for many this was their first exposure to countries with less resources and infrastructure to respond to disasters. Not only did we help the receiving units with ICS training, but our own people came home as changed professionals – humbled.
- [Some observations of what a woman manager brings to fire]: Building connections and providing a sense of purpose to the people you are working with or supervising, regardless if it is the first day or the 30th day. Welcoming people to your patch or unit; realizing they are there to contribute to the event that brought them there and treat every moment you can as a teachable moment. Relationships in an office setting can be built over months of time; on the fireline these relationships are being built within minutes. Remembering that working as a leader sometimes a smile or a laugh can go a long way to improving crew morale.
- I was the fire manager on my unit and there was a fire on the neighboring district which we sent suppression support to assist with the incident. Not long after the crew arrived at the incident they were burned over – of the four injured two were from my unit – there was one fatality and the other had 3rd degree burns over 25 percent of her body and she spent her 25th birthday in the hospital. My unit resides within a community of approximately 500 people, the injury and fatality significantly impacted this community. Despite being a fire manager with solid operational skills, I also brought soft skills to the situation – I used these soft skills a lot, listening to my staffs and the community, in addition to having empathy and compassion for those affected by the tragedy. This event has helped me recognize and develop relationships within my organization, to gain the capability to draw upon others’ strengths, learning humility and how to learn from others, and confidence in promoting my own skills and strengths to compliment the organization. These relationships will foster trust and authenticity, providing the structure for a strong team environment.
- When I was ready to embrace having a family in addition to working in fire, I communicated my intentions with my leadership and was candid about my limitations. Given the limitations for operational activities I found other ways to be involved and support the efforts while managing my personal life and changing expectations. Communicating that I was willing to give 110% to the organization when things were busy but I had limitations and that might support activities would be a different than what they once were.
What was a decision you made that had important outcomes for your career, and was this a difficult decision to make?
- I was trying to become a burn boss but our opportunities were minimal due to other environmental factors, so I opted to look for bigger and broader opportunities internationally when I found the “Women in Trex prescribed fire training” in California. I packed my bags and flew across the ocean to participate in this program, I was nervous and scared to embark on the adventure. Participation in this program helped me in many ways, obviously helping me obtain the qualification, but also working with other strong and smart women in fire. Seeing and working with female leaders provided leadership growth for other up and coming women nationally and internationally.
- When making the decision around children, you seek to maintain your career while balancing the calls of being a mom. There was an overriding feeling that I had to work full time to maintain the commitment to fire, to status rosters, and other fire duties, while balancing the duties that come with being a mother – nursing, nurturing and home time. After working full time as a fire manager and balancing the call of duty with work and motherhood I look back and recognize that just because we have done things one way in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do things differently as an organization in the future, such as being open to flexible work schedule, shared positions or other creative ways to meet the obligations of work and the balance of family.
- I was to a point in my career where I wanted to go back to school for an advanced degree in fire weather and fire behavior after working as an operational meteorologist around the country. This was a big decision to make for me personally, but the people who supported me helped make the decision easier. Two years into the advanced study I had my first child, this was a tipping point for me, to stay on course or do something different now that my energies would be pulled again in another direction.
Again, my peers, colleagues and supervisors supported my advanced education all the while balancing a young family. It is important to note that when your colleagues and supervisors believe in you, it helps you believe in yourself. Research around this topic indicates that with all things being equal women will typically rank their capabilities lower than males. The support from supervisors, peers and colleagues can really help women gain the self-confidence to compete and showcase their skill sets for various positions.
Challenges and Barriers for Women
Challenges you faced in your career that were barriers because you are a woman.
- This is tricky because it can be subtle and accumulative over time. Working as a supervisor of project crews and frontline crews I hear little things or comments about a person’s size or abilities to run a chainsaw, to name a few. As a young person coming into the organization there is typically a lot of chatter that a person has to have so much experience, and be a certain way to compete for some of the higher-level jobs. The innuendos and commentary tend to have an effect on the young aspiring people within an organization who don’t necessarily want to raise their hand for additional duties due to the peer banter in the underground.
It took me a very long time to put my hand up because of this same feeling. Up until that point I really didn’t feel as though I was fully contributing, instead I was trying to blend in and not be the object of the banter. I encourage others to be aware of the impact of language and comments that happen in our workplaces as subtle as they may seem. They can have a negative impact on our personnel, the accumulation of such comments can later lead to the chip on the shoulder and potentially hamper a person’s long-term career. We all need to play a role in calling out the subtleties that occur within the workplace despite it feeling uncomfortable.
- We all have an unconscious bias, I encourage you to challenge yours. Unknowingly we may be setting people for a skill set based on gender, size, or other factors and these may not be the skills needed to round out the organization. In Australia there was an example where men and women within the fire organization rotated around the “state” working for different supervisors to be exposed to styles and leadership qualities. The intent was to cross train everyone for operational and administration duties so as positions opened up within the organization there would be a deeper more qualified applicant pool. An evaluation was completed on this type of process and it showed that across the board men were accomplishing their operational qualifications but weren’t gaining administrative skills, and exactly the opposite was occurring for women. It didn’t matter what district these folks were working in, who they were working for or other factors. The bottom line was an unconscious bias that played into how we view and capitalize on peoples’ abilities and skills.
This affected our organization when we were looking to fill positions with operational qualifications. Due to the unconscious biases, the men were more qualified operationally and the women were better qualified for the administrative type positions.
We all play a role with unconscious bias, it is something to keep in perspective and evaluate frequently to make sure the actions being taken are fair and equitable.
- Breastfeeding in the workplace – this is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. How can we provide support or continued support of new families trying to balance work and parenthood? Family balance isn’t all on the female – males are juggling childcare and trying to manage shift work or being engaged at all hours of the day that may or may not fit “normal” childcare options. How do organizations truly support the family/work balance issues regardless of gender?
- I have had to manage my fire career with parameters, it is a delicate balance to maintain and obtain fire qualifications – trying to take on fire assignments and balancing my personal life schedule with my husband who is also a primary fire fighter with a very unpredictable schedule. I have had to make hard choices – but these were my choices and I recognize that and remember that when there is a perception of unfairness. I have chosen to live in certain areas, not moving every few years to climb a career ladder, carefully coordinating my availability for a fire assignment so I have childcare covered with my husband and supporting fires at the same time. There have been times in the past where I have made logistical arrangements to have my mom provide the childcare, so she could bring my daughter to me on a fire assignment to see mom, but also to see the line of work I do.
As a woman in fire with children and a husband as a primary firefighter you have to be creative to make things work. It isn’t going to be a “typical” experience and things are never going to be the “perfect” balance – kids, work, and fire assignments (for either parent).
I have come to realize that “perfection’ is in the eyes of the beholder and it is all a balance – what works for us, may or may not work for others in our same situation.
- I made a decision early on that I wanted to be the head of Alberta Wildfire. I never navigated my career to get to that point necessarily, instead I took jobs I really enjoyed, and took advantage of many opportunities. There was a point in my career when I was being overlooked to help fill in as acting manager. I asked my supervisor why that was the case. The response was that he didn’t think I had the skills to perform the job. I moved on from that conversation but it made me reflect on the situation – coming out of school we can all be pumped up about going into the “real” world and making changes or differences but we all have unconscious bias that comes into play that can either be positive or negative. Embrace these bumps or changes as learning opportunities and don’t let them get the best of you.
- I worked for the USDA Forest Service for 37 years. My first 12 seasons were operational positions – engines, hotshots, and smoke jumper. I had a degree in forest management and was coming to a point where I wanted to move into more of “management.” I was encouraged to put in for a battalion chief position by my former hot shot superintendent – I got the job in the early 80’s. The job was bittersweet, no longer was I traveling the country seeing incredible places. Now jump forward nine years and I am applying for the next position – district FMO – I have been a model employee, received lots of awards and recognition, and I was overlooked for this position for a lesser qualified male employee. I filed an EEO complaint to look into the case – I would advise not trying this at home, not an easy experience or ordeal. The transition from model employee to one that is ostracized and marginalized at the district and at various meetings was a difficult time for me. There was an opportunity to help International Programs coordinating with Mongolia and Indonesia on fire assignments – enhancing partnership opportunities and providing technical expertise as needed. All the while my EEO complaint was being reviewed. The EEO complaint was resolved in my favor – after three long years, International Programs created a position for me and that is where I finished out the remaining 14 years of my career.
I don’t know if I would have made this leap to a different program without the painful experience that pushed me to consider other opportunities. Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened, but I wish I could have figured that out prior to going through the painful, humbling process of an EEO complaint. In my new position I was challenged to develop international partnerships and bring teams of people oversees to assist with training and sharing of knowledge. It was an amazing experience.
- My challenge was I started working for the USDA Forest Service in 1974, and the span of my career coincided with the integration of women into the agency to positions beyond administrative duties. I was the first female in a number of positions and at that time there was a feeling that I certainly wouldn’t come back for a second or third season – but I did. Sexual harassment was commonplace – I recognized it for what it was and I still worked in this environment; I do have to acknowledge I was never physically assaulted but the verbal and hostile work environment was rampant.
There is a saying that if “they go low you go high.” Instead I went lower and they went even lower and so goes the story. Throughout my career I felt as though I had to prove myself, and be equitable with all of the things the guys could do – physically and mentally. I was trying to balance the stereotype that women are physically weaker and cannot handle the physically challenging work environment.
Question from the audience: Reflect on the pressure you may have experienced, internally or externally, to masquerade as a man, particularly in an operational environment.
- I would hang out with the men and avoid hanging out with the women due to the femininity and the perception of lack of strength. I covered up my feminine side to be “one of the guys.” My turning point was when I started seeing the younger generation coming up and they were putting on a “cover” at work to integrate into the work environment but after work I could see these same women as bright, courageous, and energetic people. This emphasized to me that we as leaders need to be comfortable just being ourselves, who we are and being okay that we “aren’t” one of the guys. It took me eight years to come to terms with this thought of being happy with who I am.
Advice for a Young Female Firefighter
Short Answers: Imagine you are working one afternoon with a young female firefighter and she asks you for advice about having a career in fire and juggling life with those responsibilities. What is the best advice you would give her?
- Make sure you build a support network outside of the fire family, maintain friendships outside of the workplace, and stay connected to hobbies. It is so easy to be available to take the next fire assignment or standby to gain the experience and time in for the next leadership position. If you don’t balance your personal life and wellbeing there is a high potential for burnout.
- Do what you love. Most of us are in this line of work because we like it. Never sell yourself short, accept opportunities and don’t sell yourself short that you got the position just because you are a female. Recognize that you are being offered the opportunity because you do have skills and someone is recognizing that you have the ability to perform the job.
- Recognize that a career is more than just a job, it is about continually learning for yourself and going one step further to share that knowledge with others. Additionally, it is very important to take care of yourself, be sure to maintain your physical and emotional health, making time for yourself. By making time for yourself I am referencing getting exercise to stay balanced physically and mentally. Women, in general, need friendships both professionally and personally to be balanced.
- Be flexible and keep your options open as one never knows what life will throw your way, it is important to be adaptable and flexible. There will always be change, it could be in your personal life with illnesses, babies, or it could be associated with work and changes with supervisors, or bigger organizational changes – keeping options open will be beneficial in the end.
- Follow your passion, be yourself, demonstrate your unique skills, be flexible and open to learning and sharing.
- Early in your career it is important to remember that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Maintaining work life balance is important as you work through life. There are lessons learned along the way and we can let them define us or we can turn these events around to help develop and maintain a better fire program. As a survivor of the South Canyon Fire, I could have let that event define me, instead I have grown from that horrible experience to help make a better fire program.
- There are many nuances within fire management and roles or skills that are overlooked. Keep an open mind, talk to people in various positions, find a mentor that you can work with and say yes to opportunities as they come up.
Better Support for Women Wildland Firefighters?
How can fire management institutions better support women and women wildland firefighters – as if there is one policy, behavior change or support element that would have impacted you the most.
- It is more about behavior for fire managers. We know what we have to do when there is a high tempo and we have a job to do. But when we are at a slower tempo – to allow for flexibility in the workplace can go a long way regardless of the gender of the workers. Leaders within the organizations can make a choice to set an example for their peers and subordinates or staffs to take time off to run kids to the games, stay home with sick kids or juggle other parental duties.
- [To] emphasize the benefits of mentorship early in one’s career, and have the agencies buy off on the need to have this as an “official” type program to help provide guidance.
The panel was well received at both conference locations and provided a wide-ranging and comprehensive look at how women can thrive in wildland fire management. Women have thrived in fire over the years, but numbers of successes were limited, personal sacrifices were necessary, struggles required strong character and endurance and were not easy, and management support, while highly variable, was mostly minimal.
Barriers, both internal and external, have existed for decades and change is needed. Gender diversity should be embraced and endorsed as it is widely known that this can only strengthen organizational teams, increase capabilities, expand limits to strategic thinking, and provide opportunities for increased morale, productivity, and personal and professional growth.
Management support and clear evidence of this is vital as young people are very impressionable and one comment can make or break a big decision either to go into fire or not to. Identifying individual strengths as well as weaknesses, focusing on strengths and complimenting weaknesses will help build a very powerful team and support individual growth.
IAWF supports advancement of gender equity in all wildland fire management activities. We are actively seeking to identify issues in the wildland fire community and take actions to change the culture, thinking, practice, and outcomes to create the most effective working environment possible. Diversity will and must continue to garner greater importance. This only makes us better at what we do and strengthens professional wildland fire management.
IAWF thanks these women who served as panelists and facilitators. We recognize how important their experiences are for others and how much effort they have expended during their careers to thrive in wildland fire management. They are truly role models deserving our appreciation for their personal sacrifices and groundbreaking careers.