By Mike McPhate
American women joined the field of law in 1638, dentistry in 1866, and New York City’s firehouses in 1982.
But nearly a quarter century after Brenda Berkman successfully sued the city and became its first female firefighter, the department remains a club almost exclusively of men.
Of 11,600 firefighters in the FDNY, 30 are women, the smallest fraction of any major American city. Minorities are also absent—91 percent of the force is white.
“It’s a disgrace for a city as large and as diverse as New York,” said Maureen McFadden, a lawyer with the women’s rights group Legal Momentum.
Last week, lawyers for five female employees of the city’s Emergency Medical Services, a division of the FDNY, announced a suit against the city for workplace discrimination. The plaintiffs say the department blocks the promotion of qualified women into senior ranks.
An FDNY spokesperson said that women comprise about 25 percent of the EMS workforce and are represented at a similar proportion throughout all ranks.
One of the women suing, Mary Dandridge, a 21-year veteran, said her superiors refused to give her an evaluation or recommendation letter for promotion, and when she complained her co-workers chastised her. “It’s extremely hurtful,” she said. ”I feel like I’m wasting my time on the job.”
It’s difficult to measure anti-women sentiment within the FDNY, since few firefighters will talk publicly about the issue. (Dozens of interview requests to individual firefighters and groups were declined.) But Carol Chetkovich, a public policy professor at Mills College and author of “Real Heat”, a book on women firefighters, said she was not at all surprised at news of the suit.
Chetkovich said that the shortage of women firefighters could be explained in part by less interest among women in such physical work, but she also blamed sexism. “Traditional fire department culture, especially the old, big, urban departments tend to be very unfriendly to women,” she said.
She said the male “locker room” atmosphere of fire departments has been more resistant to integration than, for example, New York City’s police department, where two out of 10 cops are female, in part because firefighters live in close quarters for days at a time.
The group Legal Momentum, which earlier this year convinced the Justice Department to begin a probe into FDNY discrimination, gets complaints daily from women firefighters across the country, said McFadden.
Most common are the presence of pornography, sexual harassment, and inadequate showering facilities—just over 60 percent of the New York City’s 220 firehouses have separate showers for women, according to the FDNY.
Farrell Sklerov, a spokesperson for the FDNY, said the department has acknowledged there is a problem and responded earlier this year with a recruitment drive that he said brought widespread interest from women. Of 39,000 people who said they might want to join the department, 22 percent are women, said Sklerov.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “We’re just trying to make sure that they officially file for the exam.”
While most of the country’s fire departments have adjusted to the presence of female firefighters, some critics say women are not physically equipped for such work.
“When talking about saving lives you want to have people who can do it,” said Charlotte Allen, a writer at the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group. “If you’re not big enough and not strong enough you shouldn’t be allowed to join the department just so we can make women feel good.”
Richard Spackmann, fire commissioner of the four-company Greenfield district in upstate New York, disagrees. Women in his firehouses are treated as equals, and judged by their skills, he said.
“There are females who can not only hold their own but in some cases outperform a smaller built guy,” he said. “To me it all goes back to not generalizing based on male or female, but rather judging someone as an individual. If they can perform a set of requirements then it doesn’t make a difference.”
The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, whose comments were restricted by their lawyers, say they only want equal treatment. Kathleen Gonczi, an 18-year veteran of EMS, said in a statement that male supervisors singled her out for minor infractions, and shunned her when she joined the lawsuit against the department.
“When you put a qualified woman up against a less qualified man, your record doesn’t count,” she said. “Your gender does.”