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Has diversity failed? We need to try harder!

‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ is a definition of insanity.

In 1990 I was given the task to break the male domination of the fire service I belonged to at the time. Like all Australian Fire Services, there were no female firefighters in the organization when I started. If I had been asked, back them, ‘what would the fire service look like in 2016?’ I would have predicted 30% to 40% female and a good representation of other ethnic groups in the service. I was wrong and failed. As a male 25 years ago I/we didn’t know what we didn’t know about the issues relating to diversity, we even had all male committees trying to figure out how to recruit females.

Over the past 25 years we have had reports, research, seminars, conferences and committees looking at increased diversity in our fire services and we are still not getting traction. Let’s look at the facts in the Asia Pacific region, although the figures vary depending on the source, these figures are close enough to make the point. Percentage of female Fire fighters: – Australia 3.3%, New Zealand 2.8%, Hong Kong 2.5%, Singapore 14%, Malaysia 4% and the Pacific Islands 0.5%. It is not much better outside of our region, USA 3.3%, UK 3.1% and Germany 1.5%. The total number of females in the service today is not good by any standard, However, the number is more of an embarrassment when you look at the proportion of females in leadership positions. A recent Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning report (Victoria, Australia) showed that in a department with 26% female firefighters (one of the exceptions when it comes to female numbers) of the 37 specialist and command positions males dominated all but eight positions and of those eight positions none where a command situation.

So we are not looking good, I have been to three conferences so far this year where diversity was high on the program agenda and we appear to be doing the same old thing. What did Einstein define as insanity? ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ Have we been doing this for 25 years?

Although I didn’t do too well in my early years at this, I hope I have learned some useful lessons. Let me offer some ideas:

  1. Listen to the females, blokes, you have not walked in their shoes therefore you have no idea.
  2. Make the workplace friendly to a diverse workforce, both on the station and the fire ground. We have the technology now to make it easier and work smarter instead of just brute force. Nursing has done this very well as a profession.
  3. Change behaviour, a recent report showed the 88% of female fire fighters had suffered harassment (physical and sexual) This is where male and female champions need to speak up, support and fight back. Public executions may be a little too far, but these morons need to be held to account. Management support is essential.
  4. All research into bringing minority groups (of course women are not a minority group) into the main stream shows a need to have a critical mass to succeed. Maybe affirmative acting is the way to overcome 25 years of failure, whatever action is taken we need to get that critical mass.

Then there are point 5, 6, 7, … .. .. and more, that are the new initiatives that people have been reticent to try because they are too far from the norm, give them a go, you cannot do worse than the last 25 years. We must get to the point that in 25 years from now we look back and say we have succeeded.

So if you have ideas put them out there for management to take up or just do it locally. Although I have concentrated on females in the fire service, full diversity is the aim, so our emergency services have a workforce that represent the community they protect.

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Asia Pacific Fire, Editor