Think of a firefighter.
What are you imagining?
A man? Strong? Handsome and heroic?
The reality is starkly different. I’ve seen more firefighters who look like Ed Balls than Tom Hardy. But it’s an image that’s deeply ingrained in our social psyche. And that means that many women don’t even consider a career as a firefighter.
I’m five foot one. I have long, dark hair. I tip the scales at eight stone and I like a manicure. I became a firefighter when I was 18 and am now one of the most senior firefighters in the country. At present, only five per cent of firefighters are women. The contrast is even more noticeable in leadership roles like mine. Did you know that there are more Chief Fire Officers called Chris than there are female Chief Fire Officers?!
This matters. Not because I believe in arbitrary quotas, but because being a firefighter is hard. We need the best of the best to serve with us. We are in the privileged position of being trusted by those in their very worst moments. Those people deserve the best but, at the moment, we’re only choosing from the group of applicants who are enticed by the stereotype. We need to widen that pool.
At present, only five per cent of firefighters are women. The contrast is even more noticeable in leadership roles like mine.
Because gender does not determine competence. In the fire service, our greatest strength is our ability to work as a team, and a good team needs a range of skills. No one wants a tool box filled with identical spanners! I’ve lost count of the number of difficult rescues where being small and nimble meant I was the right person for the job. I’ve crawled into mangled vehicles to give life-saving first-aid to those trapped inside, for example. And it’s not all about size and strength. It’s about being level-headed and able to reassure those who are frightened and vulnerable. You need to be able to make decisions that could affect whether people live or die, while simultaneously engaging with their emotions. It’s not just about what’s in your muscles but what’s in your head.
I love my job. I’ve made some fantastic friends. I’ve learned that I’m capable of things far beyond my own expectations. I’ve laughed so hard that I thought I’d have a hernia. I’ve found people who I love dearly and I’ve had the privilege of working with people whom I trust – wholeheartedly – with my life. That’s precious, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but being a woman in a typically alpha-male profession has not always been easy.
Don't waste your energy trying to conform. It can be incredibly empowering to exist beyond the mould.
There have been doubters - those who tell me that it's not a job for women or that I don't deserve my place. But they're wrong. And they’re in the minority. And that kind of experience isn’t limited to my industry. It’s a battle with the underlying sexism that resides within our society. We must all do more to change that, so that our daughters have the same opportunities as our sons.
In the meantime, it’s important to acknowledge the world as it is and the expectations that drive how we all think and behave. When you’re in a group environment and you’re in some way ‘different’, it’s only human to try to adapt in order to fit in. Which is why in many male-dominated environments, successful women unconsciously try to emulate male traits. Although it’s completely normal, it’s often counterproductive. Once you feel like you fit, it’s common to turn down new opportunities – like a promotion – because you’ve spent so long adapting your behaviour to fit into that group and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself or start again. And, more than anything, it means compromising who you really are.
The truth is that, while the current stereotype persists in my workplace, I’ll never fit in. But I’m OK with that. I would encourage all women in the fire service or in male-dominated industries to embrace being different. Don’t waste your energy trying to conform. It can be incredibly empowering to exist beyond the mould. I’m not constrained by a certain image or a specific set of expectations. I chose to combine firefighting and researching decision-making because I wanted to do something positive to help my colleagues and because I felt able to define my own path. Because when you’re free to be different, you’re free to define your own boundaries. So push those boundaries and do something incredible. But, above all else, always be wholeheartedly and unapologetically you.