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Fire service a “boy’s club”

By Emily Norman

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Women in the fire service are feeling isolated by “boy’s club” attitudes, and are “sick to death” of fighting sexism instead of fires.

It wasn’t until joining a Wairarapa volunteer fire brigade this year that a Wellington woman felt like she belonged.

The woman, who asked not to be named, moved to Martinborough last year, after previously turning her back on a Wellington brigade, one which made her feel “weak, little, and female”.

“When I first turned up to Martinborough to enquire about the brigade, I got out of my car, got back in, and then got out again.

“I was shaking, I just nervously walked back and forth across the street, and I was just like, nah I’m not doing this, I’m not going down this road again.”

The woman had been involved with a Wellington fire brigade the year prior for about seven months and had never been selected to go out on a job.

“The whole time I was there, I was just constantly made very aware that I was a female,” she said.

“A lot of my time over the hill was just so shit that I don’t even want to think about it, I did a lot of cleaning at the brigade and just felt like I wasn’t included because I was a female.

“It just seemed like a real boys’ club.

“In the end I just stopped going.”

The woman said that she felt welcome in Martinborough, a brigade where “you’re not a female, you’re a firefighter”.

“At Martinborough, in the first two training nights I had accomplished and done more than in the several months I was in the other brigade.”

Martinborough Fire Brigade are at the forefront of embracing diversity, having successfully recruited five new women to their ranks this year, bringing the gender ratio to near equality.

But this is not the case nationwide, with women representing only 3-4 per cent of career firefighters and 15 per cent of volunteer firefighters.

There are only three women trainers who deliver formal New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS) programmes and specialist courses.

Another woman firefighter in Wairarapa said sexism was rife throughout the NZFS and brigades.

“Comments I have heard include, we tried a woman about a year ago and it was disappointing, and, we’ve got a dishwasher, why would we want women,” she said.

“I’m giving up my free time to be involved with a potentially life-saving service.

“I don’t want to constantly be fighting sexism, I get sick of the sound of my own voice.”

NZFS National Deputy Commander Paul McGill said the service did not have a consistent focus on recruiting and retaining women, “which is something we are now actively addressing”.

A representative body known as ‘Women in Fire and Emergency New Zealand’ would have regional representatives available to support women in the coming months, he said.

He said one of the key issues women had identified related to isolation, particularly when there were few women firefighters in the region or brigade.

However, women have said they feel isolated because of sexist attitudes, not because of low representation.

There are 33 brigades in New Zealand with no women, and 270 out of 396 with less than a 20 per cent women members.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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