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Erasing stereotypes in the firehouse with allyship and ally support

A simple mindset shift is at the root of a critical difference between biased and nonbiased people

Team of firefighters standing in front of fire truck

Stereotypes can influence how we see people, and their most prominent identifiable features, such as race, gender or ethnicity, trigger the most rapid categorization.

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By Shara O’Neal Thompson

Diversity and inclusion initiatives are important topics in the fire service. Diversified fire departments not only have higher productivity, innovation and improved public service but also better reflect and represent the communities they serve. However, research suggests that unconscious bias is a primary reason why diversity and inclusion initiatives fail, and stereotypes are the source.

Fire administrations know they must actively implement diversity and inclusion programs but may need more insight into ways departments can erase the effects of stereotypes. The problem is that stereotypes form beliefs that unconsciously influence biased attitudes, which can result in discrimination. Stereotypes are why leaders must help develop both allyship and ally support – which I’ll define below – for their initiatives to succeed.

How stereotypes influence people

The word stereotype is derived from old printing press machines, which would keep stamping cast stereo plates with ink until the words became dark enough to be seen on paper. Over time, the word became a metaphor for unjust societal molds and labels of people (Conquest Graphics, 2020). Stereotypes, especially when repeatedly stamped in people’s minds, are challenging to erase but not impossible.

Socialization is how we learn stereotypes that cause unconscious bias, which are acquired bits and pieces of experiences beginning in early life with family, friends, communities, schools, television, news, social media and places of employment. Our brains tend to categorize people into an acquired schema based on those learned socialization experiences about different social identity groups – and we do not even realize we are doing it.

Stereotypes can influence how we see people, and their most prominent identifiable features, such as race, gender or ethnicity, trigger the most rapid categorization. Once stereotypes are applied as a belief to that group, they can influence our attitudes and cause us to have unconscious biases toward individuals. The problem is that it can lead us to make assumptions and believe things that are not true and generalize group members as all alike. It prevents us from recognizing the unique value across social identity group members because our brains assign all the characteristics and traits we learned about that category to individuals. People then become stereotyped, stamped and labeled as belonging to members of that social identity group, leading to attitudes of unconscious bias and discrimination.

Stereotypes in the firehouse

Stereotypes can impact individuals’ treatment because people apply assumptions about how they “ought” act. Social norms then dictate the expectations and reactions, influencing our individual perceptions.

For example, research by Correll et al. (2020) showed that men who exert assertiveness or aggressiveness receive favorable increases in their competence ratings. In contrast, women who exhibit the same behavior receive unfavorable lower ratings because it is counter-normative to societal gender expectations. The researchers suggest a double bind because when women engage in the equivalent leadership behaviors of men, they tend to elicit an adverse backlash reaction of becoming disliked and seen as cold due to violating societal gender norms of softness and warmness. Another way equivalent behavior gets treated differently is that success for men gets attributed to ability, and failure tends to get erased as situational factors like having a bad day. In comparison, success for women is attributed to luck and other outside factors, whereas failure becomes permanent, pointing to a lack of ability. Male firefighters get more of the benefit of the doubt as an unconscious privilege.

Stereotypes can also disadvantage women due to assumptions about competence and leadership potential. According to Eagly & Karau (2002), the concept of role incongruity suggests that evaluations of a leader are a function of a mismatch between stereotypical characteristics and leadership roles. Women get spotlighted and scrutinized more carefully due to stereotypes with a higher performance bar to override to dispel doubt about whether they are fit to be a leader. As a result, they are less likely to be seen as leaders and less likely to receive promotions. Role incongruity disadvantages women because men tend to be promoted based on visualized potential and assumed competence, even with little or no experience. In contrast, women must prove their leadership ability, which is a double-edged sword because they have fewer opportunities due to stereotypes, being scrutinized, and disliked due to violating societal gender norms. An example of this is a male officer having fewer years of experience but being assertive and well-liked receiving a battalion chief promotion over a female officer with more seniority who is assertive but disliked.

Erasing stereotypes with allyship and ally support

Just because someone has learned stereotypes through socialization experiences about social identity groups doesn’t mean this will lead to unconscious bias or discrimination, but it sometimes does happen. The problem is that stereotypes can strengthen each time people see subtle associations between labels and traits. Repeated stereotype stamping can get inked into people’s minds unconsciously and become automatic if left unchecked.

The information about stereotypes may seem disheartening, but there are ways fire administrators can start to fade out and erase stereotypes in the firehouse. One difference between biased and nonbiased people is that low-biased individuals engage in slow, rationalized thinking, which means they actively reject stereotypes and replace them with more egalitarian thoughts. They are motivated to evaluate the characteristics and traits of the individual instead of relying upon automatic stereotypical assumptions.

If people don’t actively engage in this slow, controlled processing, these stereotypes of unconscious biases can significantly affect decision-making for underrepresented groups. I have conducted numerous interviews with fire personnel concerning stereotypes and discovered a distinction behind the motivation to engage in the critical-thinking process instead of relying on the automatic. The motivation behind allyship tends to be externally driven, and ally support tends to be motivated by internal forces.

Allyship: Allyship often stems from external motivation, which is performative-driven. People who practice allyship with this mindset tend to be motivated by organizational incentives, like following the standard operating procedures (SOPs) or employee handbook regarding equality and anti-discrimination. External motivators can come from punishments for using stereotyped behavior toward coworkers or because having a track record of treating everyone fairly and equally is required for promotions. Performative allyship develops from a duty to follow the rules and when fire departments hold people personally accountable for their actions and decisions.

People can exercise allyship when they use slow, rationalized thinking by interrupting microaggressions and replacing them with microaffirmations. Microaggressions are small, everyday slights and offenses directed at those affected by stereotypes. Microaffirmations are small acts of praise or respecting someone to remind them of their value.

Stereotypes are less likely to be applied to individuals when allyship action becomes the norm. People practicing allyship do so by carefully preplanning and defining the criteria for unbiased decision-making beforehand and ensuring policies and procedures are followed. They must also hold others accountable for interrupting unconscious bias when it factors into interactions, behavior or actions. When people know they could receive negative feedback or must justify their decisions step by step, they tend to be more careful about not applying stereotypes. However, a drawback is that allyship can dissipate with lax mindsets created, for example, by a lack of rule enforcement, inconsistency in discipline, and favoritism. Another example is employees becoming disengaged due to their impending retirement and no longer driven by external factors to provide allyship.

Ally support: Ally support often stems from internal motivation, which is values-driven. Allies are intrinsically motivated because their moral compass directs them to do the right thing and because they want to be non-discriminatory. Allies are open-minded and value learning from other people. They tend to be deliberate in their relationships and gather information about individuals, allowing them to understand the person and situation better, which counteracts unconscious bias.

Allies support those affected by stereotypes by educating others about societal norms and labels, which helps raise self-awareness and builds empathy. They also listen and learn about others’ lived experiences and stand up for equal rights because their hearts are rooted in equality. Ally supporters concentrate on building relationships with coworkers and are unwavering in their friendships, regardless of rule enforcement.

Allies feel strongly about civil rights because they may have witnessed the effects of discrimination and want to do what is fair. They may have close friends or children of underrepresented groups, or maybe they have personally experienced stereotype stamping and don’t want it permanently marked further. Allies are vital when individuals’ outcomes depend on someone else’s decisions. When this happens, allies authentically create slow, rationalized thought processing to interrupt unconscious bias and force others to explain their actions, protecting underrepresented groups from discrimination.

Final thoughts

Both allyship and ally support can help erase stereotypes from unfair treatment and biased actions, even though the motivation behind the behavior may differ. For employees to practice allyship, fire administrations must consistently apply SOPs and the employment handbook rules without favoritism and hold themselves and others accountable for not applying stereotypes and interrupting unconscious bias. Fire administrations must also listen to allies when they exercise their values and advocate for underrepresented groups so others can erase stereotypes that cause unjust decisions.

About the author

Shara O’Neal Thompson is the first hired female firefighter-paramedic for the Town of Addison (Texas) Fire Department (1992) and the first female cadet to graduate from Collin College Fire and EMS Academy with Salutatorian Honors (1991-1992) in class #1. Thompson is a summa cum laude graduate from The University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in interdisciplinary studies dual in psychology and sociology (2004) as well as a Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges National Leadership Inductee recipient, and she holds multiple graduate certificates in diversity, equity and inclusion. Thompson is pursuing her master’s degree in human relations and inclusive leadership at the University of Oklahoma. She is a consultant for Trauma-Informed DEI©™ and human relations for public servants.