Houston Fire Department feels heat after discrimination lawsuit
Nearly 10 years after a sexual harassment scandal roiled the ranks, the department remains a hostile work environment for some women, according to firefighters
By St. John Barned-Smith
HOUSTON — Co-workers derided them with offensive names, trashed their bathrooms, refused to talk to them at the fire station and urinated on their beds, the women said.
The women who objected were labeled troublemakers. No one listened; no one did anything, they said. So they wrote it all down instead, hundreds of pages documenting a recent history of gender bias at the Houston Fire Department.
Nearly 10 years after a sexual harassment scandal roiled the ranks, the Houston Fire Department remains a hostile work environment for some women, according to more than half-dozen current and former firefighters who spoke to the Houston Chronicle about workplace conditions and gender bias.
“It’s still uncomfortable,” said one longtime female HFD veteran, who like most, did not want to be named for fear of retribution. “Houston still has not embraced the diversity of women within the department.”
And while women have made gains since the incidents in 2009 led to a widespread investigation, a Department of Justice lawsuit filed recently against the city has brought renewed scrutiny to gender issues at HFD, where fewer than 4 percent of the department’s 4,000 firefighters are women.
Some women have left the department in frustration. Others stay silent, enduring daily tensions to pursue their lifelong dreams, they told the Chronicle.
“It’s a Catch-22,” said another longtime female firefighter. “Most grin and bear it. They don’t want that label, ‘she’s a problem child,’ or, ‘Don’t say anything around her or she’ll file a grievance.’
“I just want to be treated fair.”
Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who took over the department in early 2017, said in an emailed statement that he is working to ensure “every firefighter, regardless of race or gender, has the same opportunity to succeed throughout their career.”
Recruiting more women is a “priority” for the department, he wrote.
“Women are capable of performing the job requirements of a firefighter, and we are capable of hiring women in increased numbers,” he said. “Although the percentage of female firefighters currently in the HFD is in line with the national average and we are leading the largest five departments, we must still work to have our department’s demographics be reflective of the community we serve.”
Houston Fire Department staff psychologist Jana Tran has written about the challenges faced by many fire departments — including Houston’s — in recruiting women.
“Clearly, something is wrong,” Tran wrote in a recent article in “Fire Chief” magazine.
When female firefighters raised complaints of sexual harassment in 2009, 103 women filled those positions in HFD. Their numbers have grown now to 151 women, with another 70 civilian women employees, according to department data.
The department has done better in promoting women than recruiting them — two of the department’s 10 assistant chiefs are women, including the first-ever female fire marshal. But of the department’s 1,794 entry-level firefighters, 78 are women.
Those numbers frustrate advocates like Margaret Harris, an attorney who has argued gender discrimination cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and who previously raised concerns about the number of women in HFD.
“It’s still pretty abysmal, but I’m glad to see it’s moving up,” Harris said.
The department’s female firefighters comprise 3.77 percent of its classified workforce, below the National Fire Protection Association’s nationwide average of 4.6 percent. In the Minneapolis Fire Department, by comparison, women make up about 9 percent of the department’s force.
The Houston Police Department’s workforce is approximately 16 percent women, according to spokeswoman Jodi Silva.
Tran, HFD’s staff psychologist, was not available for comment, but she wrote in the “Fire Chief” article that disparities should be addressed.
“What’s stopping women from becoming firefighters?” she wrote. “What are the barriers to recruiting and maintaining female candidates to the fire service? It is critical that fire departments begin to study and understand this gender disparity.”
The Department of Justice’s Feb. 28 lawsuit is the latest step in a protracted legal process over working conditions and treatment of women within HFD.
The lawsuit alleged that male coworkers tormented female firefighters by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks, spitting tobacco juice in their desk drawers and taping fireworks to toilets in the women’s rooms. The behavior eventually escalated to death threats, according to the suit.
The city’s Office of Inspector General and the FBI investigated the allegations in 2009 but concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to pinpoint a culprit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that one of the two women who complained had been subjected to a hostile work environment.
After an unsuccessful attempt at conciliation, the EEOC referred the charges to the Justice Department.
Officials say the city will defend itself against the allegations.
“After a thorough investigation, the city could not substantiate the claims of the plaintiffs when they were made; nor has the city been able to resolve the claims asserted on a mutually agreeable basis,” mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said in a statement. “The city does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment.”
Data on workplace harassment in fire departments is spotty. A nationwide survey of female firefighters in 2008 — the last time it was published — by the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services, known as iWomen, found that 83 percent of female firefighters had experienced workplace harassment.
Many female firefighters are loath to report issues, because they are afraid of further retaliation or of not being believed, said Diane Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the organization.
“It feels like one of the last male-dominated professions that hasn’t been addressed,” Schroeder said.
But with the #metoo movement prompting women in other workplaces — particularly in film, media and politics — to address sexual harassment problems and workforce complaints, more female firefighters are speaking out, she said.
‘A lot of sexism and racism’
One aspiring firefighter said she’d always wanted to join the Houston Fire Department.
She put her financial security on hold to go through the months-long academy, earning just $800 every other week. She thought she’d find a teamlike atmosphere but was met instead with instructors who she believed wanted her to fail.
She quit on the verge of graduation and found a better-paying job as a paramedic elsewhere.
“I have no desire to work for a place like that,” said the former trainee, who attended HFD’s academy within the last five years. “I’d rather drive an hour or more to a different fire department where people treat others like human beings, and you don’t get discriminated against because you weren’t born a male.”
Another woman who recently attended the academy described an atmosphere where instructors did not acknowledge women and appeared to purposely sabotage training routines to make it more difficult for them. In one instance, she said, an instructor made her carry a fully charged firehouse into a burning space in a more difficult posture than she’d been trained, and with less line available on the ground.
She’d hoped to find a “family of people that support each other,” but said she was disappointed.
She described a hostile work environment where her male colleagues routinely refer to women as “bitches,” and frequently make derogatory comments after responding to medical calls where the people they were helping were a gay or lesbian, she said.
“I see a lot of sexism and racism,” she said. “It’s really harder being a female in the fire department, point blank … You have this idea how it would be and it’s not like that at all.”
Another woman who has worked for the department for more than 15 years said her first captain and co-workers had daughters, so they treated her respectfully. Captains at other stations were less accepting, she said, and some refused to shake her hand or acknowledge her.
“They made me feel like they didn’t want me there,” she said.
A female supervisor with more than 15 years of experience said male firefighters held women to higher standards than themselves.
“When a female makes a mistake it’s amplified by a million times,” she said. “They don’t make a mistake because they’re new, it’s because they’re women.”
‘Is all of this really worth it?’
Another longtime department veteran said her daughter recently considered applying to join HFD, but she discouraged her.
“As a mother and a female who has gone through this department, I told her it was something she would have to do once I retired,” she said. “I would not want to still be in this department and have to defend my child. We’re still learning how to accept females. Accepting women in this industry is still a work in progress.”
Another vocal critic, Margaret Roberts, died last year of cancer.
Daniel Roberts recalled that his wife — who spent more than two decades with HFD before contracting a fatal blood and bone cancer — frequently returned home crying after her shifts.
She complained of co-workers urinating on her bed, unplugging speakers so she couldn’t hear stationwide announcements and leaving lewd magazines scattered around the station, he said. She spent 23 years with the department.
“That’s a long time to be talked to and looked at funny,” Roberts said. “It takes a strong person to put up with that.”
One of the women who recorded her complaints on paper said workplace culture has improved during her more than 20 years with the department, but that HFD still has room for improvement.
She took solace in sharing her experiences with female colleagues.
“It was kind of refreshing to know you weren’t the only ones going through it,” she said. “And sometimes, ‘Man, I don’t have it as bad I thought I did.’”
But other times, it raised another simple question.
“Is all of this really worth it?”
‘A dream job’
Other female firefighters defended the department and said that HFD has made significant strides in recruiting women.
Michelle Bentley, the department’s assistant chief over human resources, said that since 2009, the department’s ranks of women have increased by 50 percent and that its current numbers of women compare favorably to other large city departments.
“3.8 percent of our department is female — which seems small — but if you compare that to other large fire departments in the nation, like New York, LA County, LA City, and Chicago, our numbers are actually significantly higher than theirs,” she said.
HFD holds events at military bases, at local veterans’ centers and at area high schools to target women who might be interested in the physical aspects of firefighting, Bentley said.
“That’s helped significantly,” Bentley said. “ We want them to know it’s a viable career option, and that they feel it’s a safe environment.”
But Bentley said the nature of firefighters’ jobs makes it unlikely they’ll see high numbers of women sign up.
“It’s not a capability issue, because obviously we have females who are quite capable of performing the job,”she said. “It’s more of a career-attractiveness.”
Bentley said she didn’t see a department-wide problem.
“That’s an issue that probably crosses ...all professions,” she said. “In Houston, there were individuals that I may have faced, issues that if I wanted to call harassment, I could say harassment, … but as far as department-wide, it wasn’t an overwhelming culture. My personal things would maybe have been with an individual.”
Kim Phillips, a Houston firefighter who edits the magazine of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 341, said hers was a “dream job.” She joked that she took more flak for being a paramedic than for being a woman.
“By and large, everyone we work with, they just want to know: can we do the job,” she said. “Just by virtue of the fact that we’re different, that we’re a minority … we stand out.”
Another department veteran of more than two decades said she had heard of harassment but not experienced it herself.
“If anyone was giving me a hard time, I could look around and see they were that way with everyone,” she said. “I never assumed it had to do with being a female.”
‘An adaptive challenge’
As the legal wrangling continues, HFD officials said they are working to improve conditions for women in the workforce.
A department-wide survey of female firefighters is underway, and officials plan to require bi-annual training for all members. The department is also reviewing its facilities to ensure stations have adequate bathrooms and other accommodations for female firefighters.
Phillips, the union official, said a more robust recruiting budget might help the department attract more women. The union also believes better pay and working conditions would help retain those already in the department.
“Women aren’t stupid,” she said. “They can look at our pay scales. They can read the stories about pay parity and working conditions … That, more than anything else, is going to be the thing that keeps us from getting good quality candidates of any stripe.”
Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said the union has worked to help female firefighters, spending money on recruiting camps and on trips to conferences targeted at female firefighters.
“We have tried to help improve the HFD work environment by paying for outreach activities and training intended to recruit and retain female firefighters,” he said in an emailed statement. “Our female members tell us the fire service culture is evolving, and workplace fairness and diversity will remain important priorities. But our association cannot address these issues alone. The city needs a more robust system to prevent, but also fairly investigate and adjudicate, allegations of workplace discrimination.”
Schroeder, the spokeswoman for the iWomen association, said HFD — like other departments across the country — will have to make more serious changes if officials hope to meaningfully address the low percentages of female firefighters.
“You can’t fix a recruitment issue with check-boxes; it’s an adaptive challenge,” she said. “The roots as to why are deeper than just recruiting women — it’s the culture of the organization.”
Still, earlier this month at HFD’s training academy, 23 graduating cadets proudly filed across the stage to receive their badges.
Three were women.
Copyright 2018 Houston Chronicle