‘Women get tired of breaking the glass’: Why female chief officers turn to lawsuits

Female chief officers show that harassment and discrimination know no rank

The headline reads, “US female firefighters fight discrimination with lawsuits.”

This is hardly news. A significant number of women have faced discrimination and harassment as firefighters. But what stood out for me in this article was the ranks of the women profiled. They were chief officers with decades of experience and seniority. Yet even after proving themselves and achieving leadership positions, they still faced negative treatment on the job that ultimately pushed them to file lawsuits.

Certainly not all female chiefs face these obstacles – but many do.

It made me wonder: Why are women, and especially women in leadership roles, still facing these challenges on the job? And what can be done about it?

I posed these questions to several women in the fire service, both active and recently retired, and asked for their insights. All had more than 20 years on the job. All held chief officer ranks. And all had experienced discrimination and/or harassment, not just at the beginning of their careers but throughout, and sometimes worsening as they rose in rank and seniority.

“We stand out in all areas, for good or bad”       

One woman recounted how her experience on the job developed over the years: “Of course, it was hard at the beginning. Guys won’t talk to you, won’t shake your hand. But I stayed focused and never got angry.” Instead, she pursued every training opportunity, sought mentors and gained the respect of her coworkers. “But then I promoted, and it was over. I became a threat.”

Another woman echoed this feeling: “Most women I know who are in higher command positions are outstanding in their educational background, leadership skills and qualifications. When men have never been formally or informally challenged by such competent individuals, it can lead to disruptive and demeaning treatment toward those highly capable women who they feel inferior to.”

Another woman put it more simply: “If you want to have people like you on the job, don’t promote.”

Many women who pursue chief ranks face obstacles that their male counterparts do not face. One woman who applied for a chief’s position in another state was told by the mayor at her interview, “I don’t think our fire department is ready for a woman.” She didn’t get the job.

Another woman who came in first during a chief’s promotional process was told by one of the department leaders that her achievement was only because “you test well” and not because she was truly the best candidate.

One woman observed that women are often diminished or discounted as leaders because they may do things differently: “We do not look, act or think like men, therefore, we stand out in all areas, for good or for bad. But mostly, we stand out because of those who do not appreciate, agree with or accept our positive differences.”

Another woman commented on the stress that this creates: “We have to allow people to come to work as a whole, complete, authentic individual and not fit a particular mold. That’s where it has to start.”

“Trying to survive at work becomes all-consuming”

All the women I spoke with talked about exhaustion being a factor in finally seeking legal recourse to long-standing problems. One said: “We worked so hard to get a position of rank and we didn’t want to jeopardize our standing now or in the future. Because we at many points had to learn to fit in, to give in, to give up and to keep our mouths shut, we have too much to lose if we rock the boat. So we will take the harassing treatment, at first in disbelief, then later, because we have not been able to turn the tide of ever-worsening situations. Trying to survive at work becomes all-consuming and eventually takes its toll on our dedication and our ability to excel.”

Another commented: “I think women just get tired of breaking the glass. They get tired of the attention.”

Several women commented that it is not only their male coworkers who make their lives harder as they promote up the ranks.

“There’s no unified front among women on the job,” said one chief. “They see what happens to women who speak out.”

Another woman commented, “Research shows that most women and men don’t like women leaders. We have to be liked and we have to be intelligent at the same time. A man can be either one of those things and be successful. If a woman is both of those things, people are going to hate her.”

“We are setting women up for failure”

What needs to change for things to get better for women at all levels of the organization, but particularly for female chiefs? Accountability was a common answer.

“We have policies that are violated even by high-ranking officials, and nothing happens,” one woman commented. “Things like implicit bias training help, but there has to be accountability.”

Another woman stated, “If we don’t have chief officers who educate themselves on different leadership styles and how women lead potentially differently from what men do, we are setting women up for failure.”

Women acknowledge that legal action is a last resort for solving long-standing problems. They point to the failure of lower-level systems for problem-solving along the way. They also point to the tendency for leaders to avoid and gloss over real issues rather than dealing with them directly.

“No one wants to file a lawsuit,” said one woman. “They know it will hurt them. But they do it when they feel they have run out of options.”

Another agreed: “Women take legal action because they know if they don’t do something, things will never change and the other women coming up will most likely get the same treatment.”

“I’ve got to pave the way”

Even with all the hardships and challenges along the way, every woman I spoke with expressed her commitment to the fire service and her desire to make things better in the future.

“This is what I live for, the day-to-day rewards. But if not me, then who? I’ve got to pave the way for all those who come after me and deserve a workplace environment that is truly free of retaliation, discrimination and harassment.”

Another stated simply: “I love this job. It’s my whole life. But it makes me sad that we miss so many opportunities and could be doing so much better than we are.”

“It doesn’t change as you climb the ladder”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is the first African American to hold that position. He came up through the ranks, starting at West Point and rising to four-star general in the Army. In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, he stated, “It doesn’t change as you climb the ladder. You still get the doubts. There are always going to be people, because of what you look like, that will question your qualifications. It’s the world I live in.”

Many female fire chiefs know exactly what he’s talking about.

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