Monday, August 06, 2012

Just a guy thing?

Continuing from Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters.

(It might be helpful to add a disclaimer that these are just my personal observations as I try to understand this big part of my husband's world - not the result of any formal or objective research.) 

Is the Fire Department a Man's World?

Those big red trucks down at the station seem fueled as much by testosterone as anything else. When talk of them comes up in mixed company, only the men's eyes light up at delight with the thought of tearing down the road in a firetruck, a high-powered toolbox on wheels.

You might expect the fire station subculture to be utterly masculine. In fact, that was one of the questions I had about the fire district: Is this just a guy thing? I don't think it is.

As a promising sign, when I spend time with my husband's firefighting friends I see a good number of women in their ranks. Some of them remind me of the tomboys I knew as a kid, while others are more girly. But they are women who can do most everything a man can. I haven't gone fishing for stories of discrimination against women, subtle or overt, but I haven't been stumbling over them, either.

Besides the women who volunteer, I see wives and daughters and girlfriends who seem quite comfortable being part of this world and who are included in it as a matter of course. Serving with the fire district is not the kind of thing you can do without affecting the people close to you; they have to be on board with it in some sense or you won't be able to keep it up. At this weekend's barbecue fundraiser I worked alongside one daughter who can't wait to get her driver's license so she can enter the training program and join the department; others schedule their lives around the volunteer association's schedule and hate to miss an event. I start to see why they call it a "family."

Although I don't have experience in athletics or the military, I think the gender dynamics of the fire department may resemble what you would find in one of those environments. Come to think of it, the whole fire department culture is part sports team, part para-military unit. They have rank and titles and procedures, a code of ethics, a well developed system for training and socializing new recruits, and of course the whole thing depends on being able to perform well, physically, under pressure. There are contests of various kinds, badges and certificates, an annual awards banquet, a department photographer, and of course, uniforms. There's some drinking and cussing and dirty joke telling, though little tolerance for such things when it's time to be professional - if you mess up, the honor and performance of the whole group is at stake.

I find the gender equality rather refreshing after running into masculine/feminine distinctions tucked into so many nooks and crannies of the Christian subculture I'm part of. "Let the men do that," Christian men will stay, stopping me from stacking chairs or putting up tables at church - as if such a task is utterly unbecoming for a woman. Then I'm asked to do artsy and/or "feminine" things that are really not up my alley. On the plus side, this sort of segregation can give both men and women an honored and protected place to build relationships and make contributions which they might not find so easily in the big bad world. Being part of it has also taught me skills and social graces I might not have picked up on my own - some of which have proven useful in my new life as a wife, stepmother, and de facto housekeeper. On the negative side, though, such segregation can feel quite confining. It may keep many from using the gifts and skills they actually have rather than the ones they are "supposed" to have.

The fire department doesn't do that. There's a place for any man or woman who wants to be there, AND who can make (and keep) the commitment and do the work. While assignments may reflect what you're good at, they don't seem to come with ready-made assumptions about what that might be. Everyone is expected to learn and grow, to strive for the capacity to do whatever it is that's needed. That's the only way the whole team stays safe. Anyone who can't pull their weight holds the team back and may put them in danger.

Such an environment has little room for gender discrimination. Or, for that matter, chivalry.

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