Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sexual harassment in emergency services

Sexual harassment remains an endemic issue. Recently there have been a spate of stories about sexual harassment of female firefighters. About 600 of Canada’s 22,000 firefighters are women. You can see an interesting documentary from the fifth estate below.

This month, half of the volunteer fire department in Spaniards Bay, NL resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. The town’s lone female firefighter (who also happens to be the most qualified firefighter...) alleged that a long-term pattern of sexual harassment. For example, an instructor concluded a fire training session by showing hard-core pornography.

As is often the case in sexual harassment, the alleged perpetrators have closed ranks and the victim has been subjected to abuse, both in the workplace and in the community. This includes an attempt to remove the victim from her seat on the town council. The town eventually apologized and is now rebuilding its fire department by seeking new volunteers.

The most preceptive commentary on the issue is from vice.com.
Spaniard's Bay is a small, close-knit community. It is not surprising that many people resent Brenda Seymour for disrupting its idyllic atmosphere by alleging that many of its firefighters are complicit in sexual harassment. Volunteer firefighting is a genuinely noble calling and no one wants to believe that the people they love could do anything heinous. 
This might explain why an act of courage—a lone woman speaking out against powerful figures in a small town—appears to others in the community as a deceitful act of cowardice. She must be a liar or a "conniving witch," because these "fine young men with nice families" would never do anything wrong. No one wants to believe that the people they love can do bad things, however unwittingly. This is the mechanism by which sexism is reproduced. 
There are two sides to every story. So which side is more plausible? 
That a bossy shrew is conspiring to single-handedly bring down the Spaniard's Bay fire department and its beloved chief out of spite? Or, that an ambitious, assertive woman ran afoul of a well-documented culture of pervasive and casual sexism in a fire department that operated more like a frat house? 
"Please do not post any more statuses, opinions, etc," [Kate] Davis [daughter of assistant firechief Randy Davis] posted to the Facebook support group after the rally. "Our men have this under control now!" 
Yes, they do. And in Spaniard's Bay, they always have.
-- Bob Barnetson

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