Sexual Harassment in the Los Angeles Fire Department

It has been about twenty years since the Los Angeles Fire Department upgraded their fire stations to add women’s locker rooms and restrooms. These changes were intended to reflect a commitment to create an inclusive environment for women to join the LAFD, where they could realize their dreams and add their talents and passions to community service as firefighters. Libby Denkmann, writing for the 19th, reports that twenty years later, female LAFD firefighters still face

  • Verbal abuse
  • Isolation
  • Hostile pranks
  • Training exercises designed to humiliate them
  • Threats of violence and actual assaults

Unfortunately, reports Denkmann, who interviewed more than twenty sources, speaking out or filing a complaint is rare for women and other minorities because of intimidation and retaliation while “institutions meant to protect them generally look the other way or enable the misconduct.” Denkmann points out that all of this is happening in a highly political context in Los Angeles where “the firefighters’ union remains a key endorsement for local and national politicians, and firefighters enjoy a heroic status in the public’s imagination, which critics say protects the department from lasting consequences.”

The low representation of women in the LAFD is similar to low numbers nationally:

  • There are currently 115 female sworn firefighters in the LAFD—roughly 3.5 percent of the force of 3,300.
  • These numbers reflect a modest improvement from 2.9 percent women at the department when Mayor Garcetti took office in 2013. He pledged to increase women in the LAFD to 5 percent by 2020 but has fallen short of that goal.
  • Nationally, women represent only 4 percent of professional firefighters.
  • Both San Francisco and Minneapolis have done much better with about 15 percent of sworn fire personnel being female.
  • But in New York and Chicago, women make up only 1 percent of the fire service.

The numbers for female fire service personnel are quite weak overall, especially when compared to the representation of women in the police and military services:

  • Slightly more than 18 percent of sworn LA Police Department personnel are women
  • The US military’s total force was 16.5 percent female in 2018.

The stories of harassment relayed to the author by the women she interviewed in Los Angeles were disgusting and outrageously abusive. The types of behaviors described were common in many professions in the 1970s and 1980s when women entered a range of male-dominated professions for the first time, but these behaviors have been largely extinguished as organizations took serious steps to create harassment-free workplaces. We know it can be done but not until leaders make a commitment to change the cultures of their organizations and professions and hold violators accountable. These women in the LAFD passed every test and are able to do everything the men can do physically, but pressure to accept women is usually met with arguments that to do so would “lower their standards.” As one female firefighters noted, “They don’t need to lower their standards. They just need to lower the abuse.”


Photo courtesy of Naval Surface Warriors (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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