Eyes wide shut: bushfire, gendered norms and everyday life

“Pop-psychology”—this is the term used to define the obsession in public discourse and media with labelling of gender differences as if these differences are biologically set-in-stone. Western society’s captivation by such dichotomy-based definitions has problematic outcomes when, for example, in leadership debates men and women are portrayed as being incapable of getting along because their ways of communicating are too different.

I was witness to this very scenario at a Community Engagement and Fire Awareness Conference hosted by the NSW Rural Fire Service for 400-odd staff and volunteers in 2011. The much publicised keynote speaker was Allan Pease—co-author of books, such as Why Men Lie and Women Cry (2006), Why Men Don’t Have a Clue and Women Always Need More Shoes (2004) and Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps (2000).

Copyright 2014 © Sharon Quandt

Copyright 2014 © Sharon Quandt

During the hour-long keynote on differing communication styles of men and women, I watched a room packed to the rafters with predominantly male firefighters, enthralled and captivated with Allan Pease’s vigorous body language and entertaining PowerPoint slides that reinforced biologically deterministic gender stereotyping to an extent that left me feeling nauseous.

What intrigued me, however, was the way in which Allan Pease’s arguments of biologically determined gender differences were so compelling to the enrapt audience. Why was I so surprised by their uncritical agreement? The fire fighting profession as well as the rural hinterland from which the rural fire service traditionally has drawn the majority of its volunteers are deeply embedded in testosterone-fuelled, patriarchal-structured systems that place many, if not most, female staff and volunteers in the logistical and care-providing roles that are associated with women in traditional rural landscapes. It angered me that Allan Pease would disguise his arguments in so-called “scientific proof” mangled from biological and evolutionary theories of Stone Age behaviour, which have been substantially disproved by rigorous feminist, sociological and cultural studies.

To the male-dominated crowd in attendance at the conference, however, the argument of a fixed gender dichotomy in human life or character was compelling, as it confirmed their culturally defined masculine rights. The talk was providing all the proof needed not to make an effort to accommodate women within the patrilineal stronghold of the fire fighting tradition because the ways in which women and men think, feel, orient and communicate are, according to Allan Pease, biologically determined, permanent and irreconcilable.

Standing in the back row of the conference auditorium, I was emphatically reminded that hegemonic masculinity is alive and well today. The biologically deterministic core argument performed on stage fitted squarely with the cultural norms that continue to challenge equal opportunities for women and men in the fire fighting vocation.

Slide14This event became one of many catalyst for my book writing endeavours because it further opened my eyes to the gendered norms that are so embedded in our everyday lives that we rarely notice them – and if we do see them, it is generally something we don’t quite know how to deal with.

It surprised me how women and men consistently have upheld to me conventional views of bushfire management as “men’s business” in their narratives of living and working with fire. However, what became increasingly clear to me during the seven years of study that went into my recently published book is how both women and men suffer from structural biases when it comes to household decision-making, social constructions of gender, and gendered aspects of agencies that manage fire.

Such gendered structures frame bushfire management in Australia. They are deeply ingrained in operational procedures and norms, posing physical and mental challenges for women who seek to gain recognition as competent firefighters as well as for men who strive to fulfil public demands for heroic forms of masculinity.

Challenges materialise, for example, in the form of the language and culture of male dominated brigades, which deter many women from getting involved. Critical health challenges can also materialise when masculine urges to protect and control, or male efforts to uphold symbolic representations of manliness result in the suppression of emotional distress, for example, through isolated behaviour, overwork or excessive alcohol intake.

My next blog post explore some of these challenges in greater detail.

This blog post is based on extracts from Chapter 7 of Christine’s book ‘Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty’ as well as her presentation at the Women & Firefighting Australasia 2014 Conference on 15 Aug 2014.

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