Unmasking gender privileges: the flipside of inequity

At first thought, many men (and some women) express a belief that gender inequality is an issue of the past that has been overcome by a generational shift within the emergency services. Upon greater reflection this notion usually turns out to be more complex than initially proclaimed. This is, in part, because the many advances for women worldwide during the past five decades have been uneven, meaning prejudice and sexism remain firmly embedded in social structures albeit often latent or disguised in equal opportunity policies.

The ways in which gender regimes are firmly embedded in social structures is reflected in the persistence of gender order within the patriarchal structures of fire fighting agencies. This is linked to the visible and invisible resistance to change encountered not only amongst many male firefighters but also by ‘the system’.

To clarify why I mean by this, I am going to resort to a quote by Bob Pease, which highlights the importance of engaging with the unchartered and latent terrain of male ‘privilege’—the flipside of inequity:

‘I believe that too much attention has been focused on the responsibility of those who are oppressed and too little attention has been given to how those in privileged groups reproduce inequality. … Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to get the issue of privilege on the agenda because it is so well legitimated. Privilege is not recognised as such by many of those who have it. Privilege appears to be natural. Therefore, it is necessary to ‘unmask’ privilege and make it more visible so that its consequences can be addressed.’ (Pease 2010, ix)

The unmasking of gender privileges is of course a two-way street. It applies to women and men alike. However, the unmasking of male privilege seems an obvious place to start within bushfire management because of its male-dominated management structure.

Privilege, ironically, is part and parcel of the male urge to protect and care for women. While such protective behaviour is considerate in the sense that it is often well meant in a gentlemanly kind of way, it is also strongly linked to a sense of male authority and the perceived weakness of the female physique (e.g. strength, menstruation) and women’s psychological characteristics (e.g. crying).

The challenges many women face when striving to gain recognition for their fire fighting competencies are often a result of subliminal behaviour by men who, in theory, condone equal opportunities in the workplace but have never questioned the ways in which their own behaviour reproduces inequalities and sexism.

Female firefighters wondered independently of each other but with remarkable consistency during my conversations with them, whether the behaviour of many male colleagues on Incident Management Teams is a paternalistic hangover. This theory links the stereotypical paternal urge to protect and control with aggressive decision-making and barking of orders, while the maternal instinct to share and care results in team consultation and more careful consideration of the potential consequences of any decisions made.

“Sometimes, in the fire control centers I guess the best analogy is ‘Battle of the Silverbacks’. A lot of it is about the inter-relationship between the men involved and, you know, that’s really worried me at times in terms of how that affected the actual decisions that were being made.”

There are strengths and weaknesses in both of these communication patterns when compared with the need for both speed and thoroughness in fire fighting tactics. The ability to communicate one way or the other is not gender dependent. The ability to master or successfully negotiate both types of communication, however, would arguably build more equitable conditions across the many intersecting axes of difference amongst firefighters—from age, class, physique, sexuality, ethnicity, and parenthood, to multiple forms of masculinities and femininities.

This would also embrace the somewhat messy reality of the everyday gendered identities and interactions within fire fighting agencies described by both female and male interview participants with terms such as “positive discrimination” and “the swinging pendulum of discrimination”. For example, the “tap on the shoulder” described by several interview participants as the unofficial method used to single out staff to temporarily act in higher positions or be shortlisted for competitive positions, such as on helicopter crews, are not just gender-biased but also usually restricted to men of a certain masculine ilk.

“Boys clubs” can be as exclusive to men as they are to women, as the enactment of privileged masculinities not only enables most men to dominate women, it also enables some men to dominate other men. Men can be as constrained by hegemonic masculinity as women, as they navigate the representations of manliness versus the lived realities of socially constructed, historically situated, and multiple forms of masculinities.

As voiced by this national park ranger, there can be distinct advantages to being a woman:

“I’ve always felt it’s an advantage to be a woman. It feels like you’re playing it both ways somehow. If you’re a male ranger dealing with field officers there’s certain expectations of them, which is probably as difficult to deal with as maybe the lack of expectation of the females.”

Achieving ‘equitable inequalities’ is a complex task even when men are taken out of the gender equation, as pregnancy and motherhood pose a whole other set of challenges for equity and equality amongst female firefighters. My next blog post will examine these challenges further.

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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