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Exploring the ‘extremely gendered’ culture of the Country Fire Authority

9 July 2019

News and media


An illustration representing gender equality.

What makes an organisation ‘extremely gendered’? ANZSOG’s Dr Lisa Carson describes her work, with Dr Meagan Tyler and Dr Ben Reynolds, extending the concept of extremely gendered beyond the military to Victoria’s volunteer-based organisation the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

It is well established internationally that emergency management, and firefighting in particular, are both male-dominated and culturally masculinised areas, and that the historical cultural construction of the male firefighter has been linked to more contemporary organisational gender regimes.

Numerous reports exist about endemic sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, hazing, and a toxic ‘CFA boys club’ culture. An investigation was launched in 2015 by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission into bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination, with the final report suppressed following a ruling in favour of the United Firefighters Union.

Properly considering the structural and cultural aspects of the CFA as an extremely gendered organisation is vital for change and the wellbeing of firefighters, and has the potential to provide important lessons about militarised PTSD, gendered motives for arson, why more men die when it comes to ‘Stay and Defend’ policies, and why a simple ‘add women and stir’ approach is unlikely to create substantial change alone.

Our article ‘Are fire services ‘extremely gendered’ organisations? Examining the Country Fire Authority in Australia’ outlines our argument in detail. Briefly, it is not that big of a stretch when you consider that approximately only 4% of Victorian firefighters are female. Things are set to change though in Victoria, with recent calls to increase the number of female firefighters to 400 by 2021.

Our analysis came about after my co-authors Dr Meagan Tyler and Dr Ben Reynolds carried out two related projects about Australian bushfire safety practices, bushfire policies, and the history of the CFA (running from 2011-2018, with partial funding from the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre). Following this work, a deeper question remained about the gendered nature of fire services and policies.

What makes an organisation extremely gendered?

What makes an organisation extremely gendered and how can we tell? There is increasing work and interest regarding the gendered nature of organisations and how change can be achieved, most of which in practice relates to ‘counting numbers of women’.

Pioneering work by Joan Acker and others such as Dana Britton in organisational studies have argued that there are three overlapping and interacting levels of analysis to pay attention to when trying to understand the gendered nature of organisations, which are:

Structural (polices, divisions of labour, formal practices)
Cultural (pervasive images, symbols and ideologies about femininity and masculinity)
Interactional (both individual identity and interpersonal relations)

Others, such as work by Orna Sasson-Levy have extended this work to better understand the extent and potential to ‘degender’ organisations. Sasson-Levy argues that there are four key levels:

‘Low’ indicates an organisation that is ‘amenable to reform’;
‘Medium’ requires ‘greater effort to modify the gender regime’ in the organisation;
‘High’ dictates the ‘need for compensatory affirmative action’; and critically,
‘Extremely gendered’

In regard to ‘extremely gendered’, Sasson-Levy argues that the military constitutes a special, more intense case, and as such is an ‘extremely gendered’ organisation that is exceptionally resistant to change. This is primarily for the following reasons:

The existence of official policies or entrenched informal practices that prohibit women from service (or particular kinds of service)
Despite the inclusion of women, the organisation remains highly gender segregated;
Top-down control is very high and so it is largely shielded from change within
Although it is discriminatory, the institution maintains its legitimacy
The centrality of the male body
The importance of the organisation to the ‘hegemonic patriarchal order’, particularly through links between the state and citizenship

But what if it’s not just the military? What if the concept of ‘extremely gendered’ organisations can be stretched further to so-called ‘peace time’ and everyday types of services?

We argue it can be (although not necessarily to the same extent), and the CFA, with its ‘paramilitary’ history and current policies is a prime example.

If the ‘extremely gendered’ nature of organisations like the CFA continues to be ignored, it may prevent more varied, and ultimately less risky approaches to bushfire response from being adopted, or even openly discussed in the future. By not recognising how truly challenging the genuine inclusion of women can be in ‘extremely gendered’ organisations, there is also no acknowledgment of the risks to women who do join.

Dr Meagan Tyler (@DrMeaganTyler) is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management and a Research Theme Leader in the Centre for People, Organisation and Work at RMIT University, Australia.

Dr Lisa Carson (@DrLisaCResearch) is a Research Fellow in the Public Service Research Group at the University of New South Wales, Australia and Principal Research & Policy Advisor at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG).

Dr Ben Reynolds is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Business at Anglia Ruskin University, UK.