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Beyond 'Token' Firefighters: Exploring Women's Experiences of Gender and Identity at Work

by Tamika Perrott
University of South Australia

Sociological Research Online, 21 (1), 4
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3832

Received: 12 May 2015 | Accepted: 12 Nov 2015 | Published: 28 Feb 2016


Despite the increasing percentage of women entering masculinized workplaces, certain organizations consistently see little change in the gender makeup of their staff. Contemporary scholarship suggests that women in rigidly gendered organizations are often assigned a token status and are victimized due to their gender. This study relocates the conversations of women as tokens towards a fresh conversation of women's agency in masculinized workplaces. This paper uses ten qualitative interviews and ethnographic fieldwork to discuss how female firefighters navigate their gender at work. This article draws on reflexive accounts of everyday gendered negotiations to look at how the female firefighters 'do gender' within a specific fire service in Australia. I argue that emergency services, such as firefighting, create a contradictory field where women are located in (1) a paradoxical environment where the 'female body' is problematized (2) a work environment where they have to repeatedly prove their cultural competence in order to confirm their professional identity. The findings suggest that while female firefighters do have agency, tokenism locates many of them in a 'never quite there' bind that challenges their ability to progress into leadership roles within the service. This article concludes that the nuanced difference between, and at times, within the women's narratives problematizes the bounds of personal agency and cultural change. This consequently results in resistance to policies by some women that may benefit like-situated women, such as affirmative action.

Keywords: Work, Tokenism, Gender, Identity, Firefighting, Women


1.1 It is clear that women's participation in the workforce has been central to debates of gender equality and gender reform and remains an issue subject to growing academic and public concern (Germain et al. 2012; Smith 2013; Ridgeway 2014). Within the context of uniformed services, many researchers advocate that institutional practices account for a large proportion of the gendered barriers women face in masculinized workplaces (Kanter 1997; Rimalt 2007). Central to this debate is the assertion that organizations mobilize a masculine bias that is entrenched in the hierarchical structure of the organization. The solutions that are frequently suggested favor the examination of gender reform policies and managerial influences in gendered practices (Charlesworth 2013). This paper argues, however, that day-to-day interactions account for the continuation of gendered cultures and beliefs inside male dominated organizations. The modest increases of women in masculinized workplaces (Bix 2004; Gill et al. 2008; Lewis 2004a; 2004b; 2004c; Manohar et al. 1981; Meier and Nicholson-Crotty 2006) and unsuccessful gender reforms (See He and Xiaoping 2006) suggests that more is needed if we want to understand the complexities of workplace interactions in masculinized workplaces. This paper draws on qualitative interviews, ethnographic data and theoretical perspectives, including insights from social exchange theories, tokenism theory and embodiment literature. This paper argues that peoples everyday lived experiences, extracted from their narratives, reveal significant insights into male dominated workplaces. These issues are explored within the context of masculinized workplaces, focusing on a small-scale case study of women working in the extremely sex-segmented occupation of firefighting.

Women in Male Dominated Work

2.1 The past few decades have seen a marked increase in women joining masculinized workplaces such as policing (Meier and Nicholson-Crotty 2006), construction work (Dainty, Bagilhole and Neale 2000; Sang, Danity and Ison 2007), engineering (Bix 2004; Gill et al. 2008) and firefighting (Lewis 2004a; 2004b; 2004c: Woodfield 2015). Despite these modest increases, progress towards gender equality remains slow in masculinized workplaces, with many women remaining segregated into 'feminized' jobs when they manage to enter their chosen occupation. Grube-Farrell (2002: 338) for instance found that women police officers are often assigned work that requires counseling, social work or work with women offenders. One of the striking consequences of this job segregation is the extent to which it restricts and undermines women's successes in non-traditional occupations. Although there has been an abundance of research arguing that the sexual division of labor is socially constructed, research conducted in organizational sociology suggests that workplaces still structure their employment and institutional practices around the sexual division of labor (Reskin and Bielby 2005; Acker 2012). As Reskin and Bielby (2005) argue, the outcomes of these employment practices have very real, damaging consequences for women as the sexual division of labor institutionally favors men (Franzway 2001).

2.2 Interestingly, men who enter similarly non-traditional, female-dominated workplaces do not suffer the same damaging consequences (Simpson 2004; Lupton 2006). Simpson (2004) for instance, found that the visibility of being a minority could actually work in men's favor, due to the gendered assumptions of men's leadership and authority. In contrast to women who experience tokenism (Kanter 1997), men are able to use this status to position themselves as role models (Simpson 2004: 356-358). Similarly, Lupton (2006: 114) found that men often benefit from their minority status. Indeed, Lupton (2006) argues that men can draw on their heightened visibility as a minority to propel their career development. The findings from Simpson (2004) and Lupton (2006) suggest that men are assumed to be authoritative leaders, even when faced with minority status. This research helps highlight the problematic nature of being a woman occupying a minority status where authoritative leadership is not automatically assumed. This consequently results in women facing detrimental assumptions about their ability to effectively do their jobs well.

2.3 The same employment practices that favor men actively lessen women's chances for career advancement and lowers women's chances of being seen as authoritative in their career position (Reskin and Bielby 2005: 78-79). While certain employment practices are problematic for women in general, they are particularly problematic for women who enter non-traditional work where the organization embodies masculine ideologies (Cheng 1996: 70).

2.4 Scholars have only recently shown an interest in the links between gender, firefighting and broader masculinities (Baigent 2001; Yoder and Berendsen 2001; Lewis 2004a; 2004b; 2004c; Batty and Burchielli 2011; Ainsworth et al. 2014) with Thurnell-Read and Parker (2008: 127) arguing that firefighters embody one of the most prominent ideals of maleness and physical empowerment. Previous literature on female firefighters suggests that women experience work segregation (Yoder and Aniakudo 1997; Grube-Farrell 2002), discrimination (Hulett et al. 2008b; Branch-Smith and Pooley 2010), tokenism (Yoder and Aniakudo 1997) and sexual harassment (McLennan and Birch 2006; Hulett et al. 2008a; Hulett et al. 2008b). The existing literature does well to explore the gender related discrimination occurring at both operational and auxiliary levels within specific emergency services (Mclennan and Birch 2006; Branch-Smith and Pooley 2010), however, it often fails to address how women make sense of and negotiate gender within the confines of masculinized workplaces. The lack of focus on gender negotiations in firefighting has inevitably led to a lack of deep engagement with women's ability to 'do gender' (West and Zimmerman 1987) within these organizations. This study moves away from the large portion of the broader critical literature by focusing on how women negotiate their professional identity in spite of gender related discrimination. This approach works from the bottom up, focusing on how interactions and experiences can inform future policy implementation. Ultimately this paper aims to contribute to a growing body of literature surrounding the lived experience of women in male dominated workplaces by looking beyond the structural constraints within the organization and instead focusing on women's agency and embodiment within these highly contested spaces.

The Gendered Makeup of Firefighting

3.1 Women in male dominated occupations have broken considerable boundaries; however, the stigma of feminine existence (Young 2005) overshadows valiant efforts to change the perspective that women simply 'do not belong' in men's work. Women firefighters continuously work hard to establish and maintain their masculine capital and status (Skeggs 1997) as honorable firefighters by engaging in, conserving and reproducing the masculine ethos (Baigent 2001; Lewis 2004a; 2004b; 2004c).

3.2 The historical exclusion and symbolic annihilation of women in Australian fire services has seen 'firefighters' become synonymous with 'white men'. Consequently, women's symbolic annihilation from the discourse of firefighting has reinforced the pervasive trope of 'woman in peril' (Lobasz 2008). The 'woman in peril' trope postulates that women need to be protected and/or rescued. This highly gendered discursive framework glorifies patriarchal power and denies the agency of women to be heroes of their own experiences and lives. This trope produces barriers for women in broader masculinized workplaces by actively quelling women's autonomous power to be brave and heroic (Lobasz 2008: 342). The pervasive 'woman in peril' trope is embedded in historical representations of firefighters through history. Historical images of men saving women and children from fires (See Baigent 2001: 138) reaffirms sex differences by placing men in a position of dominance (Baigent 2001: 19). Baigent (2001) argues that these images do not simply portray 'firefighting' or 'masculinity', rather, they portray the idea of an embodied 'fixed masculinity' (Baigent 2001: 19). The idea of a fixed masculinity continues to problematize women's entry into fire services and broader masculinized workplaces.

3.3 In most western fire services, professional female firefighters make up less than five percent of the full time staff. These women contribute to less than four percent of the fire service staff in the United States of America (NFPA n.d.), less than one percent in England and Wales (Baigent 2001, p. 4, 122) and less than five percent across Australia (DCS 2013; DFES 2013; FRNSW 2013: 120; JCS 2012: 161; MFB 2013: 24; NTPFES 2013: 64; SAMFS 2013: 74; TFS 2013). These numbers are even lower than the armed forces (Woodward and Winter 2004: 281), policing and several emergency services. The cross-cultural underrepresentation of women in western fire services places female firefighters at a higher risk of tokenism due to women's persistent underrepresentation. Firefighting therefore provides an excellent starting point for researching the gendered processes occurring in male dominated workplaces, particularly those that uphold traditional masculine ideologies. Before discussing the findings explicated from the women's lived experiences, I briefly review three contemporary theoretical models and literature that have the potential to further research on masculinized workplaces in organizational studies.

Social Exchange, Tokenism and Embodiment

4.1 I rely on social exchange theories and the empirical literature on tokenism and embodiment to develop a model that adequately accounts for women's gendered negotiation at work. This research is largely informed from feminist perspectives. This is a direct consequence of my own political standpoint and my concern for women employed in male dominated work. Social exchange theories argue that people can possess different social commodities that can be exchanged for power (Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005). Despite being rooted in economics, exchange theories have since been adopted by sociology as a way of explicating social contracts in social interactions. Feminist scholars have adopted similar perspectives to understand the various trade of gendered capital in organizational settings (Skeggs 1997; Lovell 2000; Adkins and Skeggs 2004). The literature on tokenism and embodiment suggests that the impact of gender and the body on social contracts in social interactions has a substantial impact on women's ability to 'pass' and 'belong' in certain organizational settings. In this context 'passing' equates to being seen as equivalent and 'belonging' equates to being seen as an equal.

Social Exchange Theory

5.1 Social exchange theories are relevant at the intersection of sociology and critical feminism. This paper borrows its definition of social exchange theory from Skeggs (1997), who bases a great deal of her theory from the insights generated by Bourdieu's notion of capital. Skeggs (1997: 9) argues that gender, class and race provide a lens in which different forms of cultural and social capital become valued. The historical and cultural construction of gender then becomes pivotal in how men and women are viewed in respect to their social interactions. As Skeggs (1997:9) argues, 'Masculinity and whiteness, for instance, are valued (and normalized) forms of cultural capital'. Feminist infused social exchange theories have the potential to constitute new ways of seeing actors in social institutions (Skeggs 1997; Lovell 2000; Adkins and Skeggs 2004). By examining the complexity of gender negotiations and the strategies of resistance and conformity in organizational settings, social exchange theories can help critique the role of power in constituting social order in masculinized workplaces.

5.2 Various feminist scholars advocate the use of social exchange theories to explicate how women negotiate their gender at work. Skeggs (1997) and Adkins and Skeggs (2004:57) argue that masculine space can be culturally acquired through the trade of symbolic capital. This argument disrupts the notion that the female body undermines women's access to masculine space. Instead, it argues that women who engage in gendered social exchanges have the potential to gain symbolical capital that might otherwise be denied due to the aesthetics of their perceived 'feminine' bodies. This framework reimagines the ways in which women trade skills, behaviors and attitudes (Brownson 2014: 77). Social exchange theories are therefore quintessential in understanding why some women conform to masculine cultures while other women adamantly fight to transform them.

5.3 In basic economic terms, a social exchange is formed through carefully deliberated negotiations that create the potential building blocks for trust and loyalty in social ties (Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005). Everyday experiences of social exchanges have the potential to reveal a great deal about group solidarity, organizational life and what is valued in masculinized workplaces. The application of this theoretical framework has been appropriately applied to consider how women in a masculinized workplace negotiate their space and 'do gender' differently. Fire services provide an invaluable site to explore the ways in which symbolic, cultural and gendered social exchanges are enacted.

Tokenism in the Workplace

6.1 In Men and Women of the Corporation (1997), Kanter argues that minority groups that occupy less than fifteen percent of the workplace are faced with negative assumptions about their capabilities and are further scrutinized for their failures. Kanter (1997: 221) argues that 'The token must often choose between trying to limit visibility-and being overlooked-or taking advantage of the publicity-and being labeled a "troublemaker"'. Kanter (1997) maintains that the numerical rarity of women in male-dominated work results in heightened performance pressures and a plethora of negative consequences. A direct consequence of women's underrepresentation in western fire services is the assumption that women are 'given' the job in an organizational effort to increase women's presence within the organization.

6.2 Critics of Kanter's theory challenge the notion that numerical rarity is the sole cause of maltreatment toward minority groups, rather that it speaks of larger macro-social power relations existing in broader society. That is, while minority groups historically consist of those who occupy gender minorities (Hulett et al. 2008a; Hulett et al. 2008b), they also consist of racial minorities (Yoder and Aniakudo 1997; Yoder and Berendsen 2001). As a demographic, women in western fire services have yet to reach critical mass and currently occupy less than five percent of the professional, career firefighters, placing them at a high risk of tokenism. The strategies that women adopt to make sense of being a minority need to be considered. While the negative aspects of tokenism are well documented (Grube-Farrell 2002; Yoder and Berendsen 2001) the literature rarely extends beyond women as 'token firefighters'. The term token is therefore used throughout this paper to acknowledge how women are positioned as 'others' as a result of their minority status. This minority status cultivates an ideology amongst male firefighters, where women are viewed as being selected via the organization in order to fulfill a 'quota'. The women in this study are therefore framed as 'token' firefighters by some of their male colleagues, not necessarily due to minority status but via the assumption that women do not earn their position, rather they are given a free pass. The resulting discrimination that the women face due to this status is discussed in further detail below. By exploring the tension between power and agency in women who are assigned 'token' status, we can adequately account for women's gendered negotiations at work.


7.1 The body remains a central concept to the embodiment approach and crucial to our ongoing understanding of the development of identity (Bordo 2003; Howson 2004; Howson 2005). The body is particularly important when considering the issue of tokenism as the body often acts as a symbol for women's minority status (Kanter 1997). It also remains a central component of social exchange theory, particularly within male dominated work, as masculinity and the male body are often socially constructed as more valuable (Skeggs 1997). Our bodies are often the first point of contact in social interactions and visually communicate information on our race, our gender and our class (Ridgeway 2014; Ridgeway 2009). The embodiment approach stresses that the body is the starting point of any interaction, as it frames the interaction before two people even begin their social exchange (Ridgeway 2009). The body has the potential to become a problem for women in masculinized workplaces, where women's bodies are already symbolically and culturally viewed as problematic to masculine ethos (Baigent 2001).

7.2 The physically empowered masculine body is culturally and symbolically valued within male dominated workplaces (Baigent 2001; Lewis 2004a; 2004b; 2004c). Consequently, women's bodies are at the center of the argument that women should not be employed in physically demanding careers. Grube-Farrell (2002) argues that many men believe that women benefit from unfair hiring practices, making them 'less qualified' and 'too weak' (Grube-Farrell 2002: 339). In addition to hostility, Grube-Farrell (2002) also found that occupational segregation, tokenism and organizational factors all play a part in how the stigma of the feminine body is used to exclude and discriminate against women in masculinized workplaces.

7.3 The fragility of the feminine body is largely viewed as a biological, objective reality, so too is women's embodiment of this fragility. Young (2005) argues that the perceived fragility of the female body creates a 'body/mind' feedback by which women repetitively reinforce the performative gendering of the 'feminine' body. The resulting physical inhibition, confinement and objectification of the feminine body leaves many women doubting the full potential of their socially constructed 'vulnerable' and 'fragile' bodies and consequently reinforces the notion that women are naturally weaker than men. This paper argues that the body is an instrument of power and must be considered when exploring women's gendered negotiations at work.

Research Methodology

8.1 This article draws on qualitative interviews and ethnographic fieldwork from ten career and retained female firefighters over a three-month period in 2012. The limited number of female firefighters reflects both the number of women prepared to participate and their overall representation within this Australian fire service. Careful consideration was given to the selection of the participants given their minority status within the fire service. Initial contact was made with the Chief Officer, who was briefed on the research. The longest serving female firefighter, who had participated in many interviews over her career was then given my contact information from the Chief Officer and told that, should she want to participate in the study, that she could contact me. This woman sent me an email asking for further information and then distributed this information to other women at various stations across the fire service. This snowballing technique was used to keep the women's identity private from the broader organization (Alasuutari, Bickman and Brannen 2008). It was important that the identity of the women remain anonymous to other men in the service, as the men might have been resentful/suspicious of the women's involvement in the study. In response to ethical considerations, the women were only contacted if they had made the decision to initiate contact. The participants ranged from new recruit firefighters with less than a years experience, to senior firefighters with decades of experience. All women were ranked as Senior Firefighters or lower at the time of the interviews and no women occupied leadership positions within the organization. The participants were diverse in regard to their age and experience. This diversity also extended to their level of comfort in discussing their work experiences with other men at work, which resulted in some women opting to be interviewed over the phone rather than at their designated fire stations. Seven interviews were conducted face-to-face and three were conducted over the phone. Interviews ranged from 5 to 56 minutes in length. The shortest interview lasted 5 minutes and 26 seconds. However, the short duration of this particular interview was an anomaly. The participant explained at the closing of the interview that she had been previously interviewed about gender, stating that she was repeatedly asked the question: why are there so few women in firefighting? Despite the length of the interview, Ruth still revealed similar lived experiences to the other women particularly in relation to embodiment and agency, stating:

'I was always pretty, you know, athletic and going camping and all of that all the time, well I was a rigger so when I said I was joining the fire service my mum was really proud'.

8.2 During interviews, the women frequently made reference to my standpoint as the daughter of a firefighter as a way of grounding their experiences and validating their choices. This inevitably helped the interview process, allowing the women to speak more openly about their choices without feeling like they were being judged. This was particularly helpful with Hannah and Ruth, who both asked to be interviewed over the phone:

'I did an interview a couple of weeks ago and it went for 40 minutes, it wasn't so positive and nice it was all 'so what do you hate about it?' and all of these negatives and I was like…oh my god, by the end of it I was exhausted. ' (Hannah)
'I was assuming it was going to be a little bit of a different thing, like I thought you were going to be going down the lines of "there aren't many females in the job and why aren't there?" but yeah, you've gone down the straight forward thing so that's all good.' (Ruth)

8.3 Hannah and Ruth disclosed similar uncomfortable experiences with previous researchers. These experiences highlight how women's participation in fire services are often viewed as passive through victim/bully binaries that place women in spaces with limited room to negotiate power. While over half of the women were closed bodied and suspicious at the beginning of their interview, they relaxed immediately when they were told of my cultural background.

8.4 Most interviews took approximately 20-30 minutes or longer to complete. The research employed thematic analysis (Brinkman and Kvale 2009; Silverman 1993) that incorporated a combination of manual (Marshall and Rossman 2011) and computer assisted data analysis using Nvivo software. This software was used to identify themes while a manual analysis of source material revealed more meaningful connections between the participants lived experiences (Stirling 2001). After initial manual coding and analysis, the data revealed substantial themes related to social exchange, tokenism and embodiment. Consequently, literature related to these areas were integrated into the data analysis in order to develop a theoretical framework to better articulate their experiences.


9.1 Studies have shown that same sex role modeling is crucial to decreasing the effects of stereotype threat and promoting positive influences in women's career development (Segal 1980). The role that women play in their interactions with other women, particularly in workplaces where women are severely underrepresented, should therefore be of great academic and public concern. In order to evaluate how the women negotiate their gender in a male dominated workplace, the participants were asked a simple question: what advice would you give to women wanting to join the service? At this point I must make mention of two important details. Firstly, prior to the interviews I informed the women that I was the daughter of a firefighter. Secondly, I informed them that my interest in firefighting was largely influenced by my desire to one day join the ranks. This information inevitably changed the nature of the interview and influenced the level of passion and assistance that was offered. It also added to more informal conversations and a relaxed atmosphere. Each of the women responded to this question differently. Some were happy to unveil a wealth of knowledge about the different types of training available, the strategies that they undertook to pass the tests and the type of mind frame they adopted in order to counteract resistance. Others, however, were very resistant to the idea of women joining, highlighting that only a select group of women would be capable of performing the job. Due to my previous disclosure about my upbringing around fire service cultures, I was welcomed as a 'potential' firefighter and thus diverted the assumption that I was 'like most girls'.


9.2 Tokenism (Kanter 1997) and discrimination played key roles in the female firefighters lived experiences. These lived experiences can be largely accounted for through the women's experiences of 'otherness'. While this paper does not draw upon a singular definition of otherness, it does however draw upon several theorists conceptualization of the term. For De Beauvoir (2011: 6), 'the category of Other' helps produce meanings of difference. De Beauvoir argues that this categorical system represents the duality of self and other. Similarly Bauman (2013) suggests that othering regulates social order, while Hall (2013: 224) suggests that othering helps to solidify cultural myths and the notions of difference. While all of the female firefighters experienced varying forms of discrimination based on gender, six of the women specifically mentioned instances of being treated as a token or 'other' firefighter by their peers. Although the women expressed their disappointment with these experiences, they similarly demonstrated an ability to negotiate their way through its negative implications. After discussing the unique culture of the fire service and the expected banter one might expect from fellow firefighters, Pam discussed how difficult firefighting might be to someone who does not appreciate the workplace culture. She delved into her experiences inside this culture and reflected on some of the resistance that she had faced earlier in her career:

'So I found that I worked harder so that they could never say that I didn't pull my weight. I hear some of the guys speak really highly of some of the girls and I think that's fantastic to have that level of acceptance but they earned it, they didn't come in and get given it, they got judged from the day they started.'

9.3 Pam's reflections on her experiences of tokenism echo findings by Timmins and Hainsworth (1989), who found that women police officers feel as though they have to perform at a higher standard to achieve minimal acceptance by male co-workers. Pam went on to recall a time where she continued to roll up lengths of hose while her male co-workers stood there 'chatting'. She stated: 'I would do more and prove a point'.

9.4 'Proving a point' was not just a way of denying a token label; it was a continual and relentless dance that earned her a position that was already available to firefighters with a sexed male body. Interestingly, Pam later reflected on her own expectations of her capabilities and how these may have also contributed to her desire to achieve more. She discussed how disheartened she felt when men would attempt to lift things for her; open doors for her and censor their vulgarity in her presence. She addressed how no firefighter is privileged with automatic 'acceptance' from existing firefighters, that all must prove themselves throughout their professional careers and through their working relationships with one another. She related that on the one hand she had firefighters treating her differently and more courteously due to her gender, and on the other she endured atrocious harassment and exclusion. This finding supports research by Branch-Smith and Pooley (2010) and Yoder and Berendsen (1997), which found that women are frequently staged as the 'outsiders' within firehouses and fire services. Even though Pam was able to 'prove' that she was physically capable in spite of her perceived fragile feminine body, Pam's lived experiences suggest that gender created barriers for her entrance in the fire service and she, like many of the women interviewed, required formidable dedication to be seen as a visible firefighter by her peers and thus transcend her 'token' status.

9.5 At this time in her professional career Pam existed in a dual state of otherness. Firstly, her otherness was signaled by her feminine existence (Young 2005). This prompted the men to identify her as fragile, which motivated the firefighters to assist Pam with tasks/duties that they would not assist male firefighters with. Secondly, her resistance to femininity signaled her otherness, which can often cause even greater resistance (Kanter 1997; Yoder and Berendsen 2001). This prompted some of her male co-workers to identify her as a threat to masculine culture, which motivated some male firefighters to engage in hostility and resistance to defend the status quo. Pam had already stated that she, like many of her co-workers, came from a family of firefighters and that this 'cultural knowledge' helped her appreciate the initiation process. Despite knowing that she needed to fight for her place in the service, she noted several times that she had to prove that she could endure the sexism, assault and harassment in order to be seen as legitimately interested in pursuing the career, rather than pushing a feminist agenda. Other women also noted that they had experienced overt and subtle discrimination based on gender, arguing that the only way to counteract the perceived disadvantages of their gender was to ensure that they performed their jobs well and, in many cases, better than their male co-workers. When asked 'what advice would you give to women trying out in the fire service?' Hannah responded with the following:

'Make sure that you're good at what you do. When you are good at what you do then everyone respects you for that and they forget that you're a… they don't forget that you're a female but they leave gender out of it.'

9.6 Hannah's revealing statement that they 'leave gender out of it' implies that even when a woman is able to 'fit in', the omnipresent nature of gender lingers as a potential threat to her status as a firefighter. Maintaining a higher work ethic and standard than their male co-workers was seen as a way of temporarily securing cultural capital as 'one of the boys'. Kanter (1997) proposes that while tokens have to work harder than the dominants to receive recognition they are also simultaneously encouraged to not 'out-do' the dominants in a given task. Interestingly, all of the women interviewed transgressed the normative practices of under-performing by going beyond what was expected of them. This was evident in Pam's earlier extract where she stated that she often had to 'work harder' so that her colleagues could never question her physical capabilities. While this resistance is typical of an individual occupying a token status, resistance to the dominant group often results in adverse reactions. 'Working harder' usually means that the token has 'shown up' the dominants (Kanter 1997: Baigent 2001). The consequence of this action usually results in the dominants feeling humiliated, which generates even further resistance from the dominant group (Lewis 2004a). The act of 'working harder' is then seen as an act of individualism and a shift away from group solidarity, which remains a central component to the masculine ideology in many fire services (Thurnell-Read and Parker 2008: 132). An example of this can be seen in Lisa's narrative:

'I definitely am very proud because you know, I deserve to be here you know, I did the yards and yeah, so as much as some of the guys don't think I do… but that's their ego.'

Fitting in

10.1 The women's experiences of embodiment compliment findings by Woodfield (2015), which suggest that hegemonic ideals of the masculine worker counter female firefighters' attempts to be viewed as skilled professionals. Woodfield (2015) found that the compounding issues surrounding embodiment and lack of skill recognition often results in women's achievements being stifled, even after the women achieve higher ranks and more prominent leadership positions within the service. An example, given by the following extract, is one where Meredith talked about career progression and the experiences of other women who were considering promotion to station officer rank:

'Everyone's been really nervous about it because the [organization] has wanted a female to be a station officer but if you go for it you don't want everyone to think it's just been handed to you. I know that like, Monica and Pam have both been studying really hard so if they get it, it would be on their own merit and it would be no matter what but it's the perception…'

10.2 She continued by saying ' I think they'll be fine, in this job you've just got to hold your own'. However, as Woodfield (2015) found, 'holding your own' is not a simple task. Women's heightened visibility in fire services often restricts women from being legitimized as strong, skilled leaders. Despite this, all of the women in the current study believed that if they consistently demonstrated their skill then they would be able to prove their legitimacy and 'fit in'. The act of 'fitting in' (Baigent 2001) therefore requires women to actively question their male co-workers assumptions about their skills and embodiment so they can transcend the stigmatized label of the 'token' firefighter. As Puwar (2004: 119) explains, women are frequently seen through discursive imperial-legitimate language that frames them as 'space invaders'. Puwar (2004: 8) argues, similarly to Young (2005), that while space may appear public and neutral, individuals have to prove their right to occupy public spaces. Puwar (2004) concludes that space can be used as a powerful tool to establish symbolic and gendered boundaries, particularly in organizations.

10.3 According to Kanter (1997), tokens have to navigate their professional identity tactfully despite the heightened boundaries that they encounter. Instead of trying to navigate the space between 'under the radar' and 'highly visible', the women actively tried to 'out-do', 'out-perform' and 'show up' the dominants. The women did not do this in an effort to 'fit in' so much as to prove a point and challenge the status quo. While discussing the issue of 'fitting in', Hannah suggested that women should research the job before they apply to ensure that it is something that they want to do. She continued to highlight that while all workplaces hold people with different personalities, the workplace culture in her fire service was unique, offering a juxtaposition of positive and negative experiences. Most of the women who were interviewed expressed that they were descendants of firefighters, or had close family members who knew the job intimately. This was seen, by most of the women, as a way of entering the fire service with some edge, stating that 'it helps if you go in with some understanding'. All of the women said a variation of the phrase 'you would understand that' at least once during their interview, indicating that I, like them, had an intimate knowledge of the background culture due to my upbringing around other firefighters. One woman said that people who 'go into the job green' will not have an understanding and will probably find it a real shock to the system, referring specifically to the daily jokes and banter that can be 'taken the wrong way'. Baigent's (2001: 72) study of UK fire services reports similar findings, with firefighters frequently stating that the culture is one that you eventually 'adjust to'.


11.1 This paper borrows its conceptualization of agency and power from Foucault (1991: 61), arguing that while certain systems can limit the bounds of human freedom, there is always room for agency, transcendence and resistance. In an attempt to draw the conversation away from the victim/bully binary and respect the multiplicity of experiences expressed by each woman, the women's narratives have been separated to see the full spectrum of their negotiations. The similarities and differences, even within the women's experiences are deliberately highlighted to ensure that the women are not viewed as a collectively oppressed group. For instance, while most of the women noted that a high level of fitness came naturally to them, other women noted that they had to work hard to stay physically motivated on the job. Felicity for instance said 'having to keep up your fitness for the job is one factor that I probably don't like'. However, Felicity also mentioned that the physical nature of the job was also what initially attracted her to the career, demonstrating that while a high level of fitness did not come naturally to her, she continues to exert her body and challenge her fitness for the sake of the job.

11.2 While the women's lived experiences differed, the resounding apprehensions to be pigeonholed into the role of the token firefighter connect the women's stories. Pam and Hannah showed resilience and persistence despite experiencing tokenism throughout their career. This resilience was demonstrated through their negotiation of space and the ways in which they engaged their bodies to overcome these barriers, specifically by outperforming the men and contesting the normative perceived fragility of the female body.

11.3 The body proved to be an important social space for all of the women interviewed, where their sense of strength was realized and understood. However, as this paper argues, women who want to actively embody masculine traits and circumvent their female-sexed bodies often find that tokenism undermines these negotiations as their bodies remain highly visible as 'feminine' and invisibly unimportant as 'non-male'. Ainsworth, Batty and Burchelli (2014: 48) produced similar findings, arguing that problematic masculine practices immobilize women as 'non-males', delegitimizing further complaints of ill treatment due to gender. Within the context of the fire services, tokenism has been found to encourage negative stereotypes and increased hostility (Yoder and Aniakudo 1997). Studies show that female firefighters are frequently questioned on their physical ability to perform required tasks and are concerned that they will be seen as weak, fragile or tired (Yoder and Berendsen, 2001: 32). Similar findings emerged in the current study. Bridgette stated:

'One of the things that I prefer less is that sometimes you feel like being in a minority and the expectation of failure by a lot of the other guys, you know? That there's like a target on your back, you get scrutinized in everything you do… waiting for you to cock up and say well 'that's coz she's female' kind of thing so you're always anticipating that.'

11.4 Bridgette went on to discuss how these negative expectations rarely affect her, as she is comfortable with what she does and is confident in her abilities, specifically stating 'I mean I'm a lot more experienced, so I'm a lot more relaxed because I'm confident and comfortable with what I do'. This narrative demonstrates that Bridgette relied on her perception of competence and her 8 years experience in the job to assess her abilities rather than relying on the perception of competence from others. By negotiating her sense of self in traditionally masculine occupied spaces, Bridgette was able to evade ambivalent transcendence, which Young (2005) argues is a way of making use of our bodily potential by actively occupying the available space. Young (2005) argues that women rarely experience transcendence in the same way that men do as men are encouraged to actively seek an engagement with their bodies while women are socialized to see their bodies as passive, weak and fragile. Saugeres (2002) also argues that women's bodies are consistently constructed as partial or lacking in fundamental physical capabilities. Several studies suggest that women define themselves by what they lack (Saugeres 2002), or via their lack of body privilege (Kwan 2010). Most of the women in this study however, challenge biological rhetoric that women are naturally weaker and less valuable by instead reiterating that their bodily engagement has always been an important part of who they are:

'I do love that, you know, you're so active and I never wanted a job where I was sitting behind a desk.' (Bridgette)
'[I] just researched it and the bit that appealed to me was the part of keeping fit.' (Claire)
'I always like to keep fit and always wished that I would have done a trade because I like being out and hands on sought of thing.' (Monica)
'I've always been a bit of a tomboy so my friends kind of expected it.' (Hannah)

11.5 Bridgette also noted that her ability to completely engage with her body has been useful in negotiating workplace interactions. This physical engagement ultimately led her to choose the busiest station so that she could be 'where the action is', explaining that she could not imagine sitting behind a desk. Bridgette's choice to be at the busiest station and her previous work experience with other physically demanding emergency services highlights her continued engagement with her body. She also discussed the various improvements that she has witnessed during her tenure in the fire service, arguing that mere exposure of female firefighters within various stations appears to have generated positive results. Three of the women noted that the men were starting to adjust to the idea of working with women and that simply 'seeing them around' helped to make their job that little bit easier. However as Bridgette noted, being a minority has caused some women to feel the pressure of being watched and judged by others. Other women also working in fire services report similar experiences (Ainsworth, Batty and Burchielli 2014: Woodfield 2015). While Bridgette demonstrated the ability to ignore these pressures by focusing on her subjective self, she remained consciously aware that other women struggle to navigate this resistance.

Expected Failure

12.1 The interviews uncovered a repeated pattern whereby the women were concerned that any individual 'failures' would lead to adverse assumptions that they did not deserve a place in the fire service. Bridgette noted that she felt an expectation of failure by her male co-workers based on her gender. She continued to explain that while she has proven herself as an honorable firefighter through the exchange of masculine capital (Adkins and Skeggs 2004), she is often forced to defend her cultural capital when men state 'you shouldn't be here' and 'you're not good enough to be here', further demonstrating the impact of her 'token' label. Four of the other women reported similar experiences. Both Bridgette and another female firefighter Meredith respond to these comments by reminding their co-workers and members of the public that women have to pass the same meritocratic physical and psychological tests that men do. However, as Meredith explained, this response is usually followed by the statement 'Well if you're a female you'll just get in the job', which Meredith confidently replies 'Well it took me 3 goes, so if that's your theory then they would have let me in go number 1'. Meredith and Bridgette's experiences resemble Saugeres' (2002: 648) findings, which suggest that women are faced with gendered discourses of embodiment that render them as 'lacking' and essentially handicapped due to their biology. The common thread that connects the experiences of the six women who experienced tokenism is that they were all accused of being 'given' the job due to their gender. Ironically, eight of the women interviewed stated that they failed on their first two attempts, as do many men. Despite the actualities of these women's experiences, they still face negative assumptions and feel as though they are singled out due to their gender. Lisa said:

'So probably being a minority is probably the thing I don't like. It's like racism I guess, I'm sure like a, you know, an African American really enjoys being an African American but doesn't like being singled out as one, so that's probably the thing, I'd just like to be treated the same.'

12.2 Lisa's insight demonstrates how being a minority: 'non white' or 'non male' increases instances of being watched and judged by others. Although Lisa did not directly state that she was concerned with being seen as a 'token' female firefighter, she noted in her interview that she felt the pressure of expected failure by her co-workers. Unlike Bridgette, who dismissed her co-workers normative expectations of her physical body by electing to work at the busiest station, Lisa was relatively new to the job and struggled to navigate this space of resistance. Lisa stated that the organizational practice of segregating men and women during training practices further perpetuated her state of difference and otherness. While Lisa looked at the 'locker room' as a space of inclusion and opportunity to bond, the heteronormative separation of men and women through fixed notions of heterosexual desire (Butler 1990) instead made her feel as though she was singled out due to her sex and 'not like everyone else'. An example of this can be seen in the following extract:

'That's where a lot of the banter and discussion [happens] you know, we just wanted to be part of our team and part of our group and not singled out because of sex.'

12.3 Lisa remained sympathetic to the situation of the fire service for making this decision and assuming that the men and women would not be comfortable seeing each others bodies, she also stated that the organization does not understand that women want to be treated the same as the men. By negotiating their social space and making full use of their bodies, most women usually gained acceptance from their peers and found the experience of 'fitting in' to be both personally rewarding and empowering. There were, of course, women who were not empowered by this experience, like Lisa, who had just started this initiation process and were critical of the routinized discriminatory practices. However, many of these women very quickly stated that they would eventually 'fit in', given time. Negative experiences were often normalized by the women and are viewed as an opportunity to develop thicker skin, particularly by women who had been in the service for longer periods of time. An example of this normalization can be seen in Lisa's experiences. It is important to note that Lisa had only been in the service for 4 years at the time of the interview, which is considered a short period of time in this service.

'It can really get you down a lot of it, because everyone can be really mean but a week later someone else has done something wrong and they've totally forgotten about it so it's really just their fun for the day, so I don't take it to heart.


13.1 This paper sought to examine how female firefighters negotiate their gender in male dominated workplaces. Challenging the dominant critical literature, which stresses a bully/victim binary, this paper argues that the line between conformity, and active disruption to masculinized workplace cultures is thin, and laced with complexity and contradictions. There can be a tendency to misinterpret signs of problematically entrenched gendered conformity as signs of transgressed personal agency. This paper disrupts this tendency by addressing the impact of gender on workplace relations and professional identity formation. In terms of the data produced, the findings suggest that most of the female firefighters tried to actively subvert biological expectations of female fragility. However, the findings also found that some of the female firefighters simultaneously conformed to the conventions and normative masculine practices within broader masculinized workplaces in order to establish themselves as 'one of the boys'. While these findings cannot be generalized into all male dominated fire services, the ten participant's narratives do reveal a number of insights that help explain women's underrepresentation within fire services, providing some insights for policy implementation.

13.2 Firstly, all of the women performed their gender by tying their sense of purpose and values to their occupation, even when colleagues questioned the legitimacy of this position. Interestingly, none of the female firefighters were interested in 'proving' themselves in respect to delegitimizing the persistent gendered beliefs about 'women's' physical capabilities, although this was a consequence. Instead, all ten women wanted to prove that they were unlike 'other' women and therefore fit the criteria for firefighting, which has historically excluded women. Secondly, the 'doing' of gender differed between the women. While some women chose to adopt traditional leadership skills and use humor to actively construct their gender at work, others chose to build their professional identity by developing a more flexible work identity that blended traditional leadership, emotional intelligence and empathy with humor and dedication. Yet, of course, acceptance into the culture is not without complexity and contradiction. Many of the women revealed that the process of gaining an acceptable professional identity took a substantial amount of time, dedication and patience. These findings suggest that while women may have more agency than the current literature debates, there are several organizational and social structures that limit this agency. The broad narratives of the 10 women suggest that the power gained from developing a professional identity that is structured around the pre-existing masculine criteria remains permeable to issues of tokenism and individual failure.

13.3 Finally, the women's narratives indicate that the quest for acceptance is often thwarted by biologically predetermined views on sex differences and women's capabilities. Future research on gender and firefighting needs to explore the policies and procedures that embed organizational and institutional barriers, which reaffirm these cultural beliefs. This paper suggests that policy implementation such as affirmative action could potentially mitigate the female firefighters agency within the organization and further the pre-existing notion of tokenism. More research is needed on the fire ground to assess how the day-to-day rituals and behaviors of the larger organization maintain the social reality of the firefighters. Many of the female firefighters noted that their interactions with their colleagues largely informed their understanding of 'what it means to be a firefighter'. If real social change can take place within male dominated workplaces, then the social reality of these organizations needs to be addressed.


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