Fewer than 1 in 20 firefighters are women across Santa Clara County, raising questions of gender bias, discrimination and lack of inclusivity, according to a report by the county's Civil Grand Jury.
But one department received high marks for bucking the trend and making strides to fix the problem in the traditionally male-dominated field. The Mountain View Fire Department has put both money and effort into leveling the playing field in recent years, and has since reached 10% female representation within its ranks -- the highest in the county.
Unlike other fields where gender parity is the goal, national advocacy groups say women should comprise 17% of the first responder workforce. Even in a place that touts itself as progressive and forward-thinking, however, the grand jury report notes that Santa Clara County fire departments have failed to ameliorate the imbalance, and female firefighters remain grossly underrepresented in the field.
What's more, the problem is getting worse. Women made up 5.2% of the firefighters in the county in 2009, which has since declined to 4.1%. In San Jose, female firefighters make up just 2% of the workforce.
The problem starts long before potential recruits make it through the gauntlet of physical and written tests. Of the 1,988 people who applied to be a firefighter in 2016, only 68 were women. By the end of the recruitment process, none of those women were offered a job.
National surveys have found only 20% of female firefighters grew up wanting to be a firefighter, compared to 40% of men, and 85% reported receiving different treatment due to their gender. The vast majority of women said they encountered problems with ill-fitting equipment and feeling shunned or isolated at work. More locally, some women have reported that the wives of male firefighters are uncomfortable that their spouses are working too closely with female firefighters.
Though gender imbalance and discrimination are key problems, fire departments also have an incentive to hire more women, the report said, citing numerous emergency calls that showed victims were more willing to engage with female firefighters, particularly during some medical emergencies or in sexual assault incidents.
"Comforting victims is a very important part of the job of a firefighter and the presence of a female firefighter can – for some victims – help defuse the trauma of the situation when a female firefighter is present," the report said.
Unlike other departments in the county, Mountain View has made a concerted effort to hire more female firefighters. Since 2015, the city has poured an annual $30,000 into boosting recruitment efforts and addressing the gender imbalance, which is done both regionally and specifically in Mountain View, according to the report. One of those efforts is the "She Can!" women's empowerment event, held jointly with the Mountain View Police Department, which was postponed last year due to COVID-19.
In 2019, the Mountain View Fire Department had an all-female fire crew working together for the first time in the department's history, which exploded on social media and drew national attention.
The fire department's spokesman, Robert Maitland, refused multiple requests by the Voice to speak to female firefighters for this story. The city's PIO, Lenka Wright, said the fire department is not able to "accommodate" any interviews, but that no firefighting personnel will be allowed to speak on their behalf to the media.
Though Mountain View had little to answer for in responding to the Civil Grand Jury report's recommendations last month, city officials did dispute some of the findings. The report found that all departments in Santa Clara County gave new female recruits former male firefighter gear on arrival, which is both unfair and potentially dangerous, and advocated for ending the practice. But Mountain View staff say new employees are all given custom-fitted uniforms and equipment prior to arriving at the station.
The report also found that Mountain View had no gender-separated dorms at its fire stations, but that isn't necessarily the case. Mountain View has three stations with multiple dormitories that can be assigned by gender, and the remaining two stations have partitions that split the rooms for privacy.