UCLA Professor: Too Many Firefighters Are White

PARADISE, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Firefighters try to keep flames from burning home from spreading to a neighboring apartment complex as they battle the Camp Fire on November 9, 2018 in Paradise, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity, the rapidly spreading Camp Fire ripped through the town of …

A UCLA professor argued in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review that too many Americans firefighters are white.

Professor Corinne Bendensky of UCLA penned a column for the Harvard Business Review entitled “Making U.S. Fire Departments More Diverse and Inclusive.” The column argues white men exercise a “dominance” over the fire service.

“Picture a typical firefighter,” Bendensky poses. “Who comes to mind? If you imagined a white man, that’s understandable: 96% of U.S. career firefighters are men, and 82% are white. This homogeneity is striking, especially when you compare it to the U.S. military, which is 85% men and 60% white, and local police forces, which are 88% men and 73% white.”

Bendensky goes on to make the bizarre argument the firefighters place an inappropriate emphasis on physical strength. This emphasis is in place, according to Bendensky, to uphold “white men’s dominance in the fire service.”

To succeed as a firefighter, stereotypically masculine traits like brawn and courage are simply not enough. Firefighters also need the intellectual, social, and emotional skills required to deliver medical emergency aid, support each other through traumatic experiences, and engage intimately with the communities they serve. In short, successful firefighters embody a complex mix of skills and traits. And yet, in my research on reducing gender bias and my work conducting training on general diversity and inclusion with fire departments, I find that, when evaluating fit and competence, firefighters tend to default to a reductive set of traits (physical strength evaluated through strict fitness tests, for example) that serve to maintain white men’s dominance in the fire service.

Despite Bendensky’s criticisms, firehouses around the country have lowered the eligibility requirements in recent years in order to increase diversity. One specific policy change will allow individuals who have not earned 60 college credits to apply for a position at local firehouses near Chicago.

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