Why do people find diversity so difficult?
When I joined the Fire and Rescue Service as a firefighter in 1992 – 10 years after women started to do so – I was one of three women that had successfully completed the recruits’ course in Bedfordshire and Luton Fire and Rescue Service that year.
In 1999 Her Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate carried out a thematic review into ‘Equality and Fairness in The Fire Service’. They concluded that, despite the efforts of many in the service, as of March 31 1998 there were only 436 women employed within the wholetime uniformed (excluding fire control) strength of 33,597 and a retained service of 14,483. This was less than 1% of these sections of the workforce.
Following the findings of this review, Fire Service Circular 1/2000 set a recruitment target that from 1 April 2002, 4% of uniformed staff (excluding fire control) should be women, by 2004 this should be 9% and by 2009 this should be 15%.
Now fast forward to then Home Secretary Teresa May’s first speech on fire service reform on 23 May 2016 in which she explained that the operational workforce is currently comprised of 96% white and 95% male members of staff.
The latest data from the NJC Inclusive Fire Service Group shows, that of the 31,965 personnel operating in Firefighter to Area Manager roles, 1541 are women (4.8%) and of the 15,546 retained personnel, 559 are women (4%).
Despite the considerable efforts of committed and dedicated individuals, the operational workforce within Fire and Rescue Services is still not representative of our communities. The details of this reform speech have made it very clear that this is a position that needs to be improved significantly over the coming months and years.
The question we are faced with is this: how do we achieve these improvements at a time when recruitment to whole-time firefighter positions is limited, restricted or frozen in some cases, and recruitment to retained positions continues to be a challenge for many Services around the country?
Given the fact that women have served in the Fire Service since 1982, we have to ask ourselves if it is acceptable that it has taken so long for a woman who joined as a firefighter to become a Chief Fire Officer. I personally don’t think it is and despite the challenges we face in ensuring our workforce is diverse, I do not believe it is acceptable that so few women occupy senior positions within Fire and Rescue Services.
Some will call for the reintroduction of targets and others for quotas, both of which have advantages and disadvantages. Numerous techniques are used by Services to attract women into the role of firefighter, all linked to positive action.
I have had numerous conversations up and down the country with a variety of people who seem to use the same language they would use when determining a business case for an item of equipment. Why are we using the same language in a conversation about people who we would like to join our organisations? For me there is no business case separate from our business. It is either the way we run our organisations, or it is not. We either value difference and develop our teams to the full or we don’t.
It makes complete sense for our workforce to be as diverse as our communities.
Britain today is not only more diverse than ever but the diversity itself is growing even more diverse. Individual identities are more complex and fluid than ever before and as such, organisationally, we need to reflect that complexity to really connect with our communities and partners.
Diversity is not enough, however, without leaders creating a culture that embodies inclusion as a fundamental building block. Without this, the voices of our diverse workforce will not be heard and their contributions will not be as significant as they could be.
When we ask ourselves the difficult question – why have we not been successful at increasing the recruitment of women – is it because our cultures are not very accepting of difference?
It is a key responsibility of leaders in the Fire Service today to create an environment and a culture that encourages, embraces and is inclusive of diversity. This, in my opinion, is one of the most significant challenges facing Fire and Rescue Services today.
There is fantastic work going on around the UK and further afield and now is the time to harness the best practice and support each other in the challenge ahead. The Inclusive Fire Service work-stream operating under the NJC has a real opportunity to support this area of fire reform and I look forward to seeing the outcomes of this work over the next few months.