Women have been firefighters in the UK for over 40 years. The term ‘firemen’ was first challenged in the 80s, and the result of the debate was the introduction of the gender unspecific ‘firefighter’. (The accurate definition of the word ‘fireman’ is someone that stokes fires on a train – it has nothing to do with putting out fires).
The Daily Mail is inflammatory and flippant in its approach to the inclusion of non gender-specific job titles, such as ‘firefighter’ – the implication is that the use of such words is ‘political correctness gone mad’. Women work as professional firefighters serving their communities every day, and this casual disregard of them by using ‘firemen’ to describe the entire male and female workforce is unhelpful and disrespectful. The police service has worked hard to change perceptions of its workforce and it has been effective, but still it is taking too long for wider society to understand and accept that women police officers are just as capable as men, a struggle that will resonate with women firefighters.
It is taking too long for wider society to understand and accept that women police officers are just as capable as men, a struggle that will resonate with women firefighters
So, when the Mail carries a front page headline featuring the incendiary ‘firemen’ in capital letters, it undermines women and reignites conversations about why they should not be firefighters. This in turn makes it incredibly difficult for women who are serving and for others who may be thinking about firefighting as a profession. This sort of language excludes us from a club we have fought very hard for decades to become fully paid up members of.
More widely, undervaluing women in society reinforces the belief that their voices don’t need to be heard, and that their opinions are worthless – the recent rise in numbers of women speaking out about sexual harassment and how certain sections of society think it is acceptable to treat women as sexual objects and not as human beings is testament to this.
The London Fire Brigade launched a campaign late last year to finally get rid of sexism in the fire and rescue service and on social media. It caused a massive uproar with some people asking ‘what does language matter as long as they can do the job’?. It matters very much, because language that belittles and makes people feel irrelevant is simply not acceptable in today’s society or its fire service.
Our General Secretary Matt Wrack has often taken issue with the use of the word ‘firemen’ because women are part of a team of firefighters, and every member of that team needs to be included. Come on Daily Mail – get rid of the dinosaurs within and start using inclusive language that doesn’t shut women out in the cold. They are after all the vast majority of your readership.
Sam Rye is a firefighter and secretary of the FBU’s National Women’s Committee