Is Your Dominant Group Bias Showing?

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

You may have heard the following statement, or something close to it, before: A man who might have 60 percent of the qualifications for a promotion will go for it while a woman frequently will not pursue the same promotion even if she meets 100 percent of the qualifications.

In a piece that appeared on the BurnabyNow website, Still no women, racialized firefighters among Burnaby Fire Department’s top brass,a female member of the Burnaby (B.C.) City Council expressed her disappointment that two promotions announced on August 13, 2020 by the Burnaby Fire Department had done nothing for diversity at its highest ranks (Burnaby is the third largest city in B.C. with a population of 249,000+). The article went on to say:

In promoting Ritchie and Hetherington [two white men] to the senior management positions, the NOW has learned the department passed over fire Captain Cathy Van-Martin, a 24-year Burnaby Fire Department veteran with a master’s degree in crisis, emergency and disaster management.

In addition to her years of service and her academic achievements, Captain Van-Martin’s management experience included consulting for the Office of the Fire Commissioner of B.C. and the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. to help develop a Wildland Urban Interface toolkit after the devastating 2017 wildfires in B.C.

When Your Dominant Group Bias is Showing

Now get this, Burnaby Fire Chief Chris Bowcock wrote a letter recommending Van-Martin for the Canadian Risk and Hazard Network’s 2015 Larry Pearce Education Award for emergency and disaster management.

The terms Majority Group and Minority Group as used here represent the TOTAL Numbers for each group.

In that letter, the fire chief wrote that [then] Lieutenant Van-Martin had “excelled in the fire service with specific, high impact contributions in the areas of personal performance, fire company performance, facilitating development, and leadership.”

The chief went on to say in the same letter of recommendation that, “As an individual, Lt. Van-Martin performs at the highest level; incorporating an unmatched level of theoretical knowledge, practical emergency management skills, problem solving capability and a willingness to take on any challenge, both emergency and business process related.”

When interviewed by the BurnabyNow reporter why Captain Van-Martin was passed over for promotion after he wrote such a glowing recommendation letter, the chief’s response was:

“I provide all manner of reference to many different individuals for many different purposes, and at some point, the department needs to make a decision who the appropriate next officers are going to be. Those decisions aren’t taken lightly. They’re extremely difficult to undertake, and we undergo a process and we support all the members’ growth in many different ways so that we can develop people into positions.”

BurnabyNow.com. Still no women, racialized firefighters among Burnaby Fire Department’s top brass. October 7, 2020

When the reported pressed the chief as to whether he believed the most qualified people had been picked for the promotions, Bowcock said, “Oh, I believe so.”

Diversity and Inclusion are Meaningless

IMHO, that’s a pretty lame answer. And the entire proceedings should be a textbook case for how not to promote diversity and inclusion in a fire department, particularly its leadership positions.

See, in today’s world a leader must do more than just “mouth the words” diversity and inclusion. As a leader they have an obligation to put action to those words.

So, when members of the Non-Dominant Group (by numbers, not race or gender) put themselves in a position to be promoted in a department where the Dominant Group consists of white males, a department’s leadership has an obligation to “reach out” and pick a qualified candidate from the minority group that can diversify the upper echelons of the organization.

I’m not saying that Captain Van-Martin should have been promoted solely because she was a woman. I am saying that she should have been promoted because she was a qualified woman AND the Burnaby Fire Department had no members of the Non-Dominant Group (women or people of color) in its “top brass.”

In its 2019 Annual Report, Burnaby had 288 full-time positions with 59 individuals at the rank of captain or greater.

When two individuals who are equally qualified for a promotion, one from the Dominant Group and the other from the Non-Dominant Group, and you still pick the former when you have zero members of the latter “at the table,” that’s your Dominant Group Bias Showing.

Is Your Fire Department Promoting for the Future?

In case you’ve not noticed, I’m an advocate for women, and other members of the Non-Dominant Group, being a part of the fire service, in all capacities. Many women, in particular, bring an extremely broad set of social skills to the job, social skills that are found to be lacking in many fire departments.

In a March 2017 article for Inc. magazine, Romy Newman, president and co-Founder of the website, FAIRYGODBOSS, wrote an article entitled, Women Run Circles Around Men When It Comes To This Key Skill of the Future.In the piece, Newman wrote that the current thought in many leadership and management circles these days is that the labor market is demonstrating a significant increase in the demand for “cognitive skills” (aka, social skills) in high-paying jobs.

Those thought leaders are speaking about how social skills have become critical in the workplace, particularly for high-wage positions. And they’re saying that women have a “comparative advantage in tasks requiring social and interpersonal skills.”

Newman, R. Women Run Circles Around Men When It Comes To This Key Skill of the Future. Inc. March 27, 2017

Said Newman, “As many women have discovered, their innate tendencies to collaborate, compromise and empathize have served them well in working situations. While often these traits have been viewed as tentative, apologetic or lacking in confidence, it turns out that women’s humility may play to their advantage in the twenty-first century and beyond.”

In 2013, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic had a piece published in the Harvard Business Review entitled, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? In the article, he states:

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence…we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women…When it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, Harvard Business Review. 2013.

Now if businesses in general are taking note of such developments, and thought leaders are writing and speaking about them, shouldn’t fire department leaders be doing so as well? And shouldn’t their bosses (local elected officials) be holding them accountable for doing so?

Additional Readings

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.