Barriers to Inclusion: A Case Study

By Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Bringing more women into your fire department is not going to add value or capabilities to your organization unless your department’s leadership recognizes and addresses its barriers to inclusion.

In a recent piece for FireRescue1’s on-line trade journal, 7 steps to an inclusive fire department culture, I wrote:

Diversity is about counting people. Inclusion is about making people count. Diversity is about the ingredients, the mix of people and perspectives.

Inclusion is about the container – the place that allows employees to feel they belong, to feel both accepted and different. To achieve success today and tomorrow in meeting the challenges it faces, a fire department needs a group of people who think differently – in a place that’s safe to share those differences.

Inclusiveness is the degree to which a workplace or organization has created an environment in which everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.

If you’re a man in the fire service reading this, please understand that this piece is not about “male bashing” (I’m a sixty-year-old white guy). Whether you’re a man or a woman reading this, I hope that you’ll use it to inform and

Check out this collection of past blogs on the topic of Diversity and Inclusion from me and several of my guest bloggers. Available in PDF format and for Kindle. Click on the image!

educate others–both men and women–in your fire service organization.

See Related: Women and minorities in the fire service need champions

A recent post on social media from one of my female fire service colleagues illustrates a very common barrier to inclusion for women (I’ve edited names to protect anonymity). The complainant is the fire chief for a career-staffed fire department in the southeast U.S.

First, a couple of pertinent definitions:

Manterrupting: Unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man.

Bropropriating: Taking a woman’s idea and taking credit for it.

Mansplaining: When a man explains something to a woman in a patronizing way and it often begins with a man completely disregarding a woman’s opinions by interrupting her mid-sentence.

Source: Manterrupting – Bropropriating – Mansplaining Ways Men Undermine Women

So, the fire chief is in a meeting with other men and women

The Complainant: The struggles are still real for women in leadership positions. Here’s what happened yesterday – I’m in a pretty important meeting, can’t go into specifics. I make a recommendation. It’s ignored. Not five minutes later a man at the table makes the same recommendation. Now it’s a great idea and implemented. I bet no one in the meeting even recognized that happened.

The sassy part of me so wants to say at times like that…” Yeah, I just said that five minutes ago.”

Respondent (Man): Just say it. Who cares? You’re vocal and articulate. Make it known.

The Complainant: Meh, that’s a tough call Fred. You know how it is, then women get labeled, etc.

Respondent (Man): I’m just sick of people not respecting others. In my mind the only thing that matters in the fire service is whether you have the courage to crawl down smoky hallways. I don’t care if you’re male or female.

Respondent (Woman): If we speak up about what happened in the meeting, then we are: defensive, emotional, making a scene…It is something I have noticed happening often for myself too. You want the idea heard, you want solutions for the organization, you want credit because it’s important to establish ourselves as authority (for both others and our own work-esteem), but I think women have been conditioned otherwise.

Respondent (Woman): “Bropropriating” Need another female ally (and to be one) in the room “like my colleague (woman) just said…”

The Complainant: There were four other women [in the meeting] …as women we do need to do a better job supporting one another and recognizing when this happens.

Respondent (Woman): I agree, females need to support each other in the room. It helps when we amplify each other’s voices. It also helps to have a male ally who will amplify as well. If you have one that you are close enough to, you can ask him before meetings to speak up when he hears you state an idea, starting with something like “to follow up on what [Insert woman’s name] said…”. There is a great article from the Obama White House where the women did this, and it worked. I’ll see if I can find it.

The Complainant: And as far as the male allies, I don’t even think they realize it happens. Yesterday was a clear example. They are all great leaders who do support female leaders in our community. It was just an example of how prevalent and how often these mansplaining events occur.

Respondent (Woman): If they aren’t even realizing it happens…then educate them. If they are great leaders and support the female leaders, then hopefully they will be open to hear what is being done.

Respondent (Man): Shame on any of the great leaders around the table who didn’t point out that you had made the point earlier.

See Related: This is what a fire service champion looks like

The takeaway

I believe that these are the kinds of stories that we can–and must–share with our colleagues to promote a more inclusive environment in the fire service. If this is happening at the leadership level in an organization, then what’s happening at the fire station level?

Female firefighters have good ideas and opinions I’m sure, but if those ideas are being “bropropriated” or when expressing their opinions or thoughts they experience “manterrupting” or “mansplaining”, then your department is not moving forward. Rather than developing a more inclusive organization, you’re just promulgating the past.

Read More on Diversity and Inclusion 


TALKING FROM 9 TO 5: Women and Men at Work by Deborah Tannen. “Required reading … sharp and insightful … lively and straightforward … a novel and sometimes startling analysis of workplace dynamics.” The New York Times Book Review

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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 and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail,