National News

‘They Can’t Ignore Us Anymore’: Women Firefighters Allege Culture of Discrimination

Posted May 23, 2018 8:29 p.m. EDT

SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Two high-ranking women in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Northern Virginia filed federal civil rights charges Wednesday that the department punished them for trying to oppose what they said was a long pattern of sex discrimination and harassment.

In 2016, the department drew national notoriety after the suicide of a woman firefighter who had been bullied on a Fairfax County message board. That prompted promises from the department to improve its record with female firefighters.

But the women in Wednesday’s case, Kathleen Stanley and Cheri Zosh, both battalion chiefs, said the department had not changed. They filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, arguing that the department took action against them after they pressed for discipline against a male harasser and for fair treatment for women.

The federal discrimination case follows others against fire departments in Houston and Chicago, and comes as the country continues to reckon publicly with sexual harassment in the workplace. Industries like the news media and movie business have seen powerful men fall after harassment revelations. But women in other fields that were historically male, like firefighting and factory work, are starting to speak out too.

“They can’t ignore us anymore,” said Zosh, who was a Navy medic assigned to the Marines in Quantico before she became a firefighter in Fairfax County in 1994.

Acting Fire Chief John J. Caussin said the department had gone to great lengths to improve gender relations in the past two years. An outside consultant was brought in to do a cultural assessment, Caussin said, and the department is making changes based on its conclusions. Caussin said that 173 out of about 1,300 uniformed firefighters were women, relatively high for the nation, and that most were satisfied with workplace culture. He said he could not comment on Wednesday’s charges.

The county’s previous fire chief retired in April, and an outside firm has been hired to recruit a new chief. A new leader is expected by midsummer, a county spokesman said.

Zosh said she was denied jobs and a promotion after trying to stop a male officer under her from harassing and stalking a more junior female. Stanley, who resigned from her post as Women’s Program Officer in January, said county officials told her it would be best if she finished her career at another agency outside the fire department.

Gillian Thomas, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, which filed the charges, said of Stanley: “She did her job as women’s program officer for a troubled department, and the response was to deflect and rebut, rather than taking what she said seriously. It’s willful ignorance about what the most seasoned women in this department have to say about what’s really happening here.”

Fire departments rarely, if ever, hired women firefighters until shortly after the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employers from discriminating against women. Brenda Berkman, a retired captain in the New York Fire Department, whose 1978 lawsuit opened the door to women in that department, said that harassment of women could be extreme in those early years — from death threats to putting pornography on their lockers.

“There was this idea that this was a job for men,” Berkman said. “Why are women ruining our club? Why are they asking to be treated differently? But we weren’t. All women firefighters were asking for was that this workplace be seen by everyone as a job, not a club.”

Women firefighters have grown in numbers over the years but their share of the total workforce has declined recently. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up just 3.5 percent of all career firefighters in 2017, down from 5.3 percent in 2007. Marc Bendick, an economic researcher who conducted a national study of female firefighters in 2008, said he had found that most departments continued to be hostile work environments for women.

“It wasn’t that the women couldn’t do the jobs or didn’t want the jobs,” he said. “It was what the departments were doing to them.”

Lawsuits have followed. Curtis Varone, a lawyer in Rhode Island whose law practice is concentrated on issues in the fire service and who has a database of such cases, said of approximately 8,500 cases against the service, the most common type by far involves sexual harassment, which is particularly remarkable, he said, given how few women there are in the service.

“It’s a major problem,” he said.

Stanley, who began as a firefighter in 1995, became an advocate for women in the Fairfax County Fire Department after the suicide of Nicole Mittendorff two years ago. Mittendorff was a firefighter and paramedic who became the target of lewd posts on a Fairfax County message board written by anonymous commenters, some who claimed to be her colleagues.

Stanley has sued for equal treatment before. She was one of the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit settled in 2006 over a lack of facilities and promotions for women, among other things. Women have sued the department six times for sex discrimination since 2005, and in most of those cases either settled or won.

As the department’s women program officer for the last two years, Stanley said she had tried to change the culture and to get the department’s senior leadership to take seriously claims of unfair treatment and harassment. But in January, she submitted her letter of resignation, saying the position “was for show, with no legitimate authority, respect or value.” The letter had 20 bullet points detailing her frustrations. Many were included in Wednesday’s case.

Deputy Chief Executive of Fairfax County, David M. Rohrer, stated in a letter in March that he had looked into Stanley’s examples and found that some had already been investigated, and that reprimands had been imposed when accusations were found to have merit.

Caussin said the department had convened a women’s initiative group that did its own assessment, and found that virtually none of the department’s women felt discriminated against.