The Queen Bee, Tokenism, and Pushing Feminine Away

By Sara Brown

Reflecting on eleven seasons as a wildland firefighter, I explore three reasons why women in fire don’t universally encourage more women to join wildland fire by revealing personal, and often uncomfortable perspectives.

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Reason 1: Creating a Persona to “Fit In.”

For the Sake of Safety, “fitting in” with the firefighter culture is essential for safety and a positive work environment. In order to “fit in” with the culture, I created a persona that was not my authentic self. Each time I moved to a new fire crew I found myself needing to prove my worth as a firefighter and working to be viewed a trusted member of the crew such that I would be included (and safe). The easiest way to do this was to create a masculine version of myself. This meant that I didn’t contribute as many of the positive characteristics that females typically possess, such as providing: alternative perspectives on risk taking, alternative ways to get things done, and emotional safety for my peers. Work by Jennifer Taylor, PhD, at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health corroborates my experience.

Reason 2: The Culture Limits Potential Benefits of Diversity.

The well-intended concept of “inclusivity” may be overrun by “exclusivity” of the fire culture. Cultural exclusivity likely defeats many of the positive aspects that are commonly attributed to diversifying a workforce. The current culture in wildland fire attracts people who either naturally “fit in,” or are willing to conform to the hyper-masculine culture. Minorities who join fire, (women for example) stifle many of the unique perspectives they may otherwise contribute to the culture in order to fit in. Cultural exclusivity has limited perspectives and stifled diversity within the overall culture. When women act in masculine ways to fit into a culture for psychological and physical safety, they can’t provide “diversity”–in effect they contribute to the culture the same way as men do.

Reason 3: Pushing “Feminine” Away.

At work I have pushed other female firefighters (particularly “feminine acting females”) away, rather than bringing them into relationship and supporting them. Two theories suggest that conditions in the workplace might contribute to this behavior.

Theory 1: Tokenism

In the late 1980’s, Robin Ely, then a graduate student in the Yale School of Management, found that women in male-dominated firms believed that only so many of them would make it into the senior ranks, and that they were vying with one another for those spots. This dynamic is known as tokenism.

Theory 2: Queen Bee

A Dutch psychologist, Naomi Ellemers, was trying to understand the near-total absence of senior women in academia. She found that senior women coped with gender discrimination by emphasizing how different they were from other women. She termed these women “Queen Bees.” Ellmers provides conditions in which queen bees emerge: when women are a marginalized group in the workplace, have made big sacrifices for their career, or are already predisposed to show little “gender identification”— camaraderie with other women. According to Ellemers, Queen Bees, “learn the hard way that the way to succeed in the workplace is to make sure that people realize they are not like other women.”

Hopefully these thoughts/experiences, and the following questions will spur discussion about this important topic across multiple levels of the firefighting program.

Is there a tipping point of women firefighters that can be reached beyond which tokenism and Queen Bee syndromes disappear?

Currently our firefighting system seems to support woman deciding to “do fire” on their own with some mentorship. These “self-made” female firefighters meet and accept other woman who made it on their own, but may be skeptical of helping others who didn’t “make it on their own.”

The Challenge – How can we find a way to get the ones who “made it” on their own to want to mentor others who may need a bit more help?

Or should we?

Watch the webinar:

 

Sara Brown works for The USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station

13 thoughts on “The Queen Bee, Tokenism, and Pushing Feminine Away

  1. Sara – I detailed w/ Zion at the end of the season in 2001 as HECM-T and you were a phenomenal teacher and a great fire fighter and good person. It was my pleasure to work w/ you & Zion crew at the end of the season. The only hardship I knew was that I was difficult for you to find a place to live in Cedar City

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    • Jon, thank you for your kind words. I enjoyed working with you at the end of that season–what a fun year 2001 was! It was really hard to find a place to live in Cedar City–looking back, those are fun memories now. The year on Zion Helitack was one of my favorites. I wouldn’t call what I presented “a hardship” necessarily–it was just the way the fire culture affected me…. Overall I loved my time in fire–I got to work with a ton of great people, like you! All the best–and thanks for checking it out! -Sara

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    • I also experienced exactly what Sara described during my years as a woman wildland firefighter from 1979-1988. For example, since I saw very few college educated people fighting fire at the time, I consciously chose to “dumb down” my vocabulary so others would feel more comfortable around me. It was a relief to own my own vocabulary range when I left fire management. This is one of many concessions I made, because I loved the actual work of firefighting and the joy of experiencing new places. Not so keen on the male-dominated fire culture. Which is why I ended up leaving that line of work.
      Thank you, Sara, for putting words to many of my experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately, firefighting is not for everyone. The experiences of traveling and seeing parts of the country are a big plus and your right, it can be a fun experience as well. The truth of the matter of being a firefighter are long hours, hazardous conditions (smoke, terrain, heat, etc.) and the stress management both physical (hiking, bending over swinging tools, cutting fire breaks, standardized back packs to carry water, food, and enough gear to get you thru 36 hours) and then there is the mental stress (being away from loved ones, making decisions to keep yourself safe as well as your fellow crew members, and handling/juggling everything that has been previously mentioned here and in the above article). The old-saying has always rang the loudest; firefighting is a young persons game.

        I feel like its not a man/woman, black/white, language, or religion issue…..ITS BIGGER THAN THAT!

        (just my opinion)

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  2. Solid points all, Sara. The need for diversity in any system, be it eco- or soical, is at stake in these “acculturation” processes. The new entity, in your thesis-the female firefighter, is in many ways “choked-out” (is that an acceptable term?) by the extant species. While it is surely difficult for a female to find a niche in such social systems, isn’t it that any newcomer is subjected to aggressive and/or subtle challenges by those already entrenched in the system? Even the new males must go through some kind of acculturation before their niche becomes stable. The big difference, as you importantly point out, is that the males do not have to deny essential aspects of their makeup to fit in. Helpful and stimulating post. Please keep it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Matt, great to hear from you! Thanks for reading! I like your analogy, and I believe you are 100% correct that females are not the only ones who experience this “acculturation”….. –Sara B.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is upsetting to me. All I have seen and heard in the media, the knee-jerk reaction from the FS, and now this article is the negative opinion/experiences of women in the fire service. I started my career in R5 (southern California) where supposedly ALL the females were being discriminated against. This was NOT true by ANY means! While Sara’s article is true and this does happen, there is a LARGE amount of females in the agencies that do not choose these mechanisms for fitting in and are flourishing in the agency. When I started my career, I KNEW my weakness’ compared to my male crew members. But I chose to work hard and being a part of the team. I identified my strengths and those became an asset to my team. Was it easy? Heck no, but I loved my job and I was willing to work extra hard at it. That effort was recognized and valued by my crew members.
    I am NOT saying that negative actions/behaviors/views of women in fire are not happening. They obviously are. BUT I AM saying that there are MANY women who have not had these experiences and I sure would love to see those being highlighted as well.

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  4. My experience is limited to my years working on only Hotshot crews. This did include single resource assignments like DIVS and ICT3 etc My experience may not reflect appropriately for other fire entities. But, I worked in every role from a scrape/pulaski, to a swamper, to saw boss, to squad leader to forman to supt. That being said, there was one set of standards that we used to judge those who worked around us. Yes- we judged. Every minute of every day. It had nothing to do with ‘minority’ status or gender or any other orientation currently under the microscope.
    Could you do the job that you signed on for? Simple as that.
    To keep it brief, I and those I trusted around me looked at a few things:
    Were you in top physical condition to gear up, hike in and start production and continue hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month until the snow flew come late fall?
    Could you put others before yourself to get the mission done- meaning you’d do anything to help your teammate?
    Could you make informed decisions based upon current and or expected intelligence?
    I could go on and on, but lastly- I never let someone else ever pull my section of dirt on the line. Laziness is cancerous when solid well placed line production was the building block for crew reputations.
    I’ve been out of the Hotshot game for a while now, but, I worked with some hard hitting individuals that accomplished the above items and went on to become leaders at the national level in their field. One of which is now the Director of Fire and Aviation. I would agree some bias is out there, but it can be overcome by a never quit work ethic. I’ve seen it done and it is an awesome thing to be witness to. Stay in the fight.

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  5. Unfortunately, firefighting is not for everyone. The experiences of traveling and seeing parts of the country are a big plus and your right, it can be a fun experience as well. The truth of the matter of being a firefighter are long hours, hazardous conditions (smoke, terrain, heat, etc.) and the stress management both physical (hiking, bending over swinging tools, cutting fire breaks, standardized back packs to carry water, food, and enough gear to get you thru 36 hours) and then there is the mental stress (being away from loved ones, making decisions to keep yourself safe as well as your fellow crew members, and handling/juggling everything that has been previously mentioned here and in the above article). The old-saying has always rang the loudest; firefighting is a young persons game.

    I feel like its not a man/woman, black/white, language, or religion issue…..ITS BIGGER THAN THAT!

    (just my opinion)

    Like

  6. This is so dead-on, based on my experience in not just fire, but in FS recreation, timber, even admin. In my early 20s as I was getting my career established, I was fiercely competitive with other women because I felt like I had to “other” them to ensure my place on the district. It was total Queen Bee Syndrome. I feel like this changed the most when I became a supervisor and was responsible for the success of my crew–it was infinitely more effective to lift everyone up, and it certainly put me in a better light across the board when it started working.

    Nowadays I flat-out refuse to compete with other women in my agency, and it really startles me when I come across someone who still wants to jockey for position in the hierarchy. It doesn’t improve things for any of us–it doesn’t make us safer in our field and does our work unit a disservice. I’m glad I learned the lesson, and I have to credit being given the opportunity to see the bigger picture when I became a supervisor.

    Liked by 1 person

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