Tuesday, October 27, 2020
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London’s burning – fetch the equality auditors

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In case you missed it, the latest series of ITV’s Love Island included a ‘fireman challenge’, a roleplay in which each of the suitors was to hoist over his shoulder a damsel in distress.

In a flagrant breach of health and safety protocol, these reckless bucks discarded all protective clothing and undertook the task with only their essential equipment concealed. However, not everyone was impressed by the macho posturing. Contestant Dani spoke for the female contingent when she condemned the charade as sexist stereotyping: ‘It reinforces the misconception that all firefighters are musclebound men.’

No, of course she didn’t. Instead, Dani trilled to camera: ‘Oh my god, a fireman is sexy . . . standing there a little bit dirty, got their helmets on . . . I loved it!’ To such an extent that she and her beau Jack are ‘taking that outfit home with us’, presumably in case he has to deal with an emergency such as their chip-pan catching fire.

The Love Island ladies’ lustful view of firefighters means they are unlikely to have future careers in the fire service, despite management wishing the service to be ‘enriched by having women better represented’. Because as Ann Farmer yesterday recorded on TCW,  that earlier disparaging quote came from Dany Cotton, female head of the London Fire Brigade; Cotton also dismissed the show’s ‘fireman challenge’ as an ‘offensive cliché . . . no wonder so many young women are put off [joining the service] by that’.

In 2017 the proportion of female firefighters in England was 5.2 per cent which, for a fire chief for whom the Brigade’s demographic seemingly takes priority over its operational efficacy, would already have been an uncomfortable statistic. Dany Cotton’s recent bemoaning of the caricature portrayed on Love Island as ‘lazy clichés’ was a response to further data, this time from a YouGov poll of 1,042 London adults carried out in June 2017 but only just published, which found the proportion who believe ‘men are more able to do this job’ to be 27 per cent (25 per cent of women).

For Cotton, already antipathetic to the term ‘fireman’, this survey finding is unacceptable: ‘It’s frankly embarrassing that the public are still shocked to see women firefighters today.’  No doubt she also is abashed by the comparable number who think ‘men are more able’ to be police officers being only 10 per cent (7 per cent of women). But contrary to Cotton’s interpretation, the real surprise is that as few as 27 per cent reportedly regard men as more intrinsically suited to firefighting – a job which, one hopes, still demands what are much more likely (but not exclusively) to be male attributes of physical courage and brute strength.

As a point of interest, the current physical test for an evacuation seemingly is to drag – not carry – an 8st 8lb (55kg) body for 98ft (30metres); in which case, casualties weighing nine stone or more had better hope to be rescued by someone who can exceed the minimum requirement.

Unfortunately, London firefighters who can do only the bare minimum might become more prevalent: Dany Cotton took command less than two years ago vowing ‘to change that perception of a six-foot hairy-arsed bloke who can kick a door down. Women can make fantastic firefighters’.

Some certainly can and already are; and provided the number of women is boosted not by lowering the standard, hats off to all who make the grade. However, Cotton gives the impression she is recruiting not for an emergency rescue force but for a branch of social services: ‘Perhaps 70 per cent of our work now is fire prevention, social engagement, communicating with different types of people in the community. Our stations are safe havens 24/7, if you’re a woman walking home alone, or a teenager running from a gang, then knock on your fire station door.’

One would presume the public to be less bothered about the fire brigade’s social outreach or its policies on equality and diversity than the ability of a firefighter to haul them from a burning building. Yet if this London survey is to be believed, even amongst the political Right (Conservative and UKIP voters) who might be assumed to take a more traditional view, only one-third of respondents regard men as more natural firefighters. An inexplicable 2 per cent of those surveyed actually said women are better suited to fight fires; however the overwhelming majority, 63 per cent, replied that ‘both men and women are equally able’.

If this is a true indication of public perception, then Dany Cotton is fretting unnecessarily. But for firefighting, it seems barely credible that so many respondents apparently believe to be irrelevant the general physiological difference between men and women. However, we should perhaps bear in mind that this was a poll conducted exclusively in London, a city in which social attitudes increasingly are unrepresentative of the UK as a whole. Answers from elsewhere might well be less politically correct – especially if the question were to be rephrased.

Trapped in a burning building, what is your preference: for fire chief Dany Cotton to carry out an equality and diversity audit or to have, in her own pejorative words, ‘six-foot hairy-arsed blokes’ kick down the door?

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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