As of 2006, women constituted less than 3% of the firefighting force in Houston.
In 2009, two Houston female firefighters held a press conference about the hateful messages they describe finding on the walls of their fire station and sexual harassment in various forms that had been going on for months.
The allegations included a claim by Jane Draycott that the harassment included defacing a photograph she kept in her locker of her deceased daughter. The cold water was turned off in their showers, so that they were scalded; speakers in the women’s sleeping quarters were disconnected so they could not respond to calls; and they frequently found urine all over the women’s bathroom – not just on the toilet seat, sink, and floor, but on the mirror and walls.
And then, after a little bit of press coverage, their complaints languished in the federal bureaucracy. Nine years later, the Department of Justice finally filed a lawsuit on their behalf against the City of Houston.
Gender-based discrimination was far from a new phenomena when these sexual harassment charges were first brought to light. Three years earlier, in 2006, Butler & Harris was representing high-level female fire fighters with complaints about the promotion processes.
Each time there were sufficient female firefighters in line for promotion to the next grade, the union and the City changed the rules and gave more and more points for seniority in the formula used to decide who to promote – a formula that was based on far more than how an individual fire fighter seeking promotion scored on the promotional exam. While male fire fighters had an average of 27 years of seniority, women did not start joining the force in any significant numbers until the 1990s. The first female firefighter hired by the City of Houston was Linda Honeycutt in 1974 – under the auspices of Mayor Fred Hofheiz and the City’s first Women’s Advocate, Frances M. (“Poppy”) Northcutt.
No surprise then that, as of 2006, women constituted less than 3% of the firefighting force in Houston. Much work was needed, the law firm of Butler & Harris pointed out to Mayor White and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 341. In comparison, the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, had a firefighting force that was 17% female; Madison, Wisconsin, and San Francisco, each had a force that was 15% female; and Miami Dade County, Florida was at 14%.
In the intervening years, there has been a modicum of progress at the Houston Fire Department. That progress is most evident at the upper ranks, thanks to the relative success that female fire fighters have had in scoring well on promotional examinations. Now, two of the ten Assistant Chiefs in the department are female, and Houston has its first-ever female fire marshal.
But, the City’s recruiting efforts to bring more females onto the firefighting force is barely sputtering along. Twelve years after this law firm first brought the poor record of the Houston Fire Department to the attention of the then-mayor, the recruitment efforts have shown little success in adding women to the department.
As reporter St. John Barned-Smith points out in the Houston Chronicle, women’s participation has increased in the last twelve years by barely one percent – from just under 3% – to just under 4%. As our own Margie Harris notes in Mr. Barned-Smith’s article, that kind of progress is “abysmal.”