The skinny pink paycheck syndrome

THE NEW YORK TIMES recently profiled San Diego’s Fire Engine Company 22, almost certainly the only allfemale firefighting crew in the United States. It was inspiring to read about four competent, hardworking women happily succeeding in a “man’s job.”

But Company 22 is the pretty side of an ugly phenomenon. Female firefighters are newsworthy only because they are incredibly rare. And they’re rare because flagrant sex discrimination still keeps women out of every job that is overwhelmingly male -- truck driver, construction worker, electrician, miner, bond trader, you name it. More than 40 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act and 30 years after major lawsuits tried to crack male-employment monopolies, men still harshly patrol the entrances of too many well-paying jobs. In 2006 -- a generation after “second wave” feminism began with “The Feminine Mystique,” whose author, Betty Friedan, died Feb. 4 -- women don’t have a fair shot at earning what men do.

How do you prevent more women from becoming firefighters, police officers, etc.? You refuse to hire or promote them. You compel them to take physical tests unrelated to job qualifications, such as requiring women to lift more than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration permits. You refuse to train women, subject them to hazing or hold them to higher performance standards than their male peers.

When they’re pregnant, you cut their overtime, refuse to put them on “light duty” if they ask or force them to take time off without pay. You isolate them on the job. You make them change clothes in the same locker room as the guys. You give them numerous lateral transfers to the most tedious jobs and tell them to quit if they don’t like it. You and your colleagues retaliate nastily if a woman complains that an officer or supervisor has started grabbing, groping, leaving violently sexual notes, regularly demanding sexual favors and so on.


All these discriminatory devices are drawn from lawsuits that public safety departments lost or settled between 2000 and 2005 in such places as Chicago; Houston; Muskogee, Okla.; Teaneck, N.J.; Douglas County, Iowa; Hamilton County, Ohio; Suffolk County, N.Y.; and the states of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont.

Consider New York City’s fire service. The 40 women who joined the department after a successful 1982 lawsuit are starting to retire, which means that within a few years, women will make up less than 0.02% of the 11,500-member firefighting force, according to Maureen McFadden, a trustee of the nonprofit organization Women in the Fire Service. “Lawsuits are picking up coast to coast,” she said. “Things are going wildly backward in most parts of the country.”

It’s possible to transform an all-male work culture, but it takes time, determination and resources. Far too often, employers are unwilling to put in the effort until they are sued and stuck with court oversight.

In spring 2003, the National Center for Women and Policing reported that consent decrees requiring court scrutiny increase the number of women employed in sworn law enforcement jobs. But the minute the decrees expire, too often so do the departments’ commitment to hiring, training, promoting and retaining women.


Women’s numbers drop, sometimes precipitously. According to the Times article, San Diego’s firefighting department underwent 10 years of court oversight before women made up 8% of the department, making it one of the most female-heavy firefighting forces in the country.

Do women really want to be firefighters and cops? Yes. Social scientists have repeatedly shown that women will jump into a better-paying field, no matter how dirty or onerous the work, if they think they’ll be let in. Just try supporting a child or two or three, and maybe a disabled husband, on a waitress’ or a bank clerk’s wages: It can’t be done.

“Men’s work” still pays significantly more than comparable “women’s work.” Consider the difference between the median weekly earnings of a secretary ($552) and a firefighter ($933), a social worker ($698) and a police officer ($844). That’s the difference between scraping by and supporting a family.

Policing and firefighting are, unfortunately, not anomalies. In 2000, two-thirds of U.S. working women were still crowded into 21 of the Bureau of Labor Statistics 500 occupational categories. The top 10 included receptionist, secretary, cashier, sales worker, registered nurse, elementary schoolteacher and nursing aide. Women still make up only 2% to 20% of all engineers, police officers, firefighters, mechanics and construction equipment operators, chefs and head cooks, and more.

Translation: Women remain ghettoized in jobs with skinny pink paychecks. Employers get away with flagrant violations of the law because there’s no public outcry -- indeed, almost no public scrutiny at all.

How can we turn this around? Mayors should be held accountable for the overwhelmingly male police and fire departments, governors for their state troopers, chief executives for bond traders, and so on. Instead of forcing women into costly and degrading litigation against their employers, let’s shame their bosses into complying with the law. One tough investigative article exposing a boss who presides over an overwhelmingly male workforce can do far more good than can a private lawsuit.

So, hurray for San Diego’s Company 22. But let’s light a fire for every other woman who wants a decent job -- so that, 40 years from now, women in firefighting are no longer front-page news.