For those of us in the fire service, this adage sometimes rings hollow. With the issues of harassment, exclusion, disrespect, and bullying becoming all too commonplace in our society, I think people have become desensitized to the immense power that words carry: they can launch wars, break spirits, and ruin lives. Their ability to wound goes far beyond any traditional means; once they are spoken, they can sometimes be forgiven—but never forgotten—with damage ranging from minimal to catastrophic. Some words are certainly more powerful than others, but even those that may seem benign on the surface can cause significant underlying damage if left untreated.
Let’s say you break your arm; it’s easy to see what’s happened. The doctor puts on a cast and in six to eight weeks, voilà…good as new. Although painful at the time, the bone heals, the pain goes away, and your arm returns to full use. An obvious problem with a simple solution.
Now imagine you go to the doctor complaining of unexplainable, excruciating pain in that same arm. The doctor tries to determine what’s causing you such misery as there aren’t any obvious signs of injury or trauma. With no luck, he decides to take an X-ray and discovers the issue: you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny stress fractures up and down your arm from years of wear and tear. There’s no obvious break, but as time has passed, the fractures have grown in number, size, depth, and intensity. There’s no simple solution to this problem; you’re facing multiple surgeries, steel pins to hold the bones together, and months—maybe years—of therapy to regain some semblance of the use of your limb. And there’s no guarantee that the damage isn’t permanent.
The power of words are just like those stress fractures. The destruction they do may not be obvious at first. But when you fire them off without thinking of the repercussions, they build up a little at a time until one day, they’ve done damage beyond repair.
In my 30+ years in the fire service, I can’t tell you how many classrooms I have visited, community events I have been to, or speeches I have given where the kids (or their parents) say to me, “You’re a girl. Girls can’t be firefighters.” Ouch.
I still see and hear it every day, in advertisements or in common conversation: the use of the word, “fireman,” or the image of a tough, burly, male firefighter being used by any number of companies to sell their product, the VERY SAME PRODUCT that the women in my fire department will be using, too.
How about using “police officer” instead of “policeman”? Or “staffing” instead of “manpower”?
“What’s the difference?,” you ask. “People know what I mean.”
But what, exactly, DO you mean? Have you ever REALLY thought about it? Making a conscious effort to use gender-neutral language takes awareness, not only of what you say but of what others say as well. Yes, it takes practice and yes, it can be work, but it’s worth it. This is not a male versus female issue, or even a discussion about equality; this is about HUMANITY, how we treat each other and how we want to be treated.
The “difference” is that these “man words” are far less innocent than they appear. There is a subtlety at play here, an implicit meaning and reinforcement of stereotypes that can not only have a detrimental effect on gender perceptions outside of our industry, but within it as well. Simply put, language influences the way we see the world and the people in it. That, in turn, affects what we do (or in many cases, don’t do).
Like all women in traditionally male-dominated fields, we don’t want to be treated differently from the men or singled out. We just want to go to work, do our job to the best of our ability, support our team, and get paid the same everybody else. Some departments (including my own, the Austin Fire Department, which has more than twice the national average of female firefighters on its force) do this pretty well. But can we do better? Of course.
In a letter he wrote to his daughters, President Obama said, “Right the wrongs you see and work to give others the chances you’ve had.” As women in the fire service, it’s our duty to take his words to heart and to call attention to those wrongs when we see them.
After all, if we let those fractures fester, there’s no telling what the treatment will be—unless it’s already too late—to deal with the harm that will have been done.
Perhaps the old adage should be rewritten to, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but those will always heal. Words you use that make me ‘less’ will I forever feel.”
Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, Austin (Texas) Fire Department, is 2015-2016 IAFC president and a founding member of the IAFC Women Fire Chiefs Council.