Over time, nearly every profession once considered the exclusive province of men (and in the case of the United States, white men) has gradually been made accessible to minorities, whether through practical necessity, changing cultural standards, or court orders. However, this process has proceeded unevenly, so that even now there remains institutionalized discrimination which serves to preclude women and other minorities from the same opportunities as white men, and one of the areas where this can be seen most clearly is the case of the fire service, where women and other minorities have been systematically denied employment due to inherently discriminatory testing and evaluation practices. What makes the fire service one of the more interesting sites of workplace discrimination, however, is not just the fact that women and other minorities have been denied employment or promotion, but that certain programs intended to do away with this discrimination have instead merely unfairly discriminated in the other direction, denying qualified applicants in favor of someone less qualified due to his or her status as a minority. To see how these problems come about as well as the ways people are attempting to solve them, one may examine the New York, Chicago, and Dallas fire departments, all of which have had relatively high profile cases of discrimination in the last twenty years. Examining how each of these cities has dealt with gender and racial discrimination will reveal how discriminatory practices can become institutionalized and the myriad complexities confronting anyone attempting to do away with these practices.
One of the largest, and least diverse, fire departments in the entire country is the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), and it offers an ideal example with which to start an examination of discrimination in the fire service in general, because the Department has been accused of both gender and racial discrimination, and discriminatory practices both in regards to hiring and promoting. Most recently, a federal judge ruled against the FDNY, stating that "New York City intentionally discriminated against black applicants to the Fire Department by continuing to use an exam that it had been told put them at a disadvantage," resulting in a number of otherwise qualified minority applicants being rejected (Baker, 2010, p. A.30). The effects of discrimination are stark; as of 2007, the FDNY included only 303 black firefighters, out of a total of almost 9000 (p. A.30). Examining this case in particular is helpful in understanding discrimination in the fire service, because although the ruling appears fairly straightforward, it reveals some of the complexities inherent in confronting workplace discrimination. Firstly, the judge's ruling actually contains three important details regarding the discriminatory practices of the FDNY encapsulated in the exam, because he did not rule in favor of the plaintiffs solely because the exam discriminated against minorities. Before highlighting the other reasons for the judge's ruling, however, it will be useful to briefly discuss how the exam itself was discriminatory, and how the FDNY reacted upon learning this fact.
The exam was a kind of standardized written test, akin to an SAT or GRE, that is commonly used in conjunction with the physical tests required to qualify as a firefighter. This particular lawsuit was only related to a specific exam used between 1999 and 2007 that disproportionately disqualified minority applicants as a result of culturally biased text, meaning that applicants could fail not because they were ignorant of the necessary information or critical thinking skills, but rather that the cultural assumptions which underlined the particular language and examples used in the exam served to make it more difficult for non-white applicants (Baker, 2010, p. A.30). While this alone is an example of the kind of institutionalized discrimination that is often difficult for those in positions of authority to notice, as it seems unlikely that whoever wrote the exam did so with the intention of excluding minorities, the judge's ruling found that in addition to this subtle, institutionalized discrimination, the FDNY engaged in active, overt discrimination by continuing to use the exam even after being informed that it was unfairly and unhelpfully excluding otherwise qualified applicants, to the point that the judge "wrote that he found strong evidence to suggest that [Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former fire commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta] were made aware numerous times that the Fire Department's entrance exams were discriminatory, yet failed to take sufficient remedial action" (A.30).
Even with evidence that the exam in question was discriminatory, and that the FDNY continued to use it even after being informed about its faulty nature, one might suggest that the exam was nonetheless necessary, or at least better than nothing. However, even in this instance the point of the exam seems to exclusionary, because the judge further ruled that the information covered in the exam was not actually relevant to the job requirements of a firefighter (Baker, 2010, A.30). Subsequently, the judge's ruling has precipitated a reevaluation of the Department's hiring practices as well as attempts by those who were excluded on the basis of the exam to receive reimbursement for the jobs denied to them.
At the same time that New York Fire Department was grappling with accusations of racial discrimination, it was simultaneously being sued for gender discrimination. In 2006, "five ranking female Emergency Medical Service workers […] filed suit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the department, charging it routinely discriminates against women and keeps them from rising to the highest ranks," and furthermore, that women are consistently paid less than men at equal levels (Allan, 2006, p. 11). The lawsuit alleged that "males consistently receive promotions to high-level FDNY positions with less favorable recommendations and less experience" than female candidates, and that "the selection process used by the FDNY is subjective and not based on concrete data" (p. 11). Finally, the FDNY failed to make job postings widely available, so that many qualified candidates were unaware of these opportunities (in violation of New York labor laws). This case received far less attention than the racial discrimination case, likely due to the difficulty of proving a "culture of discrimination" compared to the relative ease of evaluating the utility and content of a single exam. Furthermore, because hiring practices are often more explicitly outlined than promotion practices, it is far easier to prove discrimination in the hiring process than in regards to promotions and pay. Nonetheless, it highlights the discrimination faced by women in the fire service, and in particular the fairly limited options they have when attempting to confront discrimination, a theme that will be seen recurring in the later discussion of Chicago's problems with gender discrimination.
Like New York, the Chicago Fire Department has suffered from gender and racial discrimination, and for largely the same reasons. In 2001 the NAACP back a lawsuit filed against the City of Chicago by "6,000 African-American firefighter candidates who allege that even after passing the city's written firefighter hiring test, only those who scored in the top 10% have been allowed to finish the preliminary process" (Dumas-Mitchell, 2001, p. 5). Once again, the focus of the lawsuit was on not only how the test itself disproportionately disqualifies minority applicants, but also the relevance of the test to the job requirements of a firefighter. The first problem was that "the City set the test standard at 65 as the passing score, but has only allowed people who scored 89 or above to continue on in the hiring process and take the other primary pre-employment test, a physical agility examination" (p. 5). This use of test "failed to meet professional and legal standards for test validation," because not only was the cut-off score of 89 arbitrarily determined and thus was not "validated with data such that the score distinguishes between those who can perform the job and those who cannot," but the test itself was not relevant to the actual skills needed to perform the duties of a firefighter (p. 5).
Thus, the arbitrary cutoff served to exclude minority applicants even if they were qualified to perform the duties of a firefighter, but even this arbitrary cutoff is only part of a larger problem with the test, because it did not even accurately test for the necessary skills. This is seen most obviously when one considers the fact that "while the test developer identified 46 essential firefighter abilities, the written exam attempts to measure only four of these abilities" (p. 5). By using the test as a means of culling applicants before allowing them to perform the arguably more relevant physical examinations, the fire department of Chicago essentially created an arbitrary barrier which would keep minority applicants from being able to compete with white applicants on a level playing field. This is especially atrocious considering that in Chicago, the vast majority of the residents are black or Latino, but make up less than 17% of the Chicago Fire Department (Strausberg, 2001, p. 1).
The city of Chicago has also been accused of gender discrimination, this time in relation to the…