I always remember the advice I received from a woman I admired: don’t make the tea in meetings, ignore it and let someone else deal with it. If you take the lead on trivial things, you have lost your power, I was told. Sabrina makes a similar point in this powerful new book, The Gender Bias. “So many women feel the pressure to pick up the additional jobs that hold everything together…they have to make sure that everyone else is catered for.”
“So many women feel the pressure to pick up the additional jobs that hold everything together…they have to make sure that everyone else is catered for.”
Bucking the trend, demolishing the stereotype and forging a path where modesty is a choice and not an inevitability, and choosing to be heard over being liked are the heartbeats that course throughout this book.
Sabrina is the Chief Fire Officer for West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. It’s exhausting, she writes, to continually push back on other people’s perceptions about what someone who fights fires should look like. “It’s a really tough, lonely and isolating place to be,” she admits. Pushing through the drip, drip, drip of silent prejudice grinds down even the most resilient.
Just seven per cent of firefighters are women and today there are only six women chief fire officers in the UK, down from a recent peak of eight. “When you’re different, you’re visible. You stand out from the crowd.” Sabrina stands out and, in this book, she tells us why that’s OK.
The Gender Bias follows in a tradition of other women writing in similar terms. Caroline Criado Perez wrote Invisible Women and described a world designed for men. Times journalist, Mary Ann Sieghart eloquently described multiple scenarios where the authority gap exists to reduce the role of women as unconscious bias operates in our everyday lives.
Here, with a mixture of personal experience, academic research and case studies, Sabrina carefully crafts her points with relatable examples that are both recognisable and at times shocking. Negative impressions about successful women in stereotypically male jobs are a real barrier to gender equality, she writes. And that inhibits women’s chances of success. While she sets out a weary list of examples of what she calls the ‘backlash effect’, her advice is to target those entrenched ideas of what women should do.
“To do what is necessary as a leader, women risk the wrath of incongruency and all the negativity, backlash and rejection that comes with it.”
Sabrina argues that this dents women’s confidence, encourages them to adopt behaviours that reinforce restricted gender roles and prevent them from pushing further forward. I have heard many women leaders in the fire and rescue service say that they had to change their behaviour to fit in, to be one of the boys. This should no longer be the case in a modern fire and rescue service.
Sabrina offers solutions: start small. She asks all of us to think about the impact we have from small interactions. Her anecdote about how people react to her when she tells them what she does is well trodden but remains valid: not wincing when a woman tells you she is a firefighter is a good place to start. “I gave myself permission to be afraid. Being brave is about acknowledging your fear and pushing on despite it.” Celebrate, don’t denigrate is her advice.
People’s responses to Sabrina when she lived in poverty, as she revealed in her first book The heat of the moment, have shaped and informed the person she is today. She is fierce and eloquent about the path to change, to see more women in organisations that are traditionally seen as male domains and in this book, she provides some of the insight and tools to help others take that journey.
We need more women in the fire and rescue service and hopefully those who take time to read this book will be like Sabrina: brave and forthright, breaking down barriers to create a more equal world.