This past Friday, Legal Momentum’s acting litigation director, Michelle Caiola, testified during a four-hour long oversight hearing conducted by the New York City Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee on continuing sex-based employment discrimination within the Fire Department of the City of New York (“FDNY”). “The impossibly few number of women is institutionalized by policies, practices, and deeply entrenched attitudes held by some – not all – in the department at all levels,” said Caiola. “This situation can be reversed, but only with a focused, concerted, top-down effort.”
Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars FDNY from engaging in sex-based discrimination, the department has needlessly increased the physical abilities requirements of its firefighter exams, which adversely affects women candidates. It wasn’t until 1982 that FDNY hired its first women firefighters; even then, the hiring came about only as the result of a federal sex discrimination lawsuit brought by Brenda Berkman, one of the women who had been affected by the department’s discriminatory practices. Ms. Berkman, who served as a firefighter and a fire officer for the City for 25 years, also testified at the hearing. More than thirty years later, the number of female firefighters within the ranks of FDNY remains abysmally low—in fact, lower than it was in 1982. “Even with four new women added to the ranks this month, the number of women still hovers at around only 0.3%,” said Caiola. “In the year 2013, in a city as large, diverse, and progressive as New York City, this state of affairs is not an accident.” By contrast, in many other metropolitan areas, women make up 10-17 % of the firefighting forces.
To reverse this longstanding issue, Caiola recommended a number of strategies, including appointing a Fire Commissioner committed to promoting diversity and directing the leadership of the FDNY to make substantive changes to improve recruitment and retention of female firefighters. “The research, recommendations, and blueprints for effective change are out there as has been demonstrated in numerous other cities,” noted Caiola. “If any city can do it, it should be NYC.”
Legal Momentum, founded in 1970 as the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, has focused on making inroads in occupations from which women historically have been excluded. Legal Momentum has represented women firefighters in discrimination suits nationwide and has actively worked towards increasing the number of women firefighters in the ranks of the FDNY.
About Legal Momentum
Legal Momentum is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 1970 to advance the rights of women by using the power of the law and creating innovative public policy in three broad areas: economic justice, freedom from gender-based violence and equality under the law. For more information visit www.legalmomentum.org.