By Alexandra Few
Chief Deryn Rizzi is the first woman to be appointed fire chief in an urban setting of Ontario. While she has made history, she has also accomplished an extensive education and is pursuing her PhD.
Being a woman in the male dominated field of firefighting, she recognizes gender bias a whole. She says: “Gender bias doesn’t merely disadvantage women, it also can disadvantage men. The reason [is] we don’t just stereotype men and women, we stereotype jobs. Firefighting is thought of as a man’s job, whereas nursing, for example, is thought of as women’s work, and this is known as gender-stereotyping jobs. These stereotypes and assumptions shape our expectations about whether a man or a woman would be a better ‘fit’ for a given job. This is impactful and ultimately harmful because it can bias employment opportunities and outcomes. In particular, it can influence the probability a man or a woman will apply for a particular job, contributes to barriers to recruitment and hiring ratios, employment integration and retention, as well as promotional opportunities.”
Chief Rizzi has also seen first-hand the effects of being in a field that is associated with men, particularly on an online platform. She says: “When I worked in my role as the Deputy Fire Chief, I did a series of informative fire safety messaging on National News, which was then posted on the network’s Facebook Page. While I read the commentary posted regarding the viewers personal experiences related to the topic presented, I also was surprised by some of the other commentary posted, which ranged from, ‘A girl fire chief? What does she do, make sandwiches for the firefighters?’ to a one-word statement ‘butch.’ I realized then, that building a professional reputation in the fire service industry is very different than the public, which is incredibly more challenging. When gender stereotypes get attached to a job, it biases the authority that people attribute to the man or woman who happens to work in that position.”
However, Chief Rizzi has had many positive moments throughout her career. She says: “In terms of the fire service industry, I think my gender has put me in an advantageous situation. When I competed for the position as a firefighter, I stood out because I was one of very few female applicants. When I became a Deputy Chief and Fire Chief I stood out as one of handful of female chiefs in the Province. It provided me a platform to share my thoughts, ideas and has given me the opportunity to influence change provincially, nationally and internationally in my profession. I think you just need to look for the opportunities that this can provide you with, and leverage them to your benefit.”
Chief Rizzi didn’t initially start out in the firefighting field and thus there was some hindrance in the beginning. She says: “When I was going through the hiring process to become a firefighter, my parents, specifically my mom, was encouraging me to reconsider and thought I should stay with my profession at the time, which was teaching. However, I never felt a pressure to switch professions once I became a firefighter. When I first started, I remember my Captain at the time said, jokingly perhaps, that I would never drive a fire truck. That was my big goal when I started in the service, to learn to drive and become a pump operator. So, I far exceeded my original career goal!”
At the same time, Chief Rizzi says: “As the first female fire chief in an urban centre of 430+ department in Ontario, if asked whether gender inequalities exist, [I would say] I’ve always felt equal with my colleagues and never felt there was a gender issue for me. I have never walked into a room and felt excluded. However, I do know that this is not the lived experience of all women firefighters. Paving the way for others to have a positive and successful experience, part of my Ph.D. research will focus on women working in non-traditional roles, and opportunities to address inequalities.”
Advocating for inclusivity plays a big role in Chief Rizzi’s duties. “One of my roles as a fire service leader is to create a stronger voice for the marginalized groups in the fire service, reduce negative stigma, and evolve the fire service industry in a positive way. My message is one of inclusiveness and effectiveness, and about creating opportunities for all firefighters to reach their full potential. I am a champion of women’s rights in the Province and have taken to a North American stage to bring awareness to issues related to diversity in the fire service. I am proud of the progress the fire service has made and I’m motivated by a strong sense of what is still to come. I believe diversity and inclusion strengthens us. I notice more Chief Officers are demonstrating commitment to take actions to make sustainable progress [and] helping to serve and meet the needs of our increasingly diverse communities’ [that] firefighters serve.”
Gender neutrality in occupations and job titles is something Chief Rizzi believes is extremely important to lead to inclusivity as a whole. She mentions: “We have seen in recent years a move away from job titles that contain gender distinctions such as fireman, towards descriptions that demonstrate instead the nature of the job, such as firefighter, which indicates that it can be performed by any employee who demonstrates the right practical skills, theoretical knowledge and capabilities. Gender-neutral job titles show that roles are open to all qualified applicants and that decisions for hiring will be made purely on merit. If we use non-gendered words most of the time, we begin to see people and professions as non-gendered too. Changing terms is not the utopia in shifting social attitudes for a more fair and equal society, but it can have symbolic importance. As society, education, and workplaces continue to break down ingrained gender stereotypes, men and women should be able to advance further in their chosen careers.”
Chief Rizzi believes in supporting women and men in occupations that are heavily gendered. She says: “Ideally, we want to live in a world where we perform the work that is best suited to our abilities and interests, and where an individual in a position of authority receives the same respect, regardless of gender. If we all can support both men and women who work in gender-atypical roles, perhaps we can become less likely to devalue some workers based on arbitrary gender stereotypes and biases”.
In Chief Rizzi’s personal life, being a mother of two teenage girls has demonstrated to her that their concept of gender bias in occupations can be different from what actually occurs. She says: “Being a mother of two teenage girls, I know first-hand that the modern mindset on gender is not the same as it may be in the workplace. For them, the concept of gender stereotypes is a foreign concept. Our younger generation has a more fluid sense of identity.”
She also mentions, “As a parent, you raise your children to believe they can grow up being whatever they want to be and love whoever they want to love. It is perhaps the ‘adult’ or ‘working’ world that is behind the times, not our young daughters, with subtle gender bias, stereotypes, and inequality that can persist in organizations and in society. I remember when my 15-year-old daughter tried to convince me, a PhD candidate in women, gender and feminist studies, that there was no such thing as a gender wage gap. It is not a reality they want to believe.”
Chief Rizzi’s advice to young women is to “take risks, believe in yourself, work hard, and follow your passion”. She believes “every accomplishment comes with the decision to try. Keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, and your curiosity will lead you down the path to success.”