Firefighter wearing breathing apparatus

The recently published Independent Culture Review into the London Fire Service (LFS) has highlighted that discrimination, on many levels, is widespread within the organisation.

The 12-month review was commissioned after the death of Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, who died by suicide in the early stages of his career. His death was linked to institutional bullying in LFS, yet despite valuable recommendations in the review, it falls short of recommending a full national inquiry.

Misogyny was found to be prevalent within LFS. Whilst creating some very distressing outcomes for women which can link to poor life chances, pay status, and achievements, misogyny has a strong link to violence against women and girls. It also has detrimental outcomes for boys and men who can feel pressured to live up to gender stereotypes.

A stark reality that needs to be acknowledged is that when misogyny is played out within an organisation, nobody wins – this is exacerbated in male-dominated workforces such as LFS and Metropolitan Police.

The LFS review found that on countless occasions women were ‘othered’ by male colleagues – a power play to exclude them. Women were subjected to consistent abusive, sexist, and discriminatory behaviours from male colleagues.

Dr Sophie King-Hill - Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham

The LFS review found that on countless occasions women were ‘othered’ by male colleagues – a power play to exclude them. Women were subjected to consistent abusive, sexist, and discriminatory behaviours from male colleagues. Complaints of bullying and prejudice by women in LFS were found to be the highest, yet there is a deep-rooted culture where these were dismissed or minimised.

Review recommendations include zero tolerance policies, EDI training for managers, an independent and anonymous complaints service, and a review of complaints to build a picture of where action is needed. Commendable as these recommendations are, there is more to consider in relation to LFS social structures and how men and boys relate to women.

Evidence suggests that the issue is not unique to LFS. In December 2022, it was reported that five fire fighters from West Midlands Fire Service (rated ‘good’ in its 2022 inspection) were sacked for alleged misogynistic behaviour. Similarly, in Cornwall five fire fighters were sacked for offensive misogynistic messaging and behaviour.

The Fire Service is not the only public sector organisation highlighted for issues with misogyny. A recent inspection in the police force, commissioned by the Home Office in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, found that a large number of female police officers raised issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexism and misogyny as a routine part of working life. This has been shown once again in the Metropolitan Police with reports around police officer David Carrick - now sentenced for raping dozens of women, including colleagues.

These similarities indicate that this problem is not just embedded in certain organisations, but it is entrenched within wider society. Whilst the LFS report makes recommendations on how to manage the culture, a national inquiry is needed. More should be done to prevent such behaviour and to foster culture change.

Achieving this goal requires us to focus on masculinity within society. Excluding young males from conversations on harassment and misogyny further embeds toxic masculinity. From an early age, boys are entrenched within social expectations of masculinity - an identity rooted in sexual behaviours. Research suggests that boys and men who relate to the masculine ideal are more likely to carry out misogynistic behaviours – motivated by demonstrating power to other males to gain peer group status. It is this is hierarchy that is amplified in male dominated professions, such as the LFS.

The stress experienced by LFS must be considered as a contributing factor to the lack of focus and compassion fatigue. LFS has had to deal with some high profile and distressing events such as the Croydon Tram Crash, the 2007 London Bombings, the Westminster Terrorist attack, and the Grenfell Tower fire. Stress and mental health issues are linked to traumatic events and hierarchical masculinity makes negotiating mental health for males difficult. These issues are not separate from misogyny but entwined within a complex and intersectional picture set in a wider context of poor pay and long hours.

Recent research that I carried out alongside Dr Dan Vyleta with boys aged 13-19 demonstrated that in early adolescence male teenagers struggle between internal perception of self and external expectations of masculinity. If we do not tackle the issues that boys are facing from a young age by opening honest dialogue, then findings such as those outlined in the LFS Culture Review, will continue to play out to the detriment of everyone.