Moving Beyond “women are the problem”: How Can We Better Understand the Gendered Nature of Bushfire in Australia?

Emergency management in Australia is noticeably male-dominated. Recent research into rural fire services
in Australia has shown that women make up less than a quarter of volunteers and that many are placed in
non-operational or administrative roles.
This situation is not unique to Australia and many emergency and disaster management organisations
around the world still lack significant female membership. Fortunately, there is now increasing recognition
that women’s lack of representation in these institutions is a problem. This recognition generally takes two
forms: the targeted recruitment of under-represented groups, and targeted programs for women to learn
about bushfire safety (e.g. ‘Fiery Women’ in South Australia).
While these approaches do at least recognise gender as an issue, in this paper we outline why such
measures are inadequate and occasionally misguided. Attempts to incorporate women, which tend not to
acknowledge the masculinised nature of existing institutions, are likely to fail in attempts to recruit a more
diverse workforce and will fail to transform existing practices. Similarly, some programs targeting women
emerge from (unsubstantiated) assumptions about women’s lack of knowledge and / or vulnerability, and
thus hold women up as “the problem” against an implicit male norm.
It is suggested here, that in order to move forward, we must face the ongoing implications of a maledominated
emergency services sector and acknowledge that particular concepts of masculinity affect
understandings of appropriate bushfire preparation and response.