It was an unusual sight at an otherwise normal meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Four of the supervisors—all women—donned Wonder Woman headbands as they grilled L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby over the scarcity of women firefighters in his department.
Supervisors Janice Hahn, Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger urged Osby to improve outreach at the department so that more female firefighters join the ranks.
Only 45 (about 1.5 percent) of the fire department’s 2,866 employees are women. Nationwide, women make up 3.4 percent of the firefighting workforce, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
All five of the supervisors want the department to improve its male-to-female ratio, Hahn said. She told KPCC she bought the headbands for her fellow female supervisors after seeing the Wonder Woman movie; she had planned to pass them out after the meeting for a group photo. But after seeing the fire station item on the agenda and reviewing the firefighting employment statistics, she changed her mind.
“I realized that this was a time for all of us to don our Wonder Woman headgear so that everyone could see that this really is an important issue for the women supervisors,” she said.
Hahn’s initial goal is for the fire department to match the national average for women firefighters, which means more than doubling the number of women in L.A. County’s ranks.
“But even that isn’t good enough,” she said. “We know that women are 51 percent of the population. So, three percent on the fire department is not a good percentage or reflection of who we are in Los Angeles County,” and asked Osby to report back twice a year on the department’s progress towards hiring more women.
Tuesday’s discussion came before a unanimous vote to fund a construction project at a firehouse in Marina Del Rey. Once completed, the site will include sleeping and bathroom quarters for female firefighters. Fewer than half of the county’s fire stations have sleeping and bathroom quarters for women, Hahn said.
The fire department’s hiring practices have been in question since a February 25, 2015 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found a pattern of nepotism. The investigation found that family members applying for firefighting jobs had an unfair advantage because they could easily obtain the interview questions in advance. The number of male family members employed by the department was five times higher than the total number of women firefighters.
Besides controlling the biggest local government in the U.S. and a $30 billion budget, the supervisors have the power to hire and fire the county’s top officials, including Osby. When asked if his job was in any danger if female hiring doesn’t improve, Hahn spokeswoman Liz Odendahl said that question did not come up in the meeting.
This article was originally reported July 11, by Andrea Bernstein on KPCC Radio (89.3 FM) and appeared online in Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s newsletter, “Happenings.”