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Harassment Suit

Probe puts focus on female ranks

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
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Harassment Suit


Jennifer Costa is shown in the 2013 photo.
Jennifer Costa is shown in the 2013 photo.

— When firefighter Jennifer Costa went on disability while alleging sexual harassment at the Schenectady Fire Department, she cut the number of working female firefighters in half.

There are only two women in the department, Mayor Gary McCarthy said.

Now local officials are taking a closer look at that — and at whether more women could have prevented the sorts of incidents Costa alleged happened while she was alone in a fire station with several men for 24-hour shifts.

Councilman Vince Riggi said he’d want two women stationed together in such situations.

“Just to protect everyone,” he said. “If I was a male [firefighter], I’d want to make sure there was another female present.”

Given Costa’s allegations, which include an accusation of another firefighter letting a man into the station who made sexual advances toward her, Riggi and others said it might not be easy recruiting more women.

“After this, they may have a hard time finding more,” Riggi said.

He’s eager to find out the facts when the city investigates the matter.

Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city would investigate the allegations at once.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”

But he dismissed the idea that more women would offer protection.

“The things that are alleged should not happen, no matter who’s around,” he said.

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said Costa might have been able to get her accusations heard earlier, after the first alleged incident, if the Affirmative Action Advisory Board had existed.

She likened Costa’s alleged difficulty getting Fire Department leaders to take her seriously to the difficulty women have had in reporting sexual assault in the military.

“Sometimes it’s good to have decisions made a step away from those involved,” Perazzo said. “Something happens and you say, ‘Well, but for this reason or that reason … ’ Wait. Let’s dial it back to the rules.”

She said the board could do that, calling it a “neutral ear.”

The board has the authority to look into matters involving personnel and make recommendations for changes in policies and procedures.

McCarthy is also hoping the board can improve things in the future.

He said the board could help add to the female ranks in the department by doing recruitment.

“You have to do specific recruitment,” he said.

He plans to appoint members to the long-defunct board this month.

While some firefighters said they didn’t think there was much value in specifically recruiting women, McCarthy said it could add to the department.

“It strengthens the ability of the organization to deliver the services,” he said, adding that people from different viewpoints could help develop better policies and procedures.

“They help reflect things that maybe I haven’t thought of,” he said. “Some of it’s by gender, some of it’s by age — we all get in our little niche.”

But getting more women into firefighting might not be easy.

It’s considered a “nontraditional” career for women, because it is mostly performed by men.

YWCA CEO Rowie Taylor said society still doesn’t encourage women to take nontraditional jobs.

“We didn’t say, ‘Hey, would you like to be a firefighter?’ We said, ‘Would you like to be a nurse? A teacher?’ ” she said.

Now those nontraditional jobs are “fantastic opportunities for women,” she said.

“We have choices in what we want to do for our careers,” she said. “They haven’t had choices in the past.”

Union College associate professor Andrea Foroughi said the issue goes deeper than just not encouraging women to consider jobs like firefighting.

“They’re male bastions,” she said, saying the 24-hour shifts in small firehouses often create a frat-like feel, which could be off-putting to women.

“They form a strong group mentality. You’re working long shifts,” she said. “If you get enough of a core group of women, it becomes a tipping point. The work environment changes. But you have to have enough women there.”

 
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