For years, being a firefighter has been seen as a man’s job.
But women have long been putting out blazes — at least since 1815, when Molly Williams, a slave in New York City, jumped into action at Oceanus Engine Company #11 and, according to a national women’s firefighting organization, became the country’s first known female firefighter.
Yet today, data show, women are a small percentage of the nation’s fire services, including in Boston, where just 16 of the city’s 1,500 firefighters are women — about 1 percent. Nationally, women make up 7 percent of all career firefighters and officers, according to the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services or iWomen, an advocacy organization based in Minnesota.
The small number of women on the city’s force came into sharp focus this week following a Boston Globe report that chronicled the stories of six current and former female firefighters who said their complaints of harassment and discrimination have been poorly managed by department administrators.
Many women have sought spots in the city’s public safety forces but without success, said Boston fire Captain Darrell Higginbottom, the president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, which advocates for minorities in the field. In 2016, 89 women applied to work in the Boston Fire Department, he said, citing state data. None made the force.
The last women hired for the force were in 2013, said the Vulcans.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has made supporting women and their leadership citywide a priority, a spokeswoman said. In 2016, he created posts for the first-ever diversity officers in the city and the Fire Department, said Laura Oggeri, the mayor’s communications chief.
“Mayor Walsh has prioritized bringing on a diverse workforce since his first day in office and that includes the Boston Fire Department,” she added.
But women who want to become a city firefighter face several challenges, including a hiring preference for military veterans under state law. The applicants who have benefited from that preference have been overwhelmingly male and white.
People of color make up 53 percent of the city’s population, while the Fire Department — among the city’s least diverse — is overwhelmingly white and male. Comparatively, 13 percent of the city’s 2,155 uniformed police officers are women. Nationally, 12 percent of full-time sworn police personnel are female, according to Department of Justice data from 2013.
“There are women who are interested in [these jobs], but there a lot of barriers to the civil service rules,’’ said Higginbottom, whose organization has been pushing for a cadet program to help replenish the Fire Department’s dwindling diversity. “It’s the commissioner and the mayor’s job to remove some of those barriers and [that includes] establishing a cadet program.”
Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has said he is committed to increasing minority hiring and ensuring the department is more reflective of the communities it serves. Finn has also previously said he wants to increase diversity in a way that conforms with civil service laws and does not create divisiveness in the department.
But critics disagree.
“I don’t believe the department is active in any way recruiting women,’’ said Julia Rodriguez, a veteran city firefighter and former female liaison in the department. “They say that they are, but I don’t see it.”
‘Despite the national #metoo movement, as a society we are still predisposed to blame the victim and to discredit or intimidate them, especially in workplaces and on job sites where women are in the minority.’— Ayanna Pressley, Boston city councilor
Members of the Boston City Council have been pushing to explore a cadet program that would help with outreach and hiring by recruiting more people of color. Council President Andrea Campbell has sought a hearing “to work on developing short- and long-term solutions” that would increase racial and gender diversity in the department, she said.
In New York, boosting the number of minorities and women is a priority in that city’s Fire Department, where fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said he wants to have 50 percent of the city’s fire force be minorities and 15 percent be women in 12 years. Women make up less than 1 percent of FDNY, according to its press office.
In testimony to the New York City Council earlier this year, Nigro highlighted the department’s $10 million effort to aggressively recruit black, Latino, Asian, and female candidates.
Without a critical mass, some female firefighters said they are often left on their own to fend for themselves in firehouses where they say they are harassed, bullied, or ignored.
“Despite the national #metoo movement, as a society we are still predisposed to blame the victim and to discredit or intimidate them, especially in workplaces and on job sites where women are in the minority,’’ said City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.
Walsh said Sunday that he has hired an outside counsel to look into the Fire Department’s handling of the women’s allegations, following disclosures by the Globe. One female firefighter said a male colleague used a department-issued smartphone app to track down her location and that of a male lieutenant. He took a screenshot, sent it other firefighters, and placed a wager about whether the two were sexually involved, sparking rumors, she alleged. The firefighter who took the screen shot was suspended for two 12-hour tours, reprimanded, and ordered to attend training.
The same woman said that another male co-worker pulled down his pants in a Jamaica Plain firehouse in January and tried to push her head into his crotch. He faces indecent assault and battery charges, and a not guilty plea was entered on his behalf last month in West Roxbury Municipal Court.
Finn has said that the safety of all firefighters is paramount and that his department officials investigate every case brought to their attention.
Laura Baker, a former iWomen president, attributed culture and society to why so few women opt for the fire service. She said young girls are not exposed to seeing women firefighters on the red firetrucks or in the field.
“If you don’t have that role model or someone to identify with, you may not know that this job is for you,’’ said Baker, an assistant chief with Arizona’s Tucson Fire Department, whose 632 firefighters include 26 women.Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.