Building awareness and recognition of gender to improve bushfire management

Fields of Research

  • 16 - Studies in human society

Socio-Economic Objectives

  • 96 - Environment
  • 94 - Law, politics and community services
  • 95 - Cultural understanding

Keywords

  • Bushfire management
  • Gender
  • Community Awareness
  • Workplace Culture
  • Safety

ANZSIC Codes

  • 7713 - Fire protection and other emergency services

Impact

Impact Summary

The research generated more holistic ways to understand bushfire vulnerability and resilience, which accelerated and legitimised recognition of gender as a key issue affecting bushfire management and safety processes. The findings have informed organisational approaches to community engagement, workplace culture, and bushfire management policy and practice, nationally and internationally. The research has championed the benefits of gender awareness, equity and equality through a sustained, long-term research commitment that built trust and awareness. As a point of reference in public, policy and media discourses, the research has benefited emergency management and outreach organisations, firefighters, marginalised groups, and communities in fire-affected and at-risk areas.

Read details of the impact in full

Details of the Impact

Dr Christine Eriksen led novel research which generated innovative insights into the social dimensions of bushfire vulnerability and resilience by bringing natural hazards into dialogue with human geography. In particular, it accelerated recognition of gender as a key issue affecting bushfire management and safety processes: gendered norms and divisions of labour expose women and men to risk in different ways and to different degrees. It provided input that informs organisational approaches to community engagement, workplace culture, and bushfire management policy and practice, nationally and internationally. This changed attitudes and organisational approaches of fire services, generated a campaign to recruit more female firefighters, adapted community engagement programs to benefit rural women and developed emergency preparedness kits for women. Impacts include:

(4.1) It was the first sustained research to establish the importance of gendered dimensions of bushfire in Australia. Prior to this, gender was not on the emergency management (EM) agenda. Through dissemination of results, and presentations to stakeholders, the research recast the issue both for EM and resilience-building strategies. Moreover the research won attention and respect in the EM sector. The Manager of the Gender and Disaster Pod (formed by two Women’s Health organisations) commented: “We invited Dr Eriksen…to contribute to our efforts to influence policy and practice both in Victoria and nationally…including the GAD Taskforce and the national Gender and EM Guidelines. Her research has provided evidence to support our own research.” As a result of the research, gender is now an explicit priority in the sector.

(4.2) It raised awareness of gendered fatality trends and problematic household behaviour around bushfire planning which were not being addressed by risk communication and community engagement programs. It opened up conversations about the culture of gender discrimination and harassment that hinders operational efficiency and equity. As a Manager with the NSW RFS put it “Those sorts of things were quite difficult to start thinking around. Looking at how we do things…thinking are there other ways that we could do it, particularly things to do with gender…That was quite useful for us in a policy sense.”  Through a collaborative approach, the research built trust that heightened the likelihood of this awareness affecting organisational strategies. As a respondent to a survey on the research impact put it: “Christine's work was critically important, and a fantastic role model for others to do their work and voice findings that pertain to human rights, the use and abuse of power, and other means of marginalising issues/people.”

(4.3) It provided an evidence base and built momentum for changed organisational approaches via a proactive partnership approach. The impact of this approach was recognised by a Manager with MMFS: “What Christine’s work did was reinforce my attitude about the importance of partnerships outside this sector to sway corporate change within our sector.” The research was presented directly to stakeholders at conferences, resulting in invitations to influence change via speaking engagements and expert input on national and international steering committees. As an invited committee member for a National Rural Women’s Coalition project ‘Weather the Storm’ (2011-12), Eriksen helped develop a preparedness kit to assist women before and during emergencies. The Kit received a highly commended award at the 2013 Resilient Australia Awards. The invitation to provide expert input on an AFE committee (2014-16) on sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the wildfire profession provided opportunity to present further fact-driven advice. Findings were presented as an opening plenary panel at a US fire congress (2015), and the 2016 release of a Position Paper led to an invitation for AFE to submit testimony to a US Congressional Hearing on this issue.

(4.4) It influenced public understanding of gendered needs and supported marginalised groups by becoming a wide-reaching point of reference across public and practitioner discourse. Research findings were regularly discussed on ABC Radio (NSW, Vic and ACT). It reached wide audiences through print articles in Sydney Morning Herald, Illawarra Mercury and The Conversation (>13k readers). It reached stakeholder groups through invited keynotes at Australasia's leading EM conference (2012), EM conferences in NSW and VIC (2014-16), and a WAFA conference (2014). As a NSW NPWS ranger commented: “I have …just been out remote firefighting and Christine was in the forefront of my mind because there I am on the fire ground, the only female there…basically having to deal with female issues, thinking ‘it’s ok…other people have been in this situation’.”

(4.5) It contributed directly to change in NSW RFS organisational processes that translated into outreach approaches. In response to Eriksen’s gendered analysis of their workplace culture and community engagement programs, the NSW RFS developed a campaign (2011) seeking to retain and recruit more women in the Service. The NSW RFS Librarian noted that the landmark book published from the research formed “the basis for launching a Women and Leadership book collection for the library…and was a resource for staff researching the role of women in the Service”. A NSW RFS Community Engagement Coordinator acknowledged that: “Some of our volunteers that Christine worked with actually started programs working with rural women at a local level”, and that the research directly influenced the questions the NSW RFS asks about coping and preparing in its community engagement programs: “Christine certainly directly influenced the questions that are asked… knowing the right questions to ask, and the better questions to ask, and how we actually go about it…Her work has extended what we look at organisationally”.

Beneficiaries

  • New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS)
  • New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NSW NPWS)
  • Victorian Gender and Disaster Taskforce (2014-2016)
  • Emergency Management Victoria (EMV)
  • Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Service (MMFS)
  • Association for Fire Ecology (AFE)
  • Women in Firefighting Australasia (WAFA)
  • National Rural Women's Coalition (NRWC)
  • Communities in fire affected and fire-prone areas
  • Disaster scholars and students

Countries

Impacted Countries
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • United States

Approach to Impact

Summary of the approaches to impact

Our strategic plan and its operational structures embed supportive pathways for translating research into beneficial end-user impact. Our integrated approach includes: (i) institutional settings, such as the UOW Research Strength AUSCCER, which nurtures a culture of engagement; (ii) internal research support schemes to incentivise and support engagement for impact, from pilot schemes through to support for larger-scale projects with end-users; (iii) support for our strengths in regionally-focussed research through the Transforming Lives and Regions theme of the UOW Global Challenges Program: a university-wide interdisciplinary research program; (iv) a strategic approach to impact via dissemination, supported by our central media unit.

Read the full approach to impact

Approach to Impact

Our strong culture of research impact is enabled via an integrated matrix of research support schemes, facilitative institutional settings, incentives and recognition, and strategic dissemination of findings.

INSTITUTIONAL SETTING: translation of our research has been facilitated by UOW’s wider institutional investments, notably in the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER), funded as one of 10 UOW Research Strengths since 2010, and housed in the Faculty of Social Sciences. AUSCCER has consolidated a critical mass of researchers, significant research projects, research support capacity, and elevated national and international profile, which facilitated and enhanced the impact of the Social Dimension of Bush fire research program. AUSCCER has provided 3 small grants to directly support this program. Equally AUSCCER has provided funding and social media support to the Regional Festivals, EE3A and the CDES projects.

AUSCCER has also encouraged a culture of academic involvement in governance and committees aimed at deepening our relationships with key practitioner organisations. In the Bushfire project, our researcher held positions as Expert Committee Member and Steering Committee Member on key initiatives addressing gender and bushfire management. This matured the degree of impact across the fire-fighting and community engagement dimensions of emergency services, as well as attracting significant additional research funding from external partners in local government and the NSW Office of Emergency Management. The Regional Festivals project contributed to another of our researchers being appointed to the Expert Working Group for Australia's Comparative Advantage, Securing Australia’s Future program, Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), 2012–2015, and providing expert advice as author of the UNESCO/UNDP 2013 UN Creative Economy Report.

RESEARCH SUPPORT: The common regional focus across much of our research has been strongly supported by UOW’s Global Challenges Program under its over-arching Transforming Lives and Regions theme. The GC Program was funded centrally via the DVC (R&I) in a 2013 restructure and UOW Strategic Plan which fosters pathways to beneficial research impacts across the community. Global Challenges provided a seed grant to the research described in Part A—the Gender and Bushfire project—and has further supported the Regional Festivals project on the benefits of festivals across economic and socio-cultural benefits, job creation and regional development.

INCENTIVES AND RECOGNITION: In the Bushfire project, a Faculty-funded pilot project on gender in bushfire management and fire fighting in Australia, and a University International Committee Links Grant provided the basis for a successful ARC DECRA application which has underpinned wide-reaching impact. The impact of this project was acknowledged via a UOW Early Career Researcher Prize to Dr Eriksen in 2015. Further examples in the discipline include: a VC’s Interdisciplinary Research Award for the Research and Action to Pioneer Dementia-Friendly Communities and Organisations project (Dementia Grants Program); and the 'EE3A': Pathways and initiatives for low income older people to manage energy project funded via the Commonwealth’s Regional Development Australia/Low-income Energy Efficiency Program. A Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral fellowship was awarded to support research with climate-change affected communities in the Pacific.

The Bushfire research was further supported by UOW’s Women of Impact initiative, which profiled achievements by female academics. This initiative profiled Eriksen’s work on the social dimensions of natural disasters and the website attracted over 4800 visits including 2667 visits in the month of publication. It also profiled a community-engaged ARC-funded Cultural Diversity for Environmental Sustainability project (CDES) (DP140101165): end-users in Mildura’s Burundian refugee community were connected with our researchers who facilitated access to farm land to grow crops, exchanged knowledge on sustainable agricultural methods, and fostered community belonging. The CDES work has been further supported by a UOW Community Engagement Grant, a scheme commenced in 2005.

STRATEGIC DISSEMINATION: Our centrally-supported dissemination plans have been effective at broadening research impact. For example, as part of the Bushfire project’s 2014 book, Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty (2014), UOW’s central media unit (CMU) framed a publicity strategy, which included media releases,  and provided central support for media inquiries. Our targeting of beneficiaries was further supported by OpenUOW shooting and hosting a video on the book, which has been viewed nearly 1000 times. The CMU also profiled the research in our long-form online news outlet The Stand. Similar dissemination plans have supported both the Regional Festivals and CDES work. These attracted further local and national media attention, which garnered interest from practitioner organisations and invitations of public lectures and keynotes. On the Bushfire project, the public interest built through central, Faculty and AUSCCER support underpinned a curated suite of pieces in The Conversation, alongside more than a dozen blog entries hosted on the AUSCCER website.

Our conference travel and sabbatical schemes have enabled further targeted dissemination. For instance, these schemes provided travel support for a series of talks at practitioner conferences of the key organisations including the Australian Community Engagement and Fire Awareness Conference; and the Women and Fire Fighting Australasia Biennial Conference, as well as a public seminar at California State University (where wildfires are equally a substantial public and research issue).  The research was also featured in UOW’s annual public event Global Climate Change week (2016) via a public talk and Q&A Panel, featuring the research.

Associated Research

In 2007, Dr Eriksen established a research program at UOW that set out to examine social dimensions of bushfire preparedness in NSW. Since then the project has evolved into multiple partnerships across Australia and North America (see A2) with whom Eriksen between 2008-16 conducted interviews, focus groups, and surveys to directly engage with residents in at-risk areas, bushfire survivors, rural fire services, Indigenous fire stewards, firefighters and wildfire management.

Broadly, the research established expert knowledge on how people engage with social and environmental uncertainty in everyday life by focusing on the trade-offs people make between risks and benefits at scales ranging from individuals and community networks to official management agencies.

Specifically, the research provided clear evidence of how a gender divide in activities at time of death during bushfires historically correlates with the plans of actions of men and women during bushfires today. Women often deprioritise bushfire preparation in the context of other pressing everyday issues, while societal pressure sees men perform protective roles that many have neither the knowledge nor ability to attempt to fulfil safely. The research also identified a firefighting-masculinity that trades on ageism, sexism and homophobia, and discounts the worth of women and other types of male firefighters on the fireline. This has significant consequences for operational procedures and workplace gender equality.

References

1. Eriksen, C. (2014) Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty. New York: Routledge.
2. Eriksen, C., G. Waitt, & C. Wilkinson (2016) ‘Gendered Dynamics of Wildland Firefighting in Australia’, Society and Natural Resources, 29(11), 1296-1310.
3. Eriksen, C. and Waitt, G. (2016) "Men, Masculinities and Wildfire: Embodied Resistance and Rupture." Chapter 6, pp.69-80 In Men, Masculinities and Disaster, edited by E. Enarson and B. Pease. New York: Routledge.
4. Whittaker, J., Eriksen, C. and Haynes, K. (2016) ‘Gendered responses to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia’, Geographical Research 54(2), 203-215.
5. Eriksen, C. (2014) ‘Gendered Risk Engagement: Challenging the Embedded Vulnerability, Social Norms and Power Relations in Conventional Australian Bushfire Education’, Geographical Research, 52(1), 23-33.
6. Prior, T. & Eriksen, C. (2013) ‘Wildfire Preparedness, Community Cohesion and Social-Ecological Systems’, Global Environmental Change, 23(6), 1575-1586.
7. Eriksen, C. & Gill, N. (2010) ‘Bushfire and Everyday Life: Examining the Awareness – Action ‘Gap’ in Changing Rural Landscapes’, Geoforum, 41(5), 814-825.
8. Eriksen, C., Gill, N. & Head, L. (2010) ‘The Gendered Dimensions of Bushfire in Changing Rural Landscapes in Australia’, Journal of Rural Studies, 26(4), 332-342.
9. Association for Fire Ecology – expert committee (2016) ‘Position Paper: Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in Wildland Fire Management Must be Addressed’ with accompanying infographic and invited written testimony to US Congressional Hearing.
10. Roth, F., Eriksen, C. and Prior, T. (2017) Understanding the Root Causes of Natural Disasters, The Conversation, 27 June 2017.