Firefighters are still ‘firemen’ in Australia?

Standards Australia released a report proposing an overhaul of how employers advertise jobs and evaluate candidates, including suggestions to employers on how to list criteria sought. The Gender-inclusive Job Evaluation report said gender bias often occurred where jobs were not properly described.

All fine, but I admit I was surprised that these changes hadn’t already been made. The report recommends switching from ‘firemen’ to ‘firefighters’ and from ‘secretaries’ to ‘office managers.’ I thought that these sorts of gendered job titles bit the dust decades ago. Guess not.

More here.

10 thoughts on “Firefighters are still ‘firemen’ in Australia?

  1. Is secretary really a gendered title? Sure, it’s stereotypically female, but so is nurse or elementary school teacher…

  2. I think “secretary” is not a female word.
    Languages that show the gender by the ending of the word have a male and a female form for “secretary”, e.g. “Sekretär” and “Sekretärin” in German. The French “secrétaire” can be used with the male and the female article, thus indicating the gender of the employee. Famously, the “secretary general” of the UN for example is male.
    An “office manager” is something different.

  3. Every volunteer association and club in the country has a ‘secretary’ along with a ‘president’ (or ‘chair’) and a ‘treasurer’ on their executive. These can be male or female, there’s no implication either way; and there is certainly nothing demeaning in the term. I’m the secretary of our landcare group, there have been men and women in the role before me. Our local Returned Services League has a secretary on the executive and probably also employs an “office manager”. What are the gender implications of ‘secretary’ in this instance? I’m amazed no one at Standards Australia is involved with any of these kinds of community groups or associations. Did they consult with any secretaries before deciding the term was gendered?

  4. i’ve just finished my contract working as a research associate at an australian university – if not for a trip to a lovely part of western europe i would still be naive to just how badly we fair here on issues of gender and sexism. i would not work for that particular faculty/university again, for reasons including the obstructionist sexism of so many men there, despite the female dean of school and faculty. for example, i looked at a reading list and lecture outline for a theory course on Love, Death and Power – not one woman. amazing!

    Yes, in Australia these gendered references to occupations remain, and even if they change the formal ‘title’ in advertisements, the people (most all of them) will continue to refer to firemen.

    regarding the title ‘secretary’ – it may not be gendered in the usual way, but historically, semantically, it is. the most fabulous person in the office of my most recent job did not much like the term secretary; in that space all were ‘office administrators’. one needs to be sensitive to the cultural history of terms, and where an excellent alternative exists – why not use it?

    I could write a lot more, but i might offend a nostalgic and patriotic Australian (i’m not much into patriotism, especially when i see it entwined with latent sexism and racism).

  5. I think the report is calling for a legal change wrt the word “firemen”, to bring the legal standard into line with the de facto practice. The union is called the United Firefighters; Fire and Rescue NSW refers to “firefighters”, and so on. Searching under the Ausjobs site, the government jobs advertising site, shows that all ads describe the job as “firefighter”. So I’d like to know Ali’s evidence for gendering in the job title. Of course s/he is right that in everyday language “fireman” remains common, but that’s true in the UK too (and for obvious reasons the question doesn’t arise in the rest of Europe).

  6. Neil, respectfully, I did say ‘people’ refer to the gendered version of the job title. In that part of the sentence I thought I was being clear that I was referring to the way jobs are referred to in the general lexicon of the community; in the first part of the sentence, when specifically referring to job titles, I was following the bloggers lead and the report – which specifically used that example.

    the report is not about the term ‘firemen’ but rather gendered job titles generally. That was simply one example, and maybe not even the best one.

    I live in Australia, I am a woman and I assure you, the issue of gendered language (job title or not) is disturbingly common. Is this ok because it occurs elsewhere? And it is a job title even if not referred to in formal ways, like institutional or organisational titles, or employment ads. When kids refer to what they want to be when they grow up, its a job title they recount, as best they can.

    Cheers :-)

  7. Ali, you did say that “these gendered references to occupations remain” *and* that they are common in everyday speech. That suggested to me that you thought the titles were official. That was what the post was about, in any case, and I merely wanted to point out that this was not so. You also said that Australia was backwards compared ti western Europe. On most measures, this is false: we fall in the middle of the range, behind the Netherlands and Germany but ahead of the UK, and well ahead of Italy and Spain. I say on most measures, because the hysterical hatred of Gillard does seem to me inexplicable unless one assumes a degree of misogyny that I had not suspected. We agree, of course, that being OK compared to, say, the UK does not entail being OK relative to any acceptable standard.

  8. Hi Ali, forgive me if I’ve misunderstood but are you suggesting that I’m a patriotic Australian with latent sexism and racism? If so, is it because I used the example of our local RSL club in the point I was making?

    I only used them as an example because they are a community group that has a “secretary” on the executive but also employs an “office manager/administrator” to do the paperwork and answer the phone (most other community groups don’t have the money to employ anybody).

    I raised this example because I’m curious about the perception of any problematic gender issues in this instance, when the secretary is on the executive of the RSL (a position of some power and influence) and the office manager does paperwork and answers the phones (also potentially powerful but not explicitly so and not widely valued as such).

    My point is that ‘secretary’ is a vital function of all volunteer community-group executives and it is not a gendered term or title in this instance.

    I’m assuming that you (and others) believe the term has a problematically-gendered nature based upon a perception of the social and professional degradation of female office workers. I don’t understand why experiences from within these professional settings negate the experiences of millions of community volunteers. I’m also surprised (as I said above) that Standards Australia seemingly has no experience of the role of secretary within volunteer community organisations. I guess many today are out of touch with these aspects of social life and community.

    If mentioning the RSL is problematic for you perhaps I could have mentioned the local VIEW club or the CWA, which also require a secretary on the executive to function, as do most community organisations. Landcare groups, the Volunteer Fire Fighters (, SES, the Folk Club, the regional arts group, the list goes on and on.

    My other point (whether Standards Australia had consulted with any secretaries) might be better understood if I drew a comparison with the job title ‘nurse’. You’ve stated that the title ‘secretary’ “may not be gendered in the usual way, but historically, semantically, it is”; I dispute the universalising nature of this statement but also I’d be interested to know whether anyone thought that the title ‘nurse’ was gendered at all? Standards Australia don’t seem to have mentioned it. If it were considered a gendered title in the same way that you consider ‘secretary’ to be, do you think that the folks at Standards Australia should call for it to be abolished without first consulting with the nurses who currently make up the profession?

    As I said, I’m the secretary of the local Landcare group, it is not a gendered term.

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