When Johnny Met Rosie--Women in EMS Part 1: Can You Do the Job?

Woman may have to work harder just to be seen on the playing field--but they're proving they're up to it.

"Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others." -- Amelia Earhart

I have always been a believer in "girl power." I've never wanted to hear I'm being restricted as a result of my gender. My comic books of choice were Wonder Woman and anything featuring the ladies of the hero world: Huntress, Batgirl, Supergirl, Storm--I wasn't picky. I can tell you that the first Wonder Woman played on TV was not the bodacious Lynda Carter but rather the more athletic Kathy Lee Crosby. I would read Nancy Drew over the Hardy Boys, and any jewelry I wore had to look like an ankh so I could turn into Isis at a moment's notice. I am also grinning as I write this, knowing how many of you out there are nodding in agreement. So perhaps it's not a terrible surprise that I forged ahead into a traditionally male-dominated field.

Recently I informally polled a number of people about whether they'd rather work with a man or a woman. Their responses caught me off guard. Almost to a person, they said the same thing: "If they can do the job and don't make me crazy, then I don't care." When I entered this arena 25 years ago, it was not a gender-neutral environment. There were some women actively working paid BLS, some on ALS, and, depending on the agency, there were plenty to be found behind mics.

When I first came to Newark, there just were not that many women working there, ALS or BLS. Though it kills me to sound like a brachiosaurus howling from its tar pit, the rules were different then, or just evolving. Nobody wanted to hear about hostile work environments, harassment or equal opportunity. You put up with the crap and did the job, or you went somewhere else. Some of it was absolute crap, too: graffiti, name-calling, groping--heck, anyone working in a field like ours knows that most days (even now) we are a human-resources nightmare. Whatever you may think, those rough edges came with the territory. Operating in a realm where our psyches are assaulted by extremes on a daily basis, I am not saying anything new when I say people in emergency services just are not "wired right." It does not make this kind of behavior OK, but it does say something about how you have to learn to deal with it.

It was not just the atmosphere, either; there was the actual work environment. Cities are dangerous places to begin with, and a couple of decades ago there were factors that made them even more so. There was less communication, less technology, more high-rises, fewer police, more chances for things to go horribly awry. You could call for help, but that didn't mean it was coming, so you had to make your own solutions and deal with it.

A lift assist bought you an eye roll and at least a week's worth of ribbing. Showing fear got you a knowing nod, then shoved behind one of your male coworkers. With one violent patient, I got kicked out of my own ambulance, because I was the only girl there. Make the wrong clinical call, and you were made to feel like you'd just proven the stereotypes right: "She's just not up for it, I guess." Didn't matter, even when you didn't want to do it again--every shift you put your combat boots on and went right back out there.

While trying to deal with it, we discovered our secret superhero abilities. Lo and behold, it had everything to do with our gender. If you knew how to play your ovaries right, you had a downright advantage in many situations. A burly 6'2 man saying, "Hey, watch your language!" holds very little water. Let a woman say it, and watch the results. In many circumstances, if you do not exacerbate the situation, people are reluctant to get extremely confrontational with women. In a culture where you don't disrespect your mother, there's a lot women can get away with.

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