The roles women have been able to play in EMS over the last few decades have developed slowly compared to their male counterparts. On Wednesday, October 16 at EMS World Expo, women in leadership positions in the industry shared their best practices in a panel discussion.
How do you lead or influence in the role you have?
Tracey Loscar, BA, NRP, EMS Chief of Mat-Su Borough EMS: “Leadership comes easier to women in some respects because if you have a background as a parent, you’re forced into the role by genetics, and then become a parent on a much larger scale. As you move up in an organization, you’re responsible for every person in that organization—their well-being, their environment, anticipating risks and helping them prepare for them. Remaining on a personal level with people working for you is a good start. You can lock yourself in an office and have a title but not be a leader.”
Anne Jensen, BS, EMT-P, Special Projects Manager, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department: “I lead by trust, meaning that I really rely on people trusting me to follow me. As a paramedic, the first two years are difficult because people don’t know who you are yet, and then once they do things run more smoothly. I view myself as a facilitator, but I have the luxury to handpick my community paramedics so I choose people I trust. [My leadership] is not authoritative, it’s consultative.”
Remle Crowe, PhD, NREMT, Research Scientist & Performance Improvement Manager, ESO: “I try to remove that separation or intimidation factor of people thinking they need a PhD to work with me. I keep things simple; it doesn’t help me to use a big word when a diminutive will do.”
Ginger Locke, BA, NRP, Associate Professor of EMS Professions: “I don’t lead officially by title, but I do feel like I am leading with the podcast culture and trying to effect change by guiding any listeners regarding women’s place in EMS. I do it without talking about it at all. We don’t talk about gender, but we do talk about high-performing women who have figured it out and let them speak."
Lillian Bonsignore, EMT-P, CIC, Chief of EMS Operations, FDNY: "I don’t think of leadership as actually leading someone. I have the privilege of serving people who need support, not so much leadership, and we provide that support. I do outreach, which is unusual to them because we’re in a large system and it's uncommon for the chief to come out, cook a BBQ at their station, and talk directly to them. We are either here to serve, which is the right path, or be served, which is self-serving. I’m serving the people who serve other people."
How do we continue to champion our male supporters and ask them to be our allies?
Eileen Filler, NREMTP, FP-C, Flight Paramedic, Life Flight Network: "Once you get past the initial challenges of being accepted, it’s a matter of partnering and supporting each other. It’s about expanding into the community and seeing each other as a part of the team without bias. My take on the challenges that I had was that it was really about being bullied, generated by other people’s fear. When I simply do my job, I don’t present them with anything to fear."
Jensen: "In my department I feel like I’m trusted by leadership. It comes when chiefs would say to others, ‘Anne was at the table for this one.’ Their outreach helps bring me to the table and I don’t think I would have gotten here without that."
How could powerful language be a key part to changing the culture?
Bonsignore: “Being in a large fire department with primarily men, ‘firefighter’ turns into ‘firemen.’ For the 100 women out of 11,000 men, that’s a bad thing. We have to think about the words we use because when we use words like policemen, firemen, construction men, men working above, these are very limiting to a young girl growing up thinking about who she wants to be. That automatically takes those professions off the table. There is no room for us. We have to be careful, not because we’re trying to be politically correct, but because they’re very limiting—you can’t say you can be anything you want because you can’t be a fireman if you’re a woman. Bring it to the open. The guys aren’t the problem, they’re the solution. We have an obligation to stand up for each other and be sensitive and aware when we’re describing things.”
Loscar: “Language is a really powerful thing. You’re going to find yourself operating under a cultural onus. As you elevate in your department, you’ll find yourself falling back on habits that are part of the culture. When I go to a chief’s meeting, I’m the only person with 15 men at the table. My use of language has changed. It took me a really long time to say “My agency” or “my crews.” We defer to we—“We do this.” But it’s my responsibility. If I do it wrong, I own it. Don’t be afraid of the power of “no,” especially if you’re the only female. If it’s legitimate and bonafide, it’s a showstopper. Use possessive language. It will help bring you to the table. It won’t happen all at once, but know your job, know it well, and own your decisions. Think about your words, use them carefully, get feedback on the way you use them. Learn how to argue effectively.”
Jensen: “When you work in a para-militaristic environment, having the right body language, like standing up tall, having a strong handshake, demonstrates that you’re culturally competent in that world. What I have to remember is that you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you are thrown into an un-ideal situation there’s not always going to be an ideal outcome.”
When we think about our younger selves, what are some things you want to tell your younger self?
Crowe: “I would have read the book Ask For It earlier. The gap between men and women is that women hesitate to ask for something. I’ve gotten used to the word 'no,' but I would tell myself to ask for things more.”
Filler: “My younger self was just saying, 'Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t stop moving.'”
Cynthia Griffin, D.O., NRP, Emergency Medicine Physician/Flight Physician, University of Wisconsin Medflight/St. Agnes ED: “Stay assertive. There’s a time to be silly and fun and there’s a time to be confident and serious. I try to lead by example with other women I work for. Take the mousy women under your wing instead of avoiding them. Encourage those women to be assertive.”
Locke: “Find a tribe of women sooner. Finding that group of women who will support you is so important. If you don’t have it, create it and then bring in others.”
Loscar: “Every mistake I’ve made professionally or personally was because I hesitated. I didn’t listen to my instinct and missed the opportunity. Don’t wait to ask for something.”
Bonsignore: “Your circumstances do not define your character. We don’t always control circumstances growing up, but that doesn’t change your potential or possibility or who you are, how you think. It just is what it is. When you’re in a tough place, it doesn’t mean there’s no way out. There is a door and you just have to find it. Sometimes that door is a person. The answers will come to you as you go.”
What is your advice to people seeking roles in leadership positions?
Filler: “You are capable of far more than you think you are. Go for what you want.”
Bonsignore: “You’re the light in someone else’s darkness even if you don’t know it and someone else will be the light in your darkness. When you find that hand reaching out, take hold of it.”
Crowe: “It’s not about you. Nothing anyone says or does is about you, so don’t take it personally.”
Griffin: "Be assertive and take every opportunity you’re given because it’s going to be worth it in the end.”
Locke: Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, publicly shared this piece of career advice that Locke offered: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on the rocket ship.”
Loscar: “Know your stuff. Own your stuff. And then go cry in the car. But come back tomorrow. If you keep coming back, it will keep getting better.”