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Inequality means missing top talent

By SUSAN ESTRICH Creators Syndicate

My cousin Ben, may he rest in peace, told me years ago that he was having terrible dreams about his house going up in flames, and the firefighter is there but can't save him because she's a woman. As the feminist lawyer in the family, I was surely to blame.

He needn't have worried.

The Los Angeles Fire Department began training its first class of recruits in five years - 70 in all, 69 men and one woman. Sixty percent of the recruit class is white, compared to 29 percent of the city. Overall, the department has been 3 percent female since 1995.

Why only one woman in the new class? Three percent is tough to beat in terms of considering diversity, but this year's recruiting effort managed to "beat" it at 1.5 percent.

Mayor Eric Garcetti is calling the results unacceptable, but the truth is, we've been accepting them for years. For all of my uncle's worries, women have not "taken over" the fire department, and Los Angeles is hardly unique in lacking diversity.

There are all kinds of answers for why the numbers are what they are. Fire stations are notoriously "rowdy," which is a nice word for prone to be the subject of harassment suits. And even when those suits are successful - and they certainly have been over the years and not only in Los Angeles - you are still left with all of the problems that come with joining a group that has topped out at 3 percent. So if you want the women you have to stay and new women to come, you have to engage in all kinds of affirmative action both to get them there and to support and promote them once they are there.

And even then, you probably won't get to 50-50.

Peek into a nursery school classroom anywhere you want, and you're likely to see what I noticed for the first time when my kids were little. It didn't matter what we parents said or did. The kids divided themselves. The boys wore the fire helmets.

Twenty years later, way more boys than girls are applying to be firefighters.

I don't think being a firefighter is "better" than other jobs girls may want to pursue. I have great admiration and appreciation for firefighters, but I don't remember a single day of my life when I imagined myself doing the job. Too scary for me.

At the end of the day, equality isn't a numbers game. I don't expect LAFD to ever be 50-50. But if you don't pay attention to numbers along the road to real equality, you're going to miss out on talent without even knowing it. You don't get the best fire department, or the best of anything, by effectively excluding half of the population from the pool.

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