My Experience As The Sole Female On A Federal Interagency Hotshot Crew

Meghann Gunther photo.

By Meghann Gunther, MTI Contributor

I spent my second year in Wildland Fire on a Federal Interagency Hotshot crew. It’s a hard crew, highly respected and heavy hitting. My season began in a room full of people I didn’t know. It was mostly men. This crew has historically had a small percentage of women. Including myself, there have been about six women in the past thirty years now. I started the season with one other female. At the end of two weeks in critical 80, I was the solo female due to paperwork issues for the other female. 

Expected vs. Experienced

My expectation was that I would be ignored or talked over as a female. In my head, I figured it would be a boy’s club. Additionally, I am an introvert, and it can take some time for me to warm up to others. I knew that this would be a factor in building camaraderie with my crew mates. To my surprise, I found a core group of the guys who were patient with me, willing to answer my questions, and open to sharing both their experience and knowledge with me. They pushed me to be better at my job and they cheered me on in my successes. They held me to the same high standards as everyone else, but they helped me learn my job as a new hotshot. 

Having a Voice

Along with expecting to be ignored, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to give my input. As a solo female, I questioned whether my option would be accepted or make sense to my crewmates. I was worried about looking dumb because I was a girl. But I found that there was a time and a place to be able to ask questions and give my opinions. I was corrected when I was wrong but never in a belittling way. Instead of a culture that was “shut up and dig”, there was an atmosphere of thinking for yourself and asking good questions which came top down, from our leadership. In the appropriate time and place, and respecting my chain of command, I could approach my overhead, from my squaddie up to my superintendent and ask questions or get feedback.

Lessons, Struggles and Successes 

My biggest frustration was how some of the guys talked about and joked about women. While it was not directed at me nor about me, it was incredibly discouraging to hear. They would make crude, inappropriate jokes in my presence as if I wasn’t there. It felt demoralizing. I wasn’t sure how the senior crewmembers would take my input and I was afraid to cause conflict by speaking up. It was intimating. I thought they would respond negatively, and I didn’t think I had any power because I was still proving myself on the crew. Some of the squaddies and leads were usually apart of these inappropriate conversations, and I didn’t know how to approach them about it. I never took it my top leadership either and I am not sure they were aware of my experience with this. They would not have condoned this type of behavior. In hindsight, I wish I would have spoken up and maybe their conversions and jokes would have taken a different turn or toned down in my presence if they were aware of how uncomfortable it made me.

Personally, I chose, ahead of time, to not get involved romantically with any of my crew members. This kept things simple and avoided drama. I chose to carry myself in a way that was professional and focused on doing my job well. This worked for me, and I didn’t have any issues with the men on my boundaries on relationships. I set the tone with how I acted and the way I carried myself. I was concerned about this area coming into the crew, but I found that I had a lot of power on how I was treated by holding a high standard for myself and carrying myself accordingly. In my experience, if you send messages that you have loose boundaries, with how you speak, act and respond, some men will push your boundaries as far as they think they can. I choose to be friendly but hold professional boundaries, and I expected the men I worked with to be professional as well. This approached worked for me and allowed me to work along side the guys in a professional way while still being about to integrate into the crew community.  

Sleeping, going to the bathroom and getting dressed were stressful to navigate during my first season. While on assignment, there is very limited privacy. This was hard for me to adjust to, but I did figure it out. While we are on a fire assignment, the crew usually circles up and sleeps on the ground. I picked an outside spot in the sleep area to get a little personal space. Criteria wise, I needed to be able to see the crew and easily be found in the morning for wake-up calls. This limited how far I separated but it gave me the space I needed. I didn’t get any hassle on this from my overhead. In fact, there were times when they made sure I could pick a more private place when a crew sleeping spot was smaller than normal.

Going to the bathroom can be stressful because finding a spot where the whole world isn’t watching you go pee can be difficult.  A backpacking hack I learned was using a pee funnel, so I didn’t have to drop my pack or my pants. This can be tricky to learn – when you mess up, you basically pee your pants. Unfortunately, I know from experience. In the mornings, the wake-up call is fast, and we are wheels rolling to fire camp in under six minutes. This didn’t allow me time to use the bathroom and I would have to hold it until we got to fire camp and I could use a porta potty. Depending on how much water I drank that night, that could get uncomfortable. I realized later that I could have spoken up on my needs related to this more and adjustments could possibly have been made.

Getting dressed was a learning curve as well. I didn’t want to dress or undress in front of the guys any more than a t-shirt switch in the buggy box. I figured out how to dress or undress in my sleeping bag at night. Really, there isn’t much that I could do about that – I found cover where I could and got creative when we were spiked out in areas with little privacy. If we were dressing out to PT at a Forest Service station or other facility, my superintendent would make sure I had access to a bathroom so I could change in there while the guys changed at the buggies. At the end of the day, I found ways to make it work for me.

Finding My Place

I found my place on my crew by meeting the crew PT hill standard, pulling my weight as a crewmember, bringing a good attitude to work and giving my best effort at whatever, I was tasked with. By meeting these standards, I earned the respect of my crew. I wasn’t the strongest or the fastest, but I met the standard, I paid attention to the details, and I did my job well. I didn’t have to be one of the guys to fit into the crew dynamic or feel accepted.

Working With the Guys

There was a bit of a shock factor working with all guys. The differences in male and female stand out more when there is a heavy influence on one side or the other. Their humor got inappropriate at times but being around them also taught me to be tougher, to laugh at myself a little more, and to suffer through those grueling shifts with a good sense of humor. It grew my communication skills. It takes more effort to understand and communicate well. I learned the hard way not to make assumptions. I didn’t see eye to eye to eye with all my crew members, but I learned to work with them. I found a core group, especially on my squad, that I jived with well. I knew they had my back. My leadership was good, and this created a good work environment. Even though the influence and dynamic on the crew was heavy on the male side, I found that there was space for me as a female with my perspective and experiences.

Tools I Found That Helped Me During The Year

I learned to regulate my emotions much more on my own. Tools that were helpful were journaling, meditation, and breathing techniques such as box breathing. These things helped me reset at the end of a shift, process my thoughts and frustrations, and keep my head in the game during long, demanding assignments. While it was valuable to hang out after hours with the guys or on R&R because it built comradery outside of work, there was a balance I needed to keep by spending time with my girlfriends. This meant I prioritized social events with girls during my time off. This method helped keep me balanced and continues to keep me so. Another thing I found very valuable was to have a core group of wise females I could call up and decompress with over a phone call. 

My Biggest Take Away at the End of the Season 

Being on a hotshot crew with all males was intimidating and often frustrating, but it was also worth it. I was looking for a challenge and I found it. By being out of my comfort zone, I grew personally and professionally more than any other environment I have been in previously. It was a learning curve to figure out my needs as a female while among all men. Being flexible was a key element in my success. The job is tough but there is a depth of reward in it that might be unmatched to anything else I have experienced. I found camaraderie, followed strong leaders, learned to be tougher, and laughed with the boys, at the boys, or at myself. I found mentors in my leaders and friends in my peers.

Advice I Would Give Myself in Hindsight

If I was jumping on to a Hotshot crew as a rookie again, I would give myself the following advice based on lessons I earned:

  • Choose your leaders wisely. It makes all the difference in what kind of work environment you are a part of. Not every crew is built the same. That comes from leadership.
  • Be mindful of what tone you set and how you carry yourself. It will affect how you are treated and what crap you have to put up with.
  • Your unique life experience and knowledge have a place, even on an all male crew. Look for ways you can add value and build up the crew with that unique perspective.
  • Don’t think you need to be one of the boys to fit in. Be a competent and valuable crewmember as a woman and use your voice judiciously.
  • Respect is earned, not given. Show up fit for duty and give it your 100% everyday.
  • Every crew has an asshole. Don’t be one and don’t write off the whole crew because of one or two people.
  • Follow a strong strength building PT plan. This job will demand a lot from you physically and mentally. 

Meghann is a full time Wildland Firefighter in California.

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