FOR the past few years, Fire and Rescue NSW –the agency that employs the state’s permanent firefighters –has been trying to lift the numbers of women in its firefighting ranks.

Commissioner Greg Mullins has been a vocal and persistent supporter of workplace diversity, and to speed up the transition within his workforce, he has introduced a quotato ensure that the next intake of firefighters is split evenly along gender lines.

NSW employed its first female firefighters in 2005 but since then only 207 of 3794 recruits – or 5.5 per cent –have been women. This means the brigades remain overwhelmingly male.

More than 7000 people applied to join the service last year, and of those, more than 1400, or about one in five, were women. Even more people are expected to put their names forwardfor the 2016 intake, and Commissioner Mullins is confident there will be enough strong female applicants to enable the service to allocate halfof the 120 or so available positions to women, while still recruiting on the basis ofmerit.

In his statements on the push to recruit more women, Commissioner Mullins has generally framed his arguments in terms of gender equity, but there is a growing body of measurable evidence to reinforce the intuitive belief that employeediversity benefits the workplace as much as the individual.

In coalmining, growing numbers of female truck drivers have helpedbreak down a not-always-productive “blokey” culture.

Some minemanagers saythat trucks driven by women require less maintenance than those driven by men, because the women take more carewiththeir vehicles.

Change takes time to be accepted, and some still want thetraditional segregations of society maintained.

But if the Australian Defence Force can accept female soldiers in front-line combat positions, the doubters would have a hard time arguing thatwomen areunable to handle the rigours of fire and rescue work.

Still, while gender balance is a worthwhile pursuit in itself, it is only one aspect of society’s embrace of diversity.

In this light, a program designed to help Aboriginal people gain entry to the NSW Police Academy at Goulburn is to be applauded, both for the opportunities it will hopefully provide for young Indigenous Australians, and for the positive change that a greater number of Aboriginal officers should bring to the police service.

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