`Bad news. Our new colleague is a woman'

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The Independent Online
TANIA CLAYTON, 33, fulfilled a long-held ambition and became a firefighter in 1989. She said she chose the fire service because "everyone loves a fire-fighter - they are seen as a kind of modern knight in shining armour".

But shortly after she joined the Hereford and Worcester brigade that dream was shattered by the reality of the job.

The sub-officer who assigned her to the Blue Watch at Hereford told her to get a job in a kitchen. On her first day, Mrs Clayton was introduced to her colleagues by a senior brigade officer who told them: "The good news is you are getting another member of the watch. The bad news is that the new member is a woman."

This attitude seemed to set the tone and she had to endure what she described as abuse, cruelty and humiliation.

This included routinely being called a "tart" and a "stupid cow", being ordered to do useless and dangerous drills and even being asked to serve tea to firemen who were in bed. At one stage she was made her sit in a turntable ladder 100 feet off the ground for more than an hour in an attempt to frighten her.

Mrs Clayton left the service in 1994 a "shadow of her former self". Later she had to undergo treatment in a psychiatric hospital for severe depression. She said the suffering she endured had destroyed her marriage.

In March 1997, she won a sexual discrimination claim at an industrial tribunal. She was later awarded pounds 200,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement. Mrs Clayton joined the brigade after an "exemplary" career in the Women's Royal Army Service.

Another woman, Linda Smith, 36, was a firefighter in London for 14 years until becoming a union official last month. She said most of her experiences in the fire service were good, but female colleagues had complained to her about verbal and physical sexual harassment.

"I have been to fire stations were pornographic videos and magazines have been on display," she said. "It's still a male-dominated job in which women are expected to continually prove themselves."

Ms Smith said the servicedoes not provide adequate toilets for women, and has little provision for maternity leave.

In London there are 60 women firefighters out of 6,000 - a figure that has barely changed in 10 years. Out of 270 women who recently applied to join the London Fire Brigade after a recruitment drive, only one was given a job.