An historic barrier was broken last week when veteran Lexington Assistant Fire Chief Kristin Chilton was named the department’s next chief, the first female in that job.
Chilton was recruited in 1993 by Lisa Daley, the city’s first female firefighter. But that wasn’t the beginning of a steady climb toward a more gender-diverse force. Now, 23 years later, 2.5 percent, 14, of Lexington’s 562 sworn firefighters are women.
Disappointing but far from stunning. Nationally, about 3.8 percent of firefighters were women in 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In 2008, the Bureau of Justice reported, about 20 percent of state and local police and sheriff’s officers were women; 21 percent at the federal level.
The numbers are drearily consistent in elected office. In the Kentucky General Assembly, only four of 38 Senators, 10.5 percent, are female and 18 of 100 members of the House. The numbers are better at the national level but still far short of proportional representation: Congress is 19.4 percent female.
This matters for a lot of reasons but one of the most compelling is the abundant evidence that things run better when more women are involved. Credit Suisse in 2014 released a study of 28,000 executives at 3,000 public companies in 40 countries. Companies where women served in more than 10 percent of key positions outperformed companies where they were fewer than 5 percent, with a 27 percent higher return on equity and 42 percent higher ratio of dividend payouts.
It is harder to measure government performance, obviously, but there’s no reason to believe the results would be very different, considering why researchers believe more women enhance company performance: they are better team players. A 2011 study published in the Harvard Business Review found the collective intelligence of teams rises when women are added. This isn’t because the overall IQ increases but because the group works better as a team.
Women have taken the lead in trying to raise the General Assembly’s group IQ this session.
Consider, members of the Republican caucus in the House walked out during an opening prayer they found offensive because the minister, a woman, called on them to preserve the dignity of women and work for equal treatment regardless of sexual orientation or identity. The next day the GOP members boycotted the opening prayer to continue their protest. Skipping the opening prayer, that’s an exercise in team intelligence.
Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, who had invited the minister, took the members to task in a thoughtful column expressing concern about those who proclaim loyalty to the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom but only, “as long as it is constant with our religious beliefs.”
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Lousville, appalled by a bill forcing adult women to undergo a medically unnecessary consultation with a doctor before an abortion, thought, “How would this body of men feel if the government was injecting (itself) into their private medical decisions.” She proposed adding requirements to the bill that men visit a doctor twice and get a note from their wives to get a prescription for erectile dysfunction drugs. The amendments failed of course, but they offered a refreshing mirror in which male legislators could feel the pain they seek to impose.
Sen. Mitch McConnell pledged to block the recent nomination of Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Tabor Hughes — twice appointed by Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher to judgeships — to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Why? Because President Barack Obama didn’t talk to McConnell first about the nomination.
Chilton cited diversity as an area where the fire department needs to improve. She’s right. She deserves the full support of firefighters, the mayor and the council in her work to diversify the force.
Other public leaders should also resolve to raise government’s collective intelligence by recruiting more women.