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First Women Interview with Dany Cotton

Now retired, Dany Cotton was a firefighter for over 30 years and who, from 2017-2019 served as the first woman commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. She was also the first woman to receive the Queen’s Fire Service Medal – given in recognition of distinguished service or gallantry – in its 60 year history.
Dany joined the service when she was just 18 years old and has been blazing a passionate trail for women ever since in what has, for decades been considered ‘a man’s career.’

 

When I joined the Fire Service, it was not significant to me that I was woman – until I moved up the ranks

Being a firefighter has always been a stereotypically male role. Even so, the fact I was a woman in that role wasn’t significant to me. Then suddenly I was exposed to the world’s opinion about it and that changed things. I realised that it was significant because I was the first and I was a woman. I wanted to use that fact to make it easier for other women to believe they could do the job too. I had a lot of women around me supporting me and I still do. Being part of a women’s network and having women around me that I could talk too has always been a source of strength – even more so than having a mentor.
The worst thing about moving up the ranks was the negativity. Not from the public – they don’t care if you are a woman (especially if you have arrived to save them from a burning building!) It was within the service itself that the challenges came.

The attitude was that women only got the job to fulfil a quota

…or because we were the only woman on the board for choice. I had to work twice as hard to achieve my rank and to be seen to deliver on it. I had to prove myself twice as much. I felt like I was constantly saying, ‘look I got the job on merit! Do you really think the London Fire Service would be so reckless as promote me on anything other than capability?!’ People still think that to be a female firefighter you have to act like a bloke and some women who join still feel that that is the only way to fit in. But that’s a disaster because two years down the line when they realise that they can’t sustain that front, it is very hard to change.

As I was growing up, I never thought, ‘I can’t do that.’

My grandmother was a big influence on my will to strive. Her husband died in World War Two and she brought my mother up alone. She moved to Canada knowing no one – she was a very determined, strong woman. My mother was too. My mother taught foreign students, so prejudice was also an unknown to me. The house was full of international people – I never had any comprehension of ‘difference’.
I remember aged 13 that me and a friend went to join the air cadets. We turned up and they said, ‘we don’t take girls here’ and we said, ‘why not?’ After an hour of bugging, the person in charge relented and let us join – despite the fact that we weren’t allowed to because we were female. Can you believe that they had to hide us in a cupboard when anyone from the head office came down?

I have never been able to accept a ‘no’ if there isn’t a rational explanation behind it.

I have always preferred to challenge something if a logical reason cannot easily be given.

How did I stay connected to my femaleness?

I had and still have a very strong network of women friends. We go out, act a bit silly, drink Prosecco and have fun. It was challenging when I first joined the fire service; I never wore make up at work and I cut off my long hair because the rule back then was no hair on your collar. I was told outright: cut your hair or lose your job.

Fire service management had very antiquated ideas, but in truth it was only about 10 years ago that this all really changed. It is very different now. Women can of course go to work looking like women.
There were also some men back then who thought it was a bad idea for women to join the service because it would make what the men were doing less macho. Their attitude was, basically that if a ‘bloody woman’ could be a firefighter, it couldn’t be that hard.
Again, that attitude has certainly changed. Also, back then if you made a mistake it would be a case of: ‘well, obviously ALL women are useless.’ However now, a mistake is yours alone; not proof that your entire gender is incapable.

‘First woman/second woman’ scenarios can be problematic

I know one brigade where the first woman to join became very ‘male’ to fit in (she was even reading their porn). So when the second woman joined, and refused to fit in by becoming like a man, she was completely ostracised for not ‘following the rules’. The first woman had made it that much harder for her.

I like my success because it makes it easier for other women to succeed

I celebrate what I have achieved by spreading the word about it. I actively want to use it to encourage women to go for what they want and not to be discouraged. It feels like a great, positive and useful way in which I can also acknowledge to myself what I have achieved. There is nothing worse than women who won’t support each other. Be the best that you can be – but don’t ever, ever stand on anyone else or block anyone else to do it.

Fireman Sam has a lot to answer for

Stereotyping through media imprinting is a big problem. I used to go into schools to educate nine and ten-year-olds about what women could be in the world. Children are shocked that women could become firefighters because the media has always shown them – through programmes like Postman Pat and Fireman Sam – that they are jobs for men. If the TV show was ‘Firefighters: Angela and Fred,’ there would be no problem! We spoke to the BBC about it but they haven’t done anything. It sounds silly, but really the impact is huge. If no one actually says to a child, ’this is an option for you,’ then how can they expand their horizons to include it as a possibility?

Men and women bring different things to a role and that is what makes the Fire Service the best it can be

If everyone was a 6’4’’ bloke, who would crawl through the small holes? Who would negotiate with a distressed father? Variety makes the best team. And by that same token, not every woman is a brilliant communicator. The Fire Service is now about prevention and a blend of types really helps get the message out that the Service is diverse – and more effective for it.

I’m just an ordinary woman

I don’t feel so much that I have been inspired to achieve, but rather that I have been supported to achieve by a brilliant network of colleagues and friends.

Interview by Deborah Willimott

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