The Topsy and Tim children stories CD has an episode on firefighters. At one point, they discuss whether women can do it. The answer given is, in substance “yes, but they must be as physically fit as the men”.

Credit where it’s due: this makes the point that firefighting is a potential career for women. But there is an insidiously (albeit probably unintentionally) sexist message: that men are the point of reference. A woman applying to be a firefighter will have to prove something more than a man would, namely that she is as good as a man. Furthermore, a male firefighter is completely normal; a female firefighter not somuch. So a woman applying to be a firefighter would be trying to go out of the comfort zone of social norms. Not everyone is a born rebel, so this can deter women.

A much better way of presenting this would have been to say that there are physical fitness requirements, which all applicants, regardless of gender (or indeed anything else), have to meet. The difference may sound subtle, but it matters.

None of this affects me directly: I am unlikely to ever become a firefighter (or indeed a woman). But my 4 year old daughter has been listening to that story…