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US female firefighters fight discrimination with lawsuits

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Susanna Schmitt Williams poses at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Williams, the former chief of the Carrboro Fire Department, considered suicide after enduring harassment in her department despite becoming chief. Advocates for female firefighters say their struggles are part of a larger trend, as evidenced by recent gender discrimination lawsuits against fire departments in Illinois, Virginia, and Texas. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – WINSTON-The highest ranking female firefighter in Asheville, North Carolina, says she was repeatedly discriminated against because of her sex and fought to keep her job while battling breast cancer. The first female chief of a municipal fire department in the state says she briefly pondered suicide after years of sexual harassment.

Joy Ponder and Susanna Schmitt Williams are among numerous female fighters in the United States who have filed lawsuits against their employers alleging they were subjected to demeaning behavior that helped end their careers.

Advocates say going to court is sometimes the only effective recourse in a field where women make up such a tiny part of the workforce. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 93,700, or 8%, of U.S. firefighters were female in 2018, the latest year for which data was available.

Williams, who was fired in July 2019, told The Associated Press that she was “the subject of sexualized rumors (and) hostility in the form of insubordination by those who reported to me.”

Williams said Carrboro Town Manager David Andrews overturned both her disciplinary and operational decisions, and for the latter, relied instead on the recommendations of men in the department who were lower ranked and had less experience and education. Andrews didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Ponder, who resigned from her post as Asheville Fire Department division chief in September, said she faced years of harassment and gender discrimination from Chief Scott Burnette after she led outside research on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among city firefighters.

Burnette did not return a phone call seeking comment. Peggy Rowe, an assistant to City Manager Debra Campbell, said the city doesn’t comment on ongoing lawsuits.

Ponder filed her lawsuit in November and then an amended complaint last month. Williams filed her lawsuit in January. Both are still pending.