Women find career success as firefighters, construction workers

For Lt. Julie De Jarlais, Station No. 13 in San Francisco is home.

It seems she was always destined to be a firefighter.

"In fact when I graduated from the fire academy, my Dad made a congratulatory card with me in my little dress and my boots and my fire helmet and he just added a little badge," she said.

Leah Turner grew up with her father and grandfather both in construction and she feels right at home on a construction site. You will often find her there as the operations manager of the special projects division at Turner Construction (no relation). She too says the love for building started early saying "I played with my Legos as much as I played with my Barbies. I loved to create things ever since I was a kid."

Both women are finding career success in industries long dominated by men. Statistics show only 8 percent of firefighters are women. In construction, women make up 10 percent.

Turner says she has often been the only woman in the room, "yes there are times, there were times in school, there are times now."

In the firehouse, Lt. De Jarlais finds herself in that same position.

"Oftentimes I’ll turn around and I am the only woman in the room and sometimes you'll get together in the battalion and I'm the only woman in the battalion that day," she said. 

Even in two very different industries, there are undeniable similarities. The road to get here required a little bit of help and a lot of support. Both say their parents told them to chase any dream they wanted.

However, De Jarlais says she needed help even considering the profession because as a young girl she never saw anyone in the field who looked like her. "I grew up down the street from the firehouse and I never saw a woman."

Turner says as a girl interested in engineering and building, there were challenges. "Stem in general at that time specifically was still a boy’s club." she explains, "It took some very targeted exposure and very targeted after-school programs to broaden my horizons to what was actually available to me."

It was a female firefighter that told De Jarlais that she'd fit right in, a college athlete, with a degree in sports medicine, she is someone who has spent years testing her strength

And she laughs when remembering a day at the fire academy when a passerby questioned if she'd be strong enough to rescue him

"So I proceeded to walk over to him," says De Jarlais, "said yeah I could pick you up and pull you out of a building, grabbed his wrist got my shoulder threw him over my shoulder and gave me a little spin and I set him down and he was like okay."

For Turner, it was also a female mentor in an afterschool program who helped her see what could be. She was a Black woman.

"So I saw someone that I could aspire to be and I think representation is the most important thing in any kind of professional environment," she said. 

She says it's important to have more women at the table and it's often other women who make sure they have a seat and says she found that at Turner construction. "There was a network of women there they formed a network there and I think that's what's most important is finding your tribe."

Both say the Bay Area is a leader in getting representation for women.

In San Francisco, more 15 percent of firefighters are female. That's the most in any department in the country.

"I’ve met people from New Jersey, New York, Michigan, all over the country," says De Jarlais, "and they are baffled just blown away by how many women and how aggressive and proactive and involved we are."

And yet there is still a lot of work to be done

"I feel like women work twice as hard to be considered at the same level as their male counterparts," says De Jarlais, "which can be exhausting for some people."

Turner says "I think there is sometimes there's an allowance for potential in men and proving yourself in women and I think moving forward we really have to look forward to the potential for all." And she believes "the biggest hurdle is really in the exposure and exposure to the industry."

De Jarlais spends as much time as she can outside Station 13.

"I see a little girl walking by and I’ll pull down my mask and wave and they'll say mommy it’s a girl."

She says she hope little girls understand "It’s all there you just have to go and take it."