In a significant legal victory, female firefighter Julie Wilkinson has successfully won a sexual harassment case against her male colleagues at the Cleveland Fire Brigade in Stockton-on-Tees.
Ms. Wilkinson, a 14-year veteran of the brigade, alleged that her male co-workers had subjected her to a hostile and degrading environment by engaging in inappropriate behavior during their shifts.
The employment tribunal, held in Teesside, revealed disturbing details of Ms. Wilkinson’s ordeal while serving as the only woman on her team.
The incidents took place during her assignment with the blue watch team in Redcar, near Middlesbrough, in 2021.
Ms. Wilkinson disclosed that her male colleagues frequently created WhatsApp groups in which they shared explicit content, sexualized images, and made inappropriate jokes.
This environment, she claimed, made her feel uncomfortable, invisible, disregarded, and disrespected as the only female member of the team.
What was the case primarily about?
One specific incident detailed during the tribunal involved Ms. Wilkinson being on a job with watch manager David Colman and firefighters Graham Kirk and Paul Froom. They stopped to get a takeaway, during which the three men “assessed” women who passed by, discussing whether they would engage in sexual activity with them. This behavior left Ms. Wilkinson feeling humiliated and disrespected.
Another alarming incident described how Ms. Wilkinson was forced to accompany her male colleagues on what they referred to as a “f****y run” or, when she was present, a “d**k run.” During these rides, the male firefighters would take a diversion in their fire engine, driving a longer route back to the station via the seafront to ogle at passing women. They made derogatory comments about women, further contributing to Ms. Wilkinson’s distress.
Ms. Wilkinson launched a grievance the following month, citing bullying, aggression, humiliation, and ostracism due to the misogynistic behavior of her male colleagues. In response, the brigade’s investigator acknowledged the existence of such runs and stated that, for inclusivity purposes, they were referred to as “d**k runs” when female firefighters were present.
Male colleges insisted the “scenic route” must be taken
During the tribunal, the male firefighters vehemently denied the allegations, insisting that the “scenic route” was taken for reasons other than objectifying women. However, the tribunal panel found that their unchallenged WhatsApp chat, with its explicit and sexual content, was indicative of a broader pattern of behavior that lent credence to Ms. Wilkinson’s claims.
The panel ruled that the conduct of firefighter Kirk, firefighter Froom, and watch manager Colman had created an “intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or offensive environment” for Ms. Wilkinson. As a result, Ms. Wilkinson is now in line for compensation.
The specific amount of compensation to be awarded will be determined at a later date, marking a significant milestone in the fight against workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination within the firefighting profession. This case serves as a stark reminder that gender equality and respect in the workplace must be upheld and defended vigorously.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.