Two Black women sued the city of Denver on Wednesday over allegations that members of the Denver Fire Department systematically discriminated against them both because of their gender and their race.
Da Lesha Allen and Charmaine Cassie say they unfairly faced tougher standards and stricter scrutiny than their white male colleagues, and that colleagues and supervisors made racist comments about their hair and bodies and applied racist stereotypes to the women after they joined the department in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
One fire captain told Cassie that she would struggle to get through the fire department’s training program because of the department’s culture, and said that she should “keep her head down and act like a slave” in order to graduate from the training, according to the lawsuit.
A lieutenant commented several times on Cassie’s body, including declaring that she had a “big butt,” according to the federal lawsuit. In another incident, a high-ranking firefighter told Allen that she would have to figure out how to get her hair into her helmet even though he knew how “you people like to put all them things in your hair,” according to the lawsuit. Allen did not have anything in her hair at the time.
Allen was fired after she filed a discrimination complaint, according to the lawsuit. A city internal affairs investigation into Allen’s complaints determined they were “unfounded,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit indicates Cassie is still with the department.
“The fire department has a huge history of being the good old boys network, and mostly a white good old boys network,” said David Lane, the women’s attorney. “So women firefighters get washed out of the academy on a routine basis, and these women are standing up to it.”
The fire department employs almost entirely white men, according to the lawsuit. Between 2016 and 2019, an average 5% of employees were Black. About 5% of employees were women, and less than 1% of employees were Black women, according to the lawsuit.
Wednesday’s lawsuit is far from the first time the fire department has faced allegations of gender discrimination.
In 2019, the city payed nearly $1 million to settle a discrimination case brought by a former high-ranking firefighter who said she was fired in retaliation for filing two gender discrimination claims. Colley Fisher was awarded $975,000.
Another woman firefighter recruit sued the department in 2015 over sexual harassment and gender discrimination and was awarded $75,000.
A spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Public Safety did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.