That’s the first thing Michael “Mike” Wassing utters when we asked him about the idea that inclusion and diversity in the emergency services is a zero-sum game, where men lose opportunities when women are more included in the field.
“Sorry to be a bit blunt. My experience to date has been that men who feel this way are usually threatened by a range of matters, including diversity, equity, and inclusion. They have not taken the time or responsibility to inform themselves of the challenges that others and the organization faces.”
As the Deputy Commissioner of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES), Mike knows all about building a more diverse and inclusive organization – he’s been fighting for it for years.
Since his appointment as Deputy Commissioner in 2015, Mike has worked tirelessly to empower the organization’s workforce and foster a culture that contributes to a better future for everyone.
And this inevitably includes improving the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the QFES – a challenge that requires change from a deep, internal level. But change in such a massive organization is never fast or easy – it requires rethinking old beliefs, replacing outdated practices, and rebuilding fractured groups.
This, however, hasn’t stopped Mike.
If anything, he’s more motivated to enact the changes required to usher the QFES into a better future together with all the people they help and serve.
What a passionate male ally looks like
“As a husband, father of three daughters, and a senior executive in QFES, I am committed to enhancing and strengthening QFES capabilities. And in doing so, promoting an inclusive and supportive culture that enriches our ability to support our local communities.”
Those who know Mike know that he has long been passionate about creating a diverse and inclusive workplace in the emergency services. He is one of the industry’s staunchest advocates for diversity and inclusion, becoming a torchbearer for allyship in the industry.
“For me, allyship is about acknowledging, educating, and changing behaviors and systems/processes (including policies) that enhance the personal, team, and organizational benefits of diversity and help drive the importance of inclusion and equity.”
For Mike it’s not just a fad or part of a wish list – it’s critical to the future of the QFES and its service to the public.
“To be a capable organization that has the safety of its people as a core principle, positive inclusion and greater diversity is a must. Certain parts of QFES are male majorities and increasing gender and other diversities (especially diversity of thought) is a must to ensure our service with communities can be effective and our people can feel safe.”
Allyship is about tackling the challenge of change
Most people understand and see the value of increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. But understanding change is one thing. Being part of it is another.
“I think of the ‘responsibility’ of change rather than ‘burden’. If you are passionate, committed, and aligned with what is best for the organization (and, in our case best, for public safety), then it is not a burden. That’s not to say it’s easy and always rosy. Quite the opposite. But it’s essential to be proactive.”
And this, as Mike learned, is where his biggest challenge lies.
“I’ve come to realize that most people won’t take on this responsibility in the short term. That’s not to say they are not supportive. Rather, the majority of people in any organization are what I call ‘settlers’. They will go with the change and make it happen once leaders and others driving the change (explorers) have taken and embedded steps, and they see that proven changes are occurring and will continue to do so.”
Mike knows that for change to permeate and transform the QFES, he needs to set an example for everyone and lead the way.
Allyship is leading by example
As a senior leader in the QFES, Mike bears the tremendous responsibility of driving change and making diversity and inclusion a core part of the organization’s values.
“I want to set an expectation for all – especially men – in their responsibilities to create an inclusive, welcoming, and team-based work environment.”
He leads from the top and stresses the importance of personal accountability and working together to create better outcomes for everyone.
“Allyship, like leadership, comes with great experiences and rewards and requires accountability for proactive action and drive for change.”
And personal accountability is something that Mike is adamant about.
“Simply saying ‘you’re not sure’ is not good enough. You need to inform yourself and find people who can advise, guide, and keep you true to the outcomes being sought.”
Mike also works to make sure that systems and networks are in place to provide guidance, support, and assistance to anyone who needs it.
“As Deputy Commissioner, I have driven the engagement and development for the QFES 2030 and Volunteerism Strategies and have championed several initiatives in the workplace to positively change organizational culture. I feel I have enabled and increased women’s equality within the workplace by providing support, coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship to many officers to guide their progression.”
And he’s setting the example not just to the organization’s 38,000+ paid and volunteer workforce, but to other leaders as well. Mike advises them:
“Be vulnerable. Too often, as senior leaders, we are expected to have the answers, take the lead, and set the direction. This is further entrenched in a rank-based culture such as the fire and emergency services. Being vulnerable demonstrates humility, enables others to join you and assist, and engages with those that may otherwise feel threatened by establishing empathy.
“And for the record, humility and empathy are two character traits I rate as crucial for effective leadership.”
Allyship is about fighting for a better future for everyone
While acknowledging there is still a journey ahead to increase diversity and inclusion in the emergency services, Mike remains hopeful for the future.
And to him, the key lies in its workforce – the people themselves.
“Our greatest resource is our people and our ability to engage with each other to listen, learn, and experience.”
He also adds that new government policies and guidelines are providing the right pathways towards change.
“Recent changes to the Queensland Public Sector are also a key driver and an opportunity to drive change. QFES has commenced working with these changes to ensure our organization can leverage all the benefits that come with the new arrangements.”
In these trying, yet key, moments for change, Mike always turns to one of QFES’s core values for inspiration.
“Courage. I believe it is often difficult to truly behave in accordance with your shared values and call out those that aren’t. To have the courage to lead and behave according to your personal values and those of QFES often requires the courage to speak out, offer a point of difference, and represent others in the workforce or community that feel too vulnerable or exposed to be able to do so.”
With courage and his belief in a better future, Mike is proudly leading the way.