In their first joint interview, Keechant Sewell and Laura Kavanagh made it clear that there shouldn't really be a reason for interviews anymore. "I keep saying that I think we need to normalize that women are in these roles," Sewell said. Sewell has been in charge of the NYPD since January 2022, and shortly thereafter Kavanagh became chief of the FDNY New York Fire Department. Both are the first women in the role in the more than 150-year history of the institutions.
"Obviously these appointments are historic and we don't take them lightly, but what really matters is the work we do," said the New York-born Sewell. "And we can't be the last in these roles." Kavanagh, who grew up in San Francisco, said being the first woman to lead FDNY means a lot to her. "I hope to inspire other people to see themselves in positions that they may not have thought of. I hope it opens doors."
The proportion of women was previously negligible
Both were appointed by Mayor Eric Adams - the 110th mayor of the metropolis and the 110th man in this role. New York has never had a female mayor - and the hierarchy under Sewell and Kavanagh is also mostly male. Just about 20 percent of the NYPD's approximately 35,000 uniformed employees - who call themselves "New York's Finest" - are women. In the case of the fire department, nicknamed "New York's Bravest" - i.e. "the bravest in New York" - it is not even two percent, about 140 of around 11,000.
While the NYPD has employed women since the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1980s that New York's first court-fought uniformed firefighters emerged. For a long time, women had to assert themselves against prejudices that they could not do the physically demanding recruitment tests. Now they keep proving the opposite - but sometimes they still fight against prejudice and sexism in the NYPD and FDNY.
Will the sexist structures still survive?
Not everyone is optimistic: she is happy that a woman is finally at the head of the NYPD, firefighter Sarinya Srisakul told the New York Times. "But Laura Kavanagh is not going to do anything significant to change the sexist structural issues for women firefighters here."
In addition to the day-to-day challenges of their jobs, Sewell and Kavanagh face the big question: How can more women be part of the NYPD and FDNY? The city council has already dealt with this and, among other things, has introduced laws for more adapted training for fire brigade personnel and also more adapted fire stations. Mentor programs, family-friendly shift plans and stricter rules against discrimination and harassment are also being considered.
After all, she can work on these challenges together with NYPD boss Sewell, says FDNY boss Kavanagh. "It's nice that we have that camaraderie. It's nice to pick up the phone and have the opportunity to talk to her about our roles and what we're going through together."