'The Makers': One Of NYC's First Female Firefighters Talks Of Hazing And Harassment [VIDEO]

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Brenda Berkman NYC firefighter

Breaking into a male-dominated field is perhaps one of the biggest career challenges any woman could face. Just ask Brenda Berkman. As a law student at New York University in the late 1970s, Berkman decided to take the entrance exam to become a New York City firefighter -- and ended up filing a landmark discrimination lawsuit and overcoming hazing to work her way up to the rank of captain. "I always saw firefighting as a great way to help your community, because when people are in their direst hour of needs, and they don't know what to do, they call the fire department," she says in the PBS show "Makers: Women Who Make America."

The documentary, a joint AOL-PBS production, will premiere on most PBS stations on Tuesday, Feb. 26. (Check your local listings for the time.) It focuses on the quest by women, from all backgrounds, to break the glass ceiling in countless industries. Berkman, shown above, is one of the more than 150 women featured in the documentary.



Berkman signed up to take the firefighter test when the department first began allowing women to apply; none of the 90 women who tried at first succeeded, PBS reports. Berkman took it upon herself to file a lawsuit against the City of New York alleging gender discrimination, claiming that the physical portion of the exam was designed to exclude women.

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In 1982 the courts agreed, and as a result, Berkman became one of the first 40 female firefighters in the history of New York City. (In 2010, the fire department still had just 31 women on its department roster of 11,500 firefighters, according to an analysis by New York's Daily News.)

Berkman's personal struggle didn't end with her joining the department. In "Makers," Berkman discusses the bigotry and hazing that she confronted on a regular basis while on the job. Her fellow firefighters would regularly drain her air tanks or turn her locker upside down, she says. But for Berkman, who served 24 years in the department before retiring as a captain in 2006, it was all worth it. "Too often young people believe one person can't make a change," she tells the series. "That's not true."

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