A sexist prank pulled by a pair of Vancouver firefighters highlights a systemic problem that’s keeping women out of the male-dominated profession, advocates say.

Firefighters are public servants, but critics argue the gender makeup of departments does a poor job reflecting the society they serve. Only 19 of the 800 firefighters working in Vancouver are women, and the numbers per capita gets even worse in some neighbouring municipalities.

Laura Track of the Women’s Legal Education and Action fund acknowledges that departments have made an effort to attract more female firefighters, but said a “very clear sexism problem” persists in Metro Vancouver.

“The firefighting environment continues to be a place where women are told they don’t belong, that they’re not welcome,” Track said.

On Wednesday, CTV News revealed two male Vancouver firefighters had been reprimanded for sending a package containing tampons and sexually suggestive items to the Port Coquitlam fire department, which earlier this year hired its first two female members since the early 1990s.

The package was intended for a male firefighter, but was instead intercepted by Fire Chief Nick Delmonica and reported.

“We need to create a culture where men know this behaviour is just not acceptable, and where they are made responsible for ensuring that they’re not acting or behaving in a way that creates a dehumanizing, degrading environment for their female colleagues,” Track said.

Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney would not identify the firefighters involved, but denounced their behaviour and confirmed they had received full reprimands including letters of discipline for their files.

Neither member was suspended, however.

“It is certainly not the character of the men and women of this organization,” McKearney told CTV News Wednesday. “All I can tell you is people, many times, don’t think before they act.”

Women’s advocates say the best solution is to include more women in firefighting organizations, something North Vancouver District firefighter Lt. Carla Penman is already striving for.

Penman and other female colleagues host a camp for young women to promote a career in the profession.

“It still comes as a surprise to people that females do this job, so the awareness isn’t there. Girls don’t grow up thinking this is an option for them,” Penman said.

Penman, who was the first female firefighter on the North Shore, said she was nervous about joining the department, but found she was “treated with complete respect and as an equal.”

That hasn’t been the experience of every female firefighter, however. In the past 10 years, B.C. courts and the Human Rights Tribunal have heard several complaints from women about discrimination and harassment in fire halls.

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Lisa Rossington