Despite years of equal opportunity policy and a lot of discussion, many careers remain dominated by one sex or the other.

While the barriers have often been considered physical or psychological, the real issues may be a lack of role models and encouragement.

Stacey Hemstock is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department who has been on the job in the male-dominate profession for eleven years.

"It's always the unknown when you go on a call. You never know what you're going go be going on, so there's a lot of variety."

After spending time as a volunteer firefighter near Owen Sound she wrote the exam and was accepted, but she didn't know how show would be treated when she was hired.

But it went surprisingly well, she says "I was very happy, especially with some of the senior firefighters that were used to having all male dominating profession."

Hemstock adds that she didn't get any preferential treatment though, "They really wanted you to prove yourself to make sure you could do your job, but they were always willing to help."

When she became a captain three years ago, running a station, the well-being of a crew of six and deciding on tactics at a fire scene were added to her responsibilities.

And she says things are different now, "Before maybe it was more of a male-dominated profession years ago as opposed to now, things have changed quite a bit and we do have more equality."

Among Kitchener's 188 firefighters there are six women, including Hemstock who is the only captain. One works in fire prevention and another in public education.

The City of Waterloo has five female firefighters while London has eight in its 400-member department.

According to a 2006 federal survey of occupations, only 3.5 per cent of full-time firefighting jobs in Canada are filled by women.

And that's an improvement from 1991, when it was only 1.5 per cent, despite the fact that only five per cent of college level training graduates were women.

However in Conestoga College's firefighting program the number is much higher, with ten to 15 per cent of graduating students being women, about 64 students annually.

Tammy Schirle is an economist at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in the economics of gender. She says many women won't consider a job in a male-dominated profession because of the working conditions.

"You need to choose a job where you can handle the school schedules, infant care and these types of things and many of the jobs that we see as male dominated don't offer that."

And Hemstock says encouraging high school students to think about firefighting could also make a difference, now that the opportunity is there.

"I really do think it boils down actually to the best candidate for the job whether your male or female, it's the same competition, it's the same prerequisites for everybody."

Coming up in part two: Looking at professions where males are in the minority.