A woman can be a unique face in health and safety, particularly in leadership roles. Safety Management spoke to three female safety professionals to find out what challenges they overcame to succeed in their fields, what advice they have for leaders, and what their views are on the equality debate. Interviews by Belinda Liversedge.
Vice president and first national female officer of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors & director of training and development at Keltbray Group.
Does being a woman make any difference to either being a successful safety person or having a career in safety
I think it’s more to do with attitude than with your sex to be honest. But without being too stereotypical I think communication and being empathetic is a female trait, if we talk about male and female energy; the right and left side of the brain; logic versus creativity, they say that women are naturally more holistic in their thinking. That’s perhaps something we can bring to the party – we can look at things in a more rounded way.
Have you come across many challenges as a woman in your career
I’d be lying if I said no. Very much so. I started my career with a summer job at a demolition company. From there, I had interests in being an explosives engineer and at the time, as a 16-year-old girl, they looked at me as if I’d gone mad. They told me it was impossible, but I was stubborn enough at that age that I wasn’t going to accept that someone would make that decision for me.
It was very novel and for the first seven years I never clocked eyes on another woman on a demolition site. The guys were very nice but it did sometimes feel like they were humouring me. When you’re young, free and single everyone wants to make a bid for that, but I was very consciously thinking about my career, and I knew that anything I did would have a massive impact, because of my junior position and being a woman. So I kept myself to myself and had to just keep pushing forward.
Are you troubled by what was revealed in the recent data pay gap reports? Construction had the worst gender pay gap in any UK industry (women are paid 25 per cent less on average)
It does concern me – we should not be in a position where just because of somebody’s gender they are paid less than someone else in the same role.
It’s absolutely obscene.
This is historic in that there has been more men in the construction industry and in the workplace. But I don’t think it’s a good enough excuse for there not to be equal pay now. We just need to do better.
Do you think it’s a problem that we have fewer women than men at board level with responsibility for health and safety
I think we are where we are because of what was happening 50 years ago and that’s not going to change overnight, and I think we have to accept that. I also don’t necessarily think we should be promoting any person over another purely to fill a quota. It’s about appointing the right person for the job, but I think this is a long-term fix.
Women and men are not exactly the same. We do work slightly differently and I do think if we look at male and female energies there are opportunities to make the best of a board situation or management situation by having that different type and style of input.
I think we’ve all got something to bring to the party, but as women I believe we mustn’t wave this flag as if we’re in a continual fight. I don’t think that’s where we are – we’re dealing with legacy issues. I don’t believe it’s the people in the workplace today who have created them, but I do think it is the responsibility of us in the workplace today to fix these for future generations.
EHS director at Siemens
What appealed to you about health and safety as a young woman starting out in life
I wanted a career that would offer me variety and a chance to experience lots of different working environments. I’ve always had an interest in science and technology, and also in people, health and wellbeing. As a teenager I did some volunteering with the Red Cross, and found out about health and safety through them. It seemed a great way to combine my interests and to make a real, positive difference, so I decided to give it a go.
What or who has been most instrumental in enabling you to succeed in this career
Firstly, my parents. They taught me to be open-minded, and to work hard to achieve my ambitions. They also helped me to establish the self-confidence and self-awareness that have allowed me to make the most of the opportunities that I have had in my career.
Secondly, the network that I’ve established over the last 20 years. Trusted colleagues and specialist professionals who I have always been able to call on for support or advice when I’ve needed it. One of the things I love about health and safety is the diversity of the work, but it’s important to remember that you can’t know about everything, and to know you can call on a support network as required.
Have you ever had a negative response to being a woman in the industry you work in
I really haven’t – and I’ve worked in some very male-dominated environments such as nuclear engineering, newspaper production and on the railway. It’s not been unusual for me to be the only female at a meeting, on a site, or indeed on the management team, but it’s never been a big deal for me, and I think others pick up on that. I’ve never expected to be treated differently, I’ve got on with what needs to be done and have always been accepted on that basis.
When I was first working in newspaper publishing, there used to be a flurry of activity ahead of me as I walked down the shop floor as the guys rushed to remove their Sun calendars! But I never asked them to and it never bothered me. I chose to go and work in that environment, and was happy to accept it as it was. I think that helped the guys to relax with me, and accept me as I was, too.
Do you believe that health and safety is only for a certain type of woman? Or are there new opportunities on the horizon
Goodness no! Health and safety is such a diverse field and can take you into pretty much any sector and any part of the world. There’s a huge diversity of opportunities available and I’m sure that there is a right fit for pretty much any type of person.
I think that the key is to be very self-aware. To understand what you’re looking for, what you’re good at and how and where you are prepared to work, then seek an opportunity to match. There’s no point applying for a job in construction if you don’t like working outdoors, or in the entertainment sector if you’re not prepared to work unsocial hours. But because there are so many different roles to choose from I’m sure that most people will be able to find something to suit them. Like any job, there’s much more routine than there is glamour or excitement though, but you do have to be prepared to drop everything if there’s an emergency to deal with, so adaptability is important too.
What could be the benefits of encouraging and attracting more women into health and safety roles? How could we do this
I think there are huge benefits to having a diverse team in any work situation. For me, this goes way beyond the obvious visible attributes such as race, gender and physical ability to include thinking style, communication style and experience. It’s important to value difference and nurture constructive challenge. This helps to introduce new ideas, fresh thinking and to promote innovation.
Traditionally, the health and safety profession has been quite male dominated, but I do think this is changing. It’s good to see a more diverse population at meetings and conferences, and I do think that this is helping to drive fresh thinking in the profession.
It might not always be comfortable, but challenging the status quo is an essential element of the continual improvement that underpins good practice.
I think we could do a lot more to ‘market’ the health and safety profession to a more diverse audience. Very few people realise the range of opportunities that a health and safety career can offer. We’ve moved on a long way from the ‘stereotypical’ image of a middle-aged white man with a hard hat and a clip board telling people what they can’t do!
I think there has to be a role for the professional bodies in promoting the benefits of a health and safety career to a more diverse audience. The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) network is hugely successful, and no longer confines itself to gender-based opportunities, but focuses on promoting science and engineering careers widely, particularly to young people. There’s lots we could learn from them I think, or perhaps there’s an opportunity to collaborate with them.
Senior health, safety and risk manager, the Football Association
How did you get involved in health and safety
I did a BSc in Occupational Hygiene. From there I became a building health scientist, inspecting various types of properties and carrying out fire inspections and legionellosis risk assessments.
Have you come across any challenges as a woman in your career
I don’t really come across too many challenges in terms of carrying out my role. It is often assumed that health and safety is a man’s role, but I am very happy working in any environment, on a construction site, in an engineering environment and can drive a lorry.
I do think that you need to be able to stand your ground and I feel I often have to prove myself more in certain environments, as the culture of equality hasn’t quite caught up.
Have you ever had a negative response to being a woman in the industry you work in
In one of my first roles I was speaking to an estates director and he asked, in a very patronising way, in front of his team, “What does a bird know about welding?” I replied that “this bird not only knows how to weld, but also eats worms for its breakfast”. Everyone fell about laughing and I realised that provided I was able to assert myself, while keeping my sense of humour, I would be fine.
The main issues that I sometimes experience these days are the fact that people make assumptions because I am a woman. Recently, I did my roof access training. I was the only female in the group and the only one that the instructor asked if I would be OK, and it was only my bag he offered to carry up the fixed access ladder.
Do you think it’s a problem that we have fewer women than men in leadership positions in health and safety
I think that this is a wider issue and not just confined to health and safety. Times are changing and more women are more empowered than ever. I think the main problem is that many of the men in leadership roles have ended up in health and safety as a second career and are very rigid in their approach to health and safety. This is why health and safety is often seen as boring.
I think as the gender gap narrows and more dynamic individuals develop careers in health and safety the situation will improve. This in turn will attract more women along this career path. Let’s face it, not many of us grow up aspiring to be a health and safety professional – I wanted to be a zoo keeper!
What are some of the benefits of encouraging more women into health and safety, particularly into leadership roles
I think that we should be promoting gender equality. Gender equality is achieved when women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society, including economic participation and decision-making.
Excellence does not distinguish between men and women; it recognises talent and good management. Organisations that promote diverse environments have been proven to be more successful and outperform those that don’t.
There are many different theories about leadership styles. In my opinion the style of leadership is driven by an individual’s personality and character and not gender. There are not many roles that women cannot perform in this day and age.
What needs to change to open up the industry to more women? Is health and safety due an image change
I think that the whole perception of health and safety needs to change. It needs to be seen as a progressive tool that is good for business as opposed to something that is obstructive. Organisations with positive health and safety cultures are sustainable and more likely to thrive.
Are there more opportunities around the corner for women, for example, in health and wellbeing?
There is no reason why only men can work in engineering or construction. Automation and mechanisation can benefit everyone. Men can also work in health and wellbeing. As I have indicated – it is no longer ‘a man’s world’!
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