Interview: Dr Julie Riggs, British Safety Council's senior head of education

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"Women have lots of different barriers to face around having their voice heard." British Safety Council's Dr Julie Riggs shares what inspires, frustrates and motivates her about working in health and safety.

The theme for this year's International Women's Day on Wednesday 8 March 2023 is #EmbraceEquity. We speak to our senior head of education at the British Safety Council, Dr Julie Riggs about equality in health and safety. 

SM: What were your first impressions of the health and safety sector (its image and culture) when you joined and have they changed since you’ve been a part of it?

JR: I first joined the health and safety industry 30 years ago in 1993. I was 18 and at that time around 25% of practitioners were women. The majority were men in their mid-life who took it as a second-choice career. So health and safety was very white and male dominated.

And that hasn't changed dramatically. I was looking at IOSH salary surveys because it gives you some idea about percentage of gender over the years. And in 2009, IOSH didn't even specify differences between gender. So it was very difficult to even have that visibility of the gender split and pay gap.

That is changing, and IOSH started doing it from 2012 onwards, though differences in pay still exist today.

However, we are seeing a lot more younger women coming into the industry, which is really good. I think having a younger generation will help to re-shape our industry and make it much more dynamic.

Dr Julie Riggs: "I strongly believe that education gives people choice."

SM: What do you think is attracting more young women into health and safety?

JR: I think there are more opportunities in different sectors. Safety was always a key aspect of the heavy industries – construction, engineering – and there’s been a lot of work to encourage women to come into those industries as well.

But safety is much more broader than that, you can work in corporate finance, or you could work in education or retail or leisure. So, it's very, very broad now and women can work in a variety of different industries. I think that probably makes it more attractive and appealing. You’re not necessarily putting on a hard hat and standing on an edge of a highway to do auditing. We've seen safety practices really step up around wellbeing, and a lot around the people agenda and I think having women in the industry brings new topics to talk about and brings a lot more diversity.

The health and safety industry needs to represent its community and we still don't do that. We’re talking about gender now but there's a much more broader conversation to be had around ethnicity, LBTQ+ and disability.

SM: What inspires you to work in health & safety education?

JR: I strongly believe that education gives people choice. If you look at the broader picture, when we start talking about making an impact and difference, it starts with education.

When you introduce health and safety into a country it can bring stability, it can bring equality, it can bring economic value. Health and safety enables countries to trade globally as well. So safety can bring all of that in a very positive way. But that all starts with education.

I also find it rewarding because I've seen students come in it IOSH level and they're now going on to do their masters – you see that journey and it's incredibly encouraging. We know that safety practitioners in the UK operate at that really high level. And we're seeing a lot of that practice and knowledge now spread out globally as well.

Education's not just about passing on knowledge to people, it's about how do you inspire people and get them motivated and feel like this subject matters to them as well. And that’s what we're trying to do with our teaching and learning.

SM: What might be the barriers women find when it comes to advancing their careers and thriving in h&s? How best can these be tackled?

JR: I think women have lots of different barriers to face around having their voice heard, being able to represent from a leadership point of view and we know that’s true across all industries.

There’s one area that I think probably affects most women, and that's the imposture syndrome. Forbes did this research and found women are more likely to suffer with it. Therefore, they're more likely to have a crisis in confidence. They're more likely to possibly not stand up for themselves, or push themselves forward. Women tend to talk about ‘we did’ this, rather than ‘I’ did this. So there's vocabulary around that as well.

"Being forceful or perhaps just having a different opinion can can make you feel more vulnerable and open to criticism as a female." Photograph: iStock

Probably the hardest critic sometimes is ourselves; do we know our value, do we feel that imposture syndrome? Do we have that crisis in confidence? I think that's probably our biggest challenge.

SM: Do we need to be careful though around not putting the responsibility on women to change. Does the culture need to change?

JR: We know that women make up a lot of the entry level roles in health and safety. So as they continue their careers, they need to be given opportunities to advance and be rewarded. All of us need to provide those opportunities – male and female – and we need to be able to set the right leadership and the right communities for women. There are many great mentoring networks out there.

But it has to start from the top and it's not just a women's conversation, it's all of our conversations to stand up and say something and to encourage and to promote and to mentor. I still experience where, as a female, if you have a voice or an opinion on something, there’s a negative image that comes with that.

Being forceful or perhaps just having a different opinion is challenging and can make you feel more vulnerable and open to criticism.

SM: Issues like the menopause and miscarriage are getting more airtime. How do we ensure there is proper support for women undergoing these very common issues that can affect work?

JR: I think we need to have these conversations about these issues, not just the menopause. We know that there's quite a lot of work time lost through women that suffer from PMS as well for example. Women are also invariably carers or will look after children.

But initially I’ve had mixed views about this. As an organization, we were offered menopause training across the business. For me, personally, private and work are very different and I probably still hold traditional views around raising personal issues. So it really challenged me to think about this in a different way and about the importance of those channels for people to be more open.

And it was through attending that training that I realized how open other people were talking about it and how actually, I didn't feel any different about those people, which I thought was really interesting. So it got me to challenge my own views and it has probably has challenged a lot of people's views around it.

There's a broader conversation in there as well, about when we talk about occupational health and safety generally, we know that sometimes women can be more adversely affected by some of the hazards. Working odd shift patterns for example can affect women predominantly.

When we talk about wellbeing, practitioners can take a big role in this as part of it: how do we create environments that are supportive, open and transparent for everyone to have a conversation around.

SM: There is still a big pay gap in h&s according to some reports. What do you think about this?  

JR: I can't believe in today's society we are still having this conversation about pay. Again, it's got to start from the top. There has to be some level of transparency. Boards need to be having very open conversations around what they're paying there does need to be some transparency around it. I think if we had more women in leadership roles, then you're more able to ask those questions and have that visibility around what is happening as well.

To read more about women in health and safety, check out our March cover feature here 


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