Professional development

‘A world of difference’: For women in safety, a mentor can offer guidance and open doors

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Juliana Ruggieri credits her mentor for a good deal of her early professional development.

The graduate student and young safety pro reached out for guidance after learning she had scored well on the cognitive portion of an emotional intelligence quiz but low on emotional skills.

“I thought, ‘You know, I should make that a goal. I should try to raise that,’” said Ruggieri, an environmental, health and safety specialist with TRC Companies Inc., a consulting firm that serves numerous industries.

With her mentor’s support, Ruggieri said she has made significant progress, working on “conversation starters and different phrases” to expand discussions and build connections with people.

“It’s been making a world of difference.”

Mentors are a particularly valuable resource for women in EHS, who consistently make up only about 25% of the respondents to Safety+Health’s annual Job Outlook and salary surveys.

“Women who are in nontraditional roles face unique challenges and frequently face very different barriers than men do,” said Audrey Murrell, author of three books about mentoring and a Forbes.com contributor on the topic. “So the need for having people to help you navigate those environments is what mentoring can provide.”

‘A number of different forms’

A survey of 3,000 full-time workers, conducted by Olivet Nazarene University in 2019, found that 76% consider mentors an important career development tool. Yet, only 37% said they currently have one.

Mentors can answer many needs for safety and health pros, from lessons on career paths to guidance about creating safety programs.

“Mentoring relationships can take on a number of different forms,” Murrell said. “One of the things I ask people to do is think about the expectations and be clear about what it is they want out of the relationship.

“You have to think, ‘Do I need some social support? Do I need career advice? Do I need someone to model leadership or other key characteristics for success?’ Or, ‘Do I need some skill or coaching around particular things?’” said Murrell, who also is an associate dean and professor at the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration. “The clearer you are about the expectations, the more satisfied you’ll be.”

In addition to Ruggieri, S+H spoke with two other members of the National Safety Council Young Professionals Division’s student mentor program. The program pairs students with safety and health pros, who can assist with educational questions, give career advice, connect students with possible work or internship opportunities, and recommend professional resources.

Each of their stories is an example of the forms mentoring can take.

Mentors as role models

When Ruggieri was considering a mentor, she had specific benefits in mind.

“I find it really helpful in the safety profession to be able to bounce ideas off of another person,” she said. “A lot of times, when you’re interpreting regulations and dealing with different personalities coming to work every day, it’s helpful to have someone else there to fact check for you or to be able to give you that second opinion. I also wanted to increase my technical knowledge and build my goals and career path.”

Ruggieri, who recently completed her EHS master’s program, was especially intrigued by the business development and risk management side of safety. She was matched with a mentor working in the same field she wants to join.

“We often talk about role modeling as one of the functions that a mentorship can provide,” Murrell said. “Someone that really represents things that you aspire to. What a role model does is provides an example of how you might navigate a particular pathway or be a role model of the destination in terms of what you would like to do.”

Finding a mentor calls for creative thinking

If you’re looking for a professional mentor, Shelley Brown encourages you to consider your own strengths, weaknesses and objectives for the relationship.

“If one of the areas you’re struggling in is communicating with executives, look for somebody in your communications group or a business development leader,” said Brown, vice president of environmental, safety and health for AECOM’s transportation business line. “It might give you a skill set that looks a little different from your peers.”

Potential mentors can be found within or outside your organization, as well as in different work settings (e.g., corporate vs. public safety). Brown, who also is the incoming chair of the Women’s Caucus at the National Safety Council, recommends embracing all learning experiences – formal and informal.

“Consider everybody a potential mentor,” she said. “If there’s someone whose career trajectory you admire, reach out and learn more about the skills they’ve developed, their decision-making process, and helpful resources or risks they took along the way. Make the effort to meet with that person, explain your interest and ask for help.”

Brown also suggests thoroughly discussing your goals, potential outcomes and what you could offer as a mentee before asking someone to enter into a mentoring relationship.

What if, however, a potential mentor turns down your request?

“Use this as a learning opportunity,” Brown said. “If it is a matter of poor timing, you may not be able to control that. But, if you are not specific enough in what you hope to achieve with the relationship, then a mentor would have a difficult time being helpful and may decline.”

Mentors as sponsors

Since 2014, Tina Mitchum’s duties at lint roller manufacturer ReLintless LLC in Roanoke, AL, have been numerous. She started as a production supervisor, moved to warehouse manager, advanced to production manager and recently moved into a human resources/safety manager position. “I just got thrown into it,” Mitchum said. “I didn’t have any interest in safety (as a career) until I took over as warehouse manager. They put me through some OSHA classes to get more familiar with it and I thought, ‘OK, I like this. I can do this.’”

While building her safety knowledge, Mitchum said she was “constantly emailing my instructors at school. I knew there were people out there that knew way more than I did.”

Mitchum’s relationship with her mentor is what Murrell calls a form of sponsorship that involves the mentee taking on new, challenging assignments.

“Sometimes what you need a mentor to do is open doors, to provide access to resources and opportunities,” Murrell said.

These challenges often lead mentees to crave more knowledge to expand their skill sets.

“I like to learn new things,” said Mitchum, who has gone back to school, enrolling in the occupational safety and health management program at Jacksonville (AL) State University. “There’s so much (to safety). It’s like you can never learn enough. There are things you are learning every day.”

Mentors as coaches

The impact of mentorship on Tiffany Edinger has led to an enhanced knowledge base.

“Starting where I did and coming as far as I have, it’s rewarding to see the differences that you’re making and to know you’re able to protect employees,” said Edinger, the institutional safety specialist at Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, VA.

One of Edinger’s safety and health efforts was implementing a hearing conservation program, which she relied on her mentor for guidance to plan, establish training and launch.

“My father has lost a lot of his hearing over the years by listening to loud music and (using) tools when he wasn’t wearing hearing protection,” said Edinger, who began working in food service at the state Department of Corrections. “For me to know that I’m able to protect someone else from losing hearing like he did, it means a lot to me.”

The program’s benefits can be traced back to the coaching of Edinger’s mentor, Murrell said. “It’s where mentoring ends up being a transfer of knowledge around some specific expertise, knowledge area or competence,” Murrell said.

“The thing that’s powerful about coaching is that it doesn’t have anything to do with title or position. It’s about knowledge. That coaching function can be done by someone more junior or a peer.”

Honoring women in safety

The National Safety Council annually honors women for their service to the safety and health profession and for the pursuit and promotion of safety careers with the Marion Martin Award. This award recognizes women in safety who have achieved excellence in their specialty and paved the way for other women in the profession. The award was first presented in 2016, and is named for the first female Distinguished Service to Safety Award winner.

The council also recognizes future safety leaders with the NSC Women in Safety Scholarship, a $5,000 annually renewable educational award to assist women pursuing safety as a career.

For more information about the Women’s Caucus, visit nsc.org/womenscaucus.

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