Professional development

Women and safety leadership: ‘A cultural shift’

Current climate and future outlook

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation/Flickr

Nicole Thunich once arrived at a worksite dressed in business attire before getting her bearings and unpacking her work gear.

The vice president of safety for a waste management company at the time soon was outfitted with proper personal protective equipment and work clothing – a wardrobe change that made an impression on the predominantly male crew.

“When I left there, I talked with the operations manager,” Thunich recalled. “He said, ‘You know, it’s interesting. The guys, when they saw you drive in, just thought, ‘Oh, what’s this woman going to tell us?’ And then when I got on the floor of the recycling facility in my appropriate attire to be in operations and be on the floor of this facility, they were very impressed, right, by my knowledge and my insight and my directives.”

To Thunich, now senior vice president of safety and quality for Centuri Group Inc., a Phoenix-based utility infrastructure services company, this example of unconscious bias – or social stereotyping – illustrates an over-riding obstacle women in safety leadership roles continue to encounter.

“People have these preconceived ideas, still, of women and how operationally savvy they are in these industries,” she said.

Demographic disparity

How can female safety professionals begin to bridge the divide? Multiple women in safety leadership positions who spoke with Safety+Health suggested that as the number of women in environmental, health and safety professions increases, so too will opportunities for career advancement.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women comprised a notably low ratio of workers in safety-specific industries such as construction (10.3%); mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (15.8%); transportation and utilities (24.1%); and manufacturing (29.4%). Additionally, women typically make up only about 25% of respondents to S+H’s annual Job Outlook and salary surveys of safety pros.

“Women are definitely underrepresented in leadership, particularly in the EHS field,” said Kelly Bernish, head of global EHS at Lyft. “We fall, unfortunately, into that category of many industries where women are underrepresented, and I think the irony of it is that women bring so much to the table in terms of leadership characteristics that are desired, including collaboration and relationship building, which is so crucial to leaders, but also, in my opinion, is the secret to success of a robust culture of safety.”

Drawing from data and anecdotal observation, Bernish added: “We’re seeing a lot of women getting degrees in safety and related fields, seeing a lot of entry-level women in the field, but where we still have not seen significant progress is them getting into positions of leadership.”

Pam Walaski, senior program director for Specialty Technical Consultants Inc., feels that recently reported racial- and gender-charged incidents and developments around the country have prompted more employers to reflect on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

As the discourse shifts and employer initiatives intended to enhance DE&I in industries and workplaces advance, Walaski believes more chances for women to fill leadership roles should follow.

“If nothing else, I think that getting people to really begin to think about that and to appreciate that can really go a long way to identifying barriers, removing barriers, identifying unconscious bias and creating opportunities,” she said.

Listen to an interview with Pam Walaski  on the June 2021 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

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