Professional development

Women and safety leadership: ‘A cultural shift’

Current climate and future outlook

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Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation/Flickr

They can relate

Experts say cultivating and maintaining relationships is key for the successful advancement of female safety pros, whether for networking, finding mentors or simply remaining productive leaders in the field.

The National Safety Council Women’s Division offers an avenue to that end, providing various educational, training and mentoring opportunities. NSC President and CEO Lorraine M. Martin touts the Women’s Division as “a place for collaboration and understanding some of the challenges. Whether it’s ensuring your voice is heard or bringing forward some of the safety issues that are unique to women, networking opportunities like the Division are essential.”

Rosa Carrillo, who operates a safety leadership consulting practice in Long Beach, CA, writes in her book, “The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership: Achieving Success Through Employee Engagement,” that strong relationships founded on trust and inclusivity are the true driving forces behind an organization’s safety outcomes. Adjusting procedures and protocol will accomplish only so much.

Carrillo contends that effective communication exists only in relationships with established trust – an attribute that assumes added significance when workers’ lives are at stake.

“You can track all the incident investigations to the beginning of time,” she said, “and the failure of communication is always in that report.”

Kathy Freeman, director of safety at HEI Civil, a Castle Rock, CO-based general contractor, credits a personal approach to safety for fostering healthy working relationships and helping open doors during her career. It starts from the time she meets a new worker on a jobsite.

“People don’t like change overnight, and they certainly don’t like to be told what they’re doing wrong,” Freeman said. “I mean, obviously, if I see imminent danger, I’m going to stop it, but any time we acquire a company or any time we get a new employee, it’s important to me to get to know them.

“‘Do you have kids? Do you have a family?’ And add that personal aspect. And I think because I go into the mindset of, ‘I want to get to know this employee so that they know me and it’s a mutual respect,’ versus me just showing up on a job and going, ‘OK, this is wrong,’ you know, you add the human element to safety.”

Shawne Walthall, general supervisor in the electric dispatch group of Detroit-based DTE Energy, advocates assessing your contributions to working relationships on an ongoing basis. “I do one-on-ones with my peers – at my level, under my level and above my level – and ask for feedback,” she said.

Often, descriptors for women and how they work within organizations trend toward more relationship-oriented and collaborative traits, Carrillo said, because women are “culturally driven” to embrace such a nature.

To her point, a 2020 study led by a University of Arizona researcher found that female leaders “tend to be more democratic and participatory,” whereas their male counterparts “are more independent and assertive.”

The researchers, who analyzed data from several hundred managers of welfare and financial agencies in Denmark, identified three measures of leadership: transformational leadership, use of verbal rewards and use of material rewards. Results showed that workers on average rated women “significantly higher” than men in the transformational leadership category, with 72.2 points compared with 66.3 on a 100-point scale.

“Women aren’t better leaders; they just lead differently,” Walaski said. “And those different leadership styles can be complementary, and both can work within an organization for different kinds of situations and strategies.”

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