Professional development

Women and safety leadership: ‘A cultural shift’

Current climate and future outlook

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation/Flickr

Efforts for equity

In some respects, Carrillo said, the cultural climate creates an intuitive pathway for women to enter EHS professions.

“Human beings are not logical decision-making machines,” she said. “We’re primarily emotional, social beings, and women are raised to pay attention to the people and emotions and to get people to work together and collaborate. All of those have become wholly appreciated skills in the workplace. And in safety it’s really good, because people that are attracted to safety tend to be very purpose-driven people concerned about people. They want to contribute something positive in the world, so women are going to be attracted to this field because it is a place where they can fulfill their purpose and realize their talents.”

Martin also encourages leaders in the safety community to reach out and invite women to consider a turn in safety, as part of their professional journey. Exploring a new opportunity can inspire the potential for tremendous growth.

“There’s a great appetite to get more voices at the table right now,” Martin said. “We’re all going to be safer when we have the broadest set of recommendations, perspectives and viewpoints. When everyone’s at the table, we generate better solutions to help people live fuller lives – something we all should commit to.”

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.

Kelly Bernish

For Freeman, one way female safety pros and leaders can boost influence and equality in the workplace is to take gender out of the equation, beginning with their own cognitive processes. Approach a job task or situation not as a female safety pro, but as a safety pro – period.

“If you believe they’re viewing you as a girl and they’re talking to you the way that they are because you’re a girl, then that’s how you’re going to portray it. Instead of, ‘This is my co-worker. This is what I’d like to learn,’” she said. “That’s why I say take gender out of it and take the fact you’re a woman out of your own head. And there will be challenges; I’m not denying that. But you’ve just got to stay strong and stay steady.”

As female safety pros build relationships and influencing skills, however, additional issues may arise as they balance others’ perceptions or stereotypes.

“I think there’s still a stigma around a woman who’s kind of a bit confident and very goal-oriented, that she may be labeled aggressive,” Thunich said. “That’s just something that we as women continue to struggle with. I think we are held to a different standard than male counterparts, you know. I think in the past, that’s been a challenge, where I’ll observe those behaviors in my male counterparts, but also those things may be identified more visibly because I’m a woman.

“So I think there’s still some of that that goes on that’s difficult, and again, I think it comes down to this is work that the organizations need to do. This is not one company’s problem. It’s a cultural shift that has to happen in the workplace in general.”

Experts stress that many positive developments are afoot.

“We just need to have the time to see it play through,” Thunich said.

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