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Women in Safety: How to Attract, Retain and Develop a Diverse Workforce

Sept. 27, 2019
Three industry leaders provide insight into the challenges and opportunities women face in their safety careers.

In the American workforce, women have long struggled to have a voice, no matter the industry in which they aspire to build their careers.

Female safety professionals in particular face a dynamic set of obstacles as they work to climb the leadership ladder and have a say in decisions that directly impact the injury and illness rates of a diverse workplace. 

This conundrum most recently was examined in “Women and Safety in the Modern Workplace: Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace,” a report the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) released in April 2019.

“Diversifying the safety profession is not about meeting quotas. It’s really about safety,” states Jennifer McNelly, ASSP CEO in the organization’s report. “We want to create work environments that ensure that all employees are safe. If women — or any other group — don’t have a voice at the table, then their perspectives are lost, along with opportunities to protect the workforce at large.”

EHS Today recently gathered insight from three safety leaders who described their personal experiences and the strides the industry has made to becoming a more inclusive environment.

EHS Today: What challenges did you see in your career?  How did you overcome them?

Holly Burgess, EHS manager, Siemens Mobility Inc.:  I started my career almost 20 years ago when EHS was mainly male dominated and women were just starting to come into this part of the workforce. A lot of times it was hard for people to take me seriously. I found that if I took the time to listen to people and respect their opinions, that the respect became mutual. Once you have that, it’s a lot easier to get buy-in from people. This is something that I have kept with me throughout my career. 

Kathleen Dobson, safety director, Alberici Constructors: One of the issues I faced was coming into an industry (union construction) I knew very little about. The culture, the workforce, the work environment were all much different than what I was used to. Additionally, I was the first woman most of the workers saw in a leadership/management position as a safety director. So I was frequently challenged to prove myself as to what I knew and how I was going to deal with the issues I faced. The one thing that helped me more than anything else was once I understood that almost everyone I worked with knew more about construction than I did. From young, inexperienced apprentices to veteran workers – all of them had worked with their hands, were builders and creators, and most knew a lot about safe work. I allowed myself to be the student and learned from them as I became indoctrinated into the construction culture. Once I wasn’t thought of as the enemy, but rather as a collaborator, my work became much easier. 

Adrianne Pearson, owner, Evolving EHS: Some of the challenges include not gaining a seat at the table with decision-makers or having my voice heard. Being pushed aside, ignored or not dealt with by superiors, some who are nearing the end of their careers. Some ways I overcame this is being open to learning the personality traits and work behaviors of those I work with. I worked at gaining an understanding of how those I work with obtain and receive information. If it’s technical, then present my case from a technical standpoint. If it is money/costs (which most of the time it is), then present my case from that standpoint. 

EHS Today: What opportunities do you see for women in the safety industry?

Burgess: EHS overall has so many opportunities. There are many different specialties that have broken off from just general EHS, which opens it up for more women. Also, a lot of us have paved the way for other women to start going into EHS. I am amazed at the support system that I have seen come out in the past few years. Most of us that started in this field a long time ago did not have that type of support system. You may have had support from local groups, but it was nothing in comparison to what we have today!  And we have made such an impact that manufacturers are now starting to look at personal protective equipment (PPE) specifically for women!  There is opportunity to make a difference not in just certain industries where you work, but a large overall difference in standards.  

Dobson: Women can make a big difference in the industry, whether in the trades or in management. The opportunities are almost endless, as companies understand that their own growth and success is built partially on a diverse and collaborative workforce. The glass ceiling is ready to be demolished and reconstructed with people who support inclusion, diversity, dependability and leadership. When women make up 50% of the overall workforce, we should be able to represent more than 9 or 10% of the construction workforce, and companies are beginning to recognize that there is untapped talent in the workplace.  

Pearson: There are many!  If you’re willing, listen and are open-minded you’ll be able to understand what the needs are so that you can be the solution to the needs.   

EHS Today: What advice can you give to safety leaders/companies about attracting, developing and retaining talent?

Burgess: When it comes to having talent in the workforce, there are a few things that need to be done to bring in talent and keep them there. When you bring in someone, it has to be somewhere that they want to be – somewhere inviting. The last thing someone wants to be is in a work environment where they are not comfortable or where management truly doesn’t feel that safety is number one. Managers have to WANT the talent they bring in and do whatever they can to keep it. So, how do you keep it? The main thing is building relationships. Build a relationship with the person. Take that information and help them grow.

Dobson: Attracting talent is easy. Keeping it and developing it is a challenge a lot of organizations don’t put a lot of effort into. As companies and leaders look to attract, develop and retain women in construction, I’d recommend looking at issues related to PPE, sanitation, ergonomics and policies related to a safe work culture for the field workforce. Identify what’s important both new and experienced members of your corporate team. Some of the issues I’ve seen for women and men are having policies on work-life balance; supporting families; give opportunities for education; be aware of mental health issues in your industry; always have a mentorship program for new talent; and offer real opportunities for new experiences for everyone. 

Pearson: Don’t be quick to judge people. Give people the opportunity to speak, let their voice be heard so that their ideas and thoughts are said. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Follow-through is extremely important. When interest is shown/demonstrated, take advantage of it. When excitement/enthusiasm is noticeable and seen, foster it and give people the tools to keep that going. Know and encourage people to identify their personality traits. This does not put people into boxes but rather helps with knowing how people receive and interpret information. Be sure to recognize and give credit to people, whether that’s in front of colleagues (staff meetings, other meetings, etc.) or at large gatherings (social events, BBQs, etc.). 

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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