Despite being highly educated and making up nearly 50 percent of the workforce, women are greatly underrepresented in safety roles today. They are also just as underrepresented in safety leadership roles, too.
In fact, women account for less than half of the safety profession, and it’s been said that women struggle more in safety than in other industries when it comes to attaining coveted leadership roles(1).
This kind of reality is a challenge for women. It’s just as problematic for organizations. This so-called workforce “gap” means workplaces are less safe, and it can make organizations less profitable and productive as well.
To achieve better balance in our companies and in the industry as a whole, we need to be able to do better. We need to be able to do better when it comes to helping women enter into the industry, and we need to be able to do better in terms of helping them thrive in their safety careers. Let’s take a closer look at what the issues are and what potential solutions might be.
Women and Safety in the Modern Workplace
So how can we improve this “gap” in our industry? And how do we potentially increase diversity and inclusion within our very own companies?
The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) recently published a report on this very subject: the challenge of diversity and inclusion across the safety industry. The report covered challenges and opportunities for companies to boost safety, productivity, and profitability by creating a more inclusive workplace.
Using that report as a guide, here are 7 ways we can begin to address these challenges:
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Help women find mentors in the workplace
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Just like men can benefit from a support network, women need a strong network, too. Encourage your organization to become closer aligned with networks that support women. If your company is large enough, that may mean structured groups within your company. Those groups can and also should be external to the organization, too.
In addition, do your best to set up formal and informal ways of mentoring and coaching women in your workplace. That coaching can come from other women, and it should also come from men, too (1).
Make sure your organization gives women a voice
To help ensure all employees are safe, both men and women need a voice at the table. If they don’t have representation or a voice within the company, their perspectives really are lost (1).
This applies to safety, but it also applies to any discipline within an organization! All in all, if women aren’t represented and don’t have a way to make sure their differences are accounted for, these issues will remain.
Start working against biases
Most of us are at least somewhat aware of stereotypes that come with gender roles in the workplace. Consider training and education that can help combat these kind of stereotypes or biases that people can bring with them, often unconsciously, into the workplace.
When taken to an extreme, these kind of stereotypes or preconceived notions can be divisive and can hold women back in their careers. These biases can also encourage gossip, which is extremely destructive no matter the state of your culture. Make sure you take the steps to do all you can to work against these notions in your company.
Add structure to safeguard hiring and promotion practices
Taking steps to help people become more self-aware about potential preconceived notions is important. Another part of the picture: creating documented practices that will help to minimize or remove unconscious bias throughout the organization.
This should be throughout the entire employee experience: from recruiting to hiring to promotions to exit interviews (1).
So what might this look like? You want to be sure you have a standardized way of hiring, for example. You also can increase the number of activities you are doing in your recruitment process so that you make sure you are hiring from a diverse pool of employees. Last but not least, you can introduce more formal ways where people can give feedback and input so that opinions are heard and so that employees feel safe to voice concerns.
Some companies may already have these processes (or tools) in place, but consider reviewing them throughout the employee experience to make sure they are still aligned with what is best for your company.
Reach out to local communities
There’s often a lack of women in safety-related academic programs, but part of that is due to a lack of awareness about career opportunities in STEM careers.
If your company has the resources, consider getting involved in local communities or with local universities and colleges.
One study from the American Association of University Women found that among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say they intend to declare a STEM major (1). The reality is that if organizations and leaders can educate and inform women about the attractiveness of safety and health careers, more women will enter STEM-related degrees and careers.
Knowing that women make up about 50 percent of the workforce, working alongside local schools and universities is a long-term strategy that can support more women becoming involved in safety-related roles and careers (1).
Start the discussion
Problems or differences in the workplace can often be ignored. Or, we can simply make it a point to avoid talking about them entirely!
Instead, be more intentional about talking about differences as an organization.
Inclusion is made possible when these differences are identified, valued, embraced, and celebrated. To start to evolve your culture to be more inclusive, a great first step is to start talking about that commitment you have to both diversity and inclusion. In the process, don’t forget to explain and demonstrate why these efforts—and these differences—matter so much to the workforce (1).
Measure what you’re doing
If you don’t measure or monitor your initiatives or programs, you’ll never really know if they are succeeding or not. Make sure you have data that you collect that can tell you about the effectiveness of what you’re doing…or, at minimum, it can tell you ways to improve upon what you are doing. If you don’t have benchmarks and work against those benchmarks, you could be hurting your ability to support women in the workplace (1).
‘Closing the Gap’ Really Is About Safety
Organizations should strive to represent all types of workers. Doing so actually makes the workplace safer…not to mention more productive and more profitable.
Consider how workplace risks that are specific to women can be overlooked if no one acknowledges or identifies these as risks to begin with! If no one is attuned to the risks because it doesn’t reflect the majority, then the hazards and risks will remain (1).
Research shows that women are in fact faced with different workplace hazards and risks than man. Just think about the increased risk of workplace violence that women face. A few other examples include carpal tunnel syndrome, anxiety and stress disorders, and improperly fitting PPE (1).
All in all, most would agree that safety always has to be customized and personal to be effective. For that to be true, companies need to advocate for and fully support women with solutions that are designed for—and designed by—women.
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