Women in Safety: A force for change

Canadian Occupational Safety successfully held the inaugural Women in Safety event this year in Calgary

Women in Safety: A force for change
The conference provided us a good perspective of hope that things are changing.

This year marks the first time the event was held; the inaugural edition was hosted in Calgary on March 5 at Delta Calgary Downtown. The conference played out over the day, with panels focusing on current issues facing women in the workplace, notably PPE and gender-based workplace harassment. Occupational health and safety specialists gathered to discuss the importance of women in the safety field.

We touched base with three key participants to discuss the day’s events and issues facing women in the workplace: chairperson Sheri Benson, founder of Calgary-based Thrive Safety Consulting; Stephanie Benay, director of safety system & assurance at BC Hydro, and Reshma Sukdhoe, corporate health and safety specialist with the Electric Safety Authority of Ontario. Benay and Sukdhoe spoke on the day’s first panel, overcoming common barriers: climbing the corporate ladder.

This year’s media partner for the event was grass-roots organization Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society (WOHSS), of which Benay and Sukdhoe are members as vice chairperson and director, respectively.

Benay said of the event: “That entire day was a career highlight for me — it was phenomenal. The conversation was frank and authentic… It was amazing… Being there to share the experience of 25 years and to answer some really good questions, [it was] a safe space to answer questions they couldn’t necessarily ask in their workspaces.”

The event was stacked with specialists whose main goal for the day was to discuss how they can improve women’s experience in the workplace. Benson was the ideal chairperson for the event and her opening and closing remarks bookended the day perfectly. Of her experience, she says: “It was an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to share my journey and what led me to start consulting. It was well received and I got a lot of good feedback.”

Breaking the glass ceiling
One of the key themes of the event was the idea of climbing the corporate ladder. Still, one of the main problems getting in the way of women acceding to management positions is the lack of confidence they have. Says Benay, “Moving ahead in organizations is a problem for us. In safety, the general issues are managing the biases… advocating and embracing your career.”

She says women often struggle with imposter syndrome. That, in combination with the fact that they are often having to justify their safety expertise and credibility on a daily basis, does not build confidence. “If you admit to not knowing or being wrong, the judgment that is bestowed upon you stays for a very long time. You have to be twice as good and twice as smart. It’s a shame that we are not given the privilege of making mistakes and being forgiven for them. It is what makes us human,” Benay says.

Luckily, our cover stars think that things are moving in the right direction. Says Sukdhoe, “[The industry] changed and it’s changing very quickly.”

She says there are now more women in senior roles and that a change is happening. “I think in the next five to 10 years we’re going to see women coming into health and safety roles and women getting more confident and wanting to study this as a career path… There’s lots of scholarships out there for women… We have societies which want to empower women, network and bring them up through their career.”

Our three cover stars all have one thing in common: a desire to help mentor other women, to inspire other women to join the OHS space, which is still largely dominated at the highest level by men.

“I find that there are mostly health and safety specialists and managers [that are women],” says Sukdhoe. “Rarely do you get women getting into director and VP roles. I’m not sure why considering how important it is. This was a role that was male dominated, it was not something women wanted to aspire to be before.” She adds, “In my experience, if you’re in a meeting and you’re surrounded by all males, everything you say is analyzed to a greater degree. Women are so conscious of that.”

On the plus side, Sukdhoe says that “women are becoming more confident and given more opportunities; now that the risks are more addressed in the workplace, it’s something that they can see themselves doing.”

Feeling the pressure
With all the pressures facing women in the workplace, it is no surprise that mental well-being is such a huge concern. Benson started her company, Thrive Safety Consulting, with a focus on organizational culture and putting the “health” back in health and safety. After experiencing first-hand just how important mental well-being in the workplace is, she felt called to help people realize the same.

 “Mental health is such a huge issue,” she says. “Without strong management and with toxic culture, you can’t heal in that environment.”

Benson continues, “The conference was a celebration for me in the sense where the switch turned on, where I felt like I really stepped into what I had been working toward. Basically, a dream come true for me to be on that stage and sharing my story. It was a very empowering moment for me, and I know this is just the beginning.”

Mental well-being was one of the many important conversations that dominated the conference.

One thing that each of our interviewees highlighted were qualities that women are uniquely able to bring to the table in the safety sector; although the ultimate aim is that it is important to shine a spotlight on what makes women such essential players in the field.

Sukdhoe says that “women display a lot of qualities that are very important in this role. People want to be able to connect with you.”

Benson tells a similar story. “Safety still has that stigma of being a safety cop or a safety officer, and I think that women bring that nurturing spirit to the table in those cases. What it comes down to is building trust. Being vulnerable in a professional setting has long been taboo… My focus is always on building those connections and establishing trust so [workers] feel comfortable speaking to me — I think that really bridges some of those gaps that we’ve seen.”

Benay concurs. “What we want is the same opportunity, but we need to embrace the fact that we’re different, we bring some great qualities to the workplace.” She continues, “It should be wonderful to be a woman in safety, and if it’s not, we need to make it be.”

Guiding young hopefuls
The topic of mentorship got a lot of traction during the event. There is a genuine desire to help each other out and to work together to create a fairer and more welcoming space for women in the sector. Our interviewees highlighted this piece as one of the standout moments of the event. Many women starting out their careers in the sector are looking to more established figures to help guide them.

Sukdhoe says, “I spoke about many of my personal stories; and after my panel, I had so many women come up to me and say ‘Wow, I felt that you were telling my story.’”

Our cover stars each impressed the importance of mentorship, although the concept is not entirely a woman’s task; men were largely present at the conference and are an essential part of the effort not only to learn about best practices but also to help inspire women to join the field.

Benay explained that WOHSS has created a mentorship program and that male colleagues are invited to participate so that they can better understand a woman’s experience in the workplace.

Benson adds: “I’d say that we’re moving in the right direction. We see the men there supporting the women.”

Indeed, it is important for men to be a part of such an important conversation, as gender-based progress cannot solely be carried by women. This is an ever-growing conversation that needs to be constantly held by men and women. All specialists need to be involved to push forward topics that need to be faced and to find solutions that affect everyone in the space.

Networking for success
Another hugely popular part of the WIS event was the networking opportunities. One of her favourite parts of the day, says Benson, was hearing people so empowered and inspired during the networking breaks. “Seeing the level of engagement — I’d not really seen that before at a conference. It made my heart happy!”

She continues: “I was surprised, I would say that I’m in a younger demographic and I had a lot of women who were probably around my age and younger asking me about how I got into the industry. [Realizing] I could be a mentor to a young woman just starting her OHS career, that was a really neat thing.”

“I was thoroughly impressed by the turnout and the interest on that day, to see such a large group of ladies in health and safety come together,” says Sukdhoe. “As a woman that’s so passionate about this, it was such a great feeling. The other good thing was networking with other women in safety, to know that you’re feeling the same way.”

This need and desire to network is one of the essential parts of WOHSS. Benay recalls: “We started about three years ago in a pub… It’s grown exponentially in the last few years. [When] it started, it was like ‘Can we do this?’ We each brought a different skill to the table. In the last two years, we’ve gone national. As soon as people heard about it, we were inundated. We’ve really seen benefits in the networking aspect — even to vent!”

It is essential to provide a safe space for women to gather and be able to exchange, inspire and empower each other. The event was an important platform for discussion, and a place to hopefully come up with productive solutions for issues that directly affect them. At the end of the day, that’s what events like these are all about.

Looking toward the future
Nevertheless, there remain many issues for women in safety to overcome, many of which were discussed during the event. Benay spotlights changes that need to be made with regards to workplace harassment. “One thing that hasn’t changed — physical safety is still an issue. For women in remote areas, working alone, in 25 years, that hasn’t changed. Sexual harassment is definitely still there; what’s changed is that women are much more vocal about it. Language around it is very different.”

She also mentions another huge issue facing women — PPE. “Having PPE that fits you properly and is comfortable is critical to being able to do your job.”

Benay highlights the importance of provincial and federal legislation in pushing forward progress.

“We affect some very interesting changes when the government drives… I see it in the difference between B.C. and Alberta. Advocacy is a priority for the organization [WOHSS]. We’ve been looking at building relationships, we want to become a valuable resource for governments.”

After the roaring success of this year’s event, no doubt next year will be even bigger and better. One thing is clear though and that is that women are here for each other and want each other to succeed. Another thing? They’re here to stay.

“It’s not just about overcoming, you can thrive… Sometimes, we’re fighting against things; it can feel very slow sometimes. The conference provided us a good perspective of hope that things are changing,” says Benson.

“In this role, I realized that you can give so much. It has such an impact on people’s lives,” says Sukdhoe. “I think that if you’re working around women who are confident and empowered, they won’t actually feel threatened by you; they will support you to get your job done. [It’s about] sharing your story, empowering other women and uplifting them.”