Why women in safety must be brave and bring their own voice

Recent Women in Safety U.S. roundtable debated industry issues, including how to deal with bias and discrimination to progress your career

Why women in safety must be brave and bring their own voice

Be brave, bring your own voice, and encourage the next generation of women in safety with the same passion you bring to your job.

These were just some of the messages that reverberated around our screens at the recent Women in Safety U.S virtual event, which delved into some of the biggest trends in the industry during the pandemic, and explored how women in the industry can progress their careers and overcome bias in the workplace. To watch the full event, click on this link.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Karen McDonnell, the head of OHS policy at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which is dedicated to saving lives from serious accidental injury. Dr. McDonnell took on industry issues with input from: Ana Reyes, director of global health and safety for Northland Power, Sheri Wood Hanson, director of health safety and environment for Schneider Electric; Mark Roche, global director of occupational health and safety, and sustainability, for Automotive Inc; and Shelley Brown, Corporate Safety Director, Bergelectric.

Roche set the scene by providing a male perspective, albeit it from someone raised by a single mom. He cited numerous examples of resistance on the shop floor to female safety colleague trying to move the industry forward and warned that the OHS world must get over this barrier.

“There is this perception that there’s [always] a lady trying to come in and give advice to tell a skilled trade worker how to do the job safer,” he said. “That’s always been a barrier and it's something that has to be overcome by the industry, and by all of us within the trade. Regardless of who the messenger is, the message is important.

“We have to be brave, and we have to be bold, and stick to our guns and come with proper articulate arguments as to why we ought to make those changes.”

Roche added that, through his own mom, he’s seen firsthand how women have to strive to get to that next level. He warned that, because of the challenges, many of which are deeply unfair, it takes guts and stamina. “It also takes having a voice and really going after what you want, being vocal about it, and also approaching it with passion and experience.”

Reyes broke down the challenges women face into two areas – internal and external. The latter includes potentially hurtful comments from peers and colleagues, and going for promotions, while the internal issues centre around self-belief and trusting that you’re ready to make the next step in your career.

She cautioned, however, that there is never an end game to this and that it’s a continuous journey.

She said: “Confidence is about being willing to try things and being out of your comfort zone. Then you get it and move to the next step. It’s constantly about trying – and that’s how I have overcome the challenges that I faced in my career.”

Wood Hanson added that having strength of character is so important when faced with people making judgements based on your gender or sexuality. She added: “You’ve got to have guts to say, ‘I can't change how that person thinks but I can change how I react, and use that to motivate you and give you strength to get to wherever you want to go. Setting the bar higher than what everybody expects you to set – that’s how you'll succeed in this industry.”

For Brown, her career path has involved working with a lot of people that did not look like her, and who had all followed very homogenous career paths. She said the idea of what qualifies you to do those higher-level jobs was really cemented in a certain type of progression.

As minds have changed about what a career could look like, she found that bringing an alternative view to the table was actually her “superpower”.

“In a room of people that were maybe thinking alike about a certain problem, I could bring this really alternative perspective to the table,” she said. “It was about learning to be a good listener, hearing the conversation and learning what I didn't know from people that thought differently first … then I began to feel really confident about bringing my different perspective to the table.”

To watch the full Women in Safety U.S. event, click on this link.