The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘break the bias’. We ask nine women in the OSH profession how we can create a world free of discrimination.
Two years into the pandemic and its impact on gender equality around the world is clear. The sectors most affected by COVID-19 and associated restrictions – health and social care, retail, hospitality and domestic work – have mostly female workforces. Women have faced an unprecedented rise in workload, health risks and changes to work/life balance (European Commission, 2021).
Despite little change in levels of bias against women in the past 12 months, there have been efforts to tackle gender stereotypes and discrimination. ‘It’s been great to see conversations, plans and actions across many organisations to reduce gender bias,’ says Fayola Francis, IOSH equality diversity and inclusion lead. ‘Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought new challenges.’
International Women’s Day highlights the great work that women are doing around the world to break through the glass ceiling, according to Ellis Fenwick, safety, health and environmental adviser at Luminate Education Group. ‘We’re seeing more women in roles of power, which is hopefully contributing to dispelling gender bias,’ she says.
The day is also an opportunity to reflect on the contributions women make to OSH. IOSH magazine spoke to nine female leaders across the globe to find out more.
Founder, The Safety Chic, Nigeria
The starting point should be more education, including assessment tools that measure how we see bias in everyday examples, Ugochi says.
‘This is important because there might be things people take for granted but are actually bias that is unknown to them,’ she adds.
Ugochi says gender bias keeps happening because it hasn’t been properly handled in organisations. ‘There are workplaces that condone it either by turning a blind eye or not meting out justice when reports are made,’ she says.
‘These actions do not boost confidence in women to speak up and so many suffer in silence. Calling it out and taking the right stance to protect women will ensure they feel emotionally safe in the workplace.’
Taking action: Promoting gender equality
‘Some outdated government policies create a view that women are weak and require additional protection, and some workplaces are reluctant to recruit them. Collective efforts should be made to go beyond developing policies and procedures to ensure equality and non-discrimination.’
Dr Aseni Wickramatillake
‘Ensure that equality and diversity is on the agenda and regularly discussed at a higher level, with realistic plans to achieve this – for example, ensuring equal representation and providing
equal opportunities to women.’
‘There needs to be more support and conversations around gender bias in the workplace in safe spaces where women can talk about situations and allow men to actively challenge their own internalised stereotypes.’
‘It is important that, from the top, information is shared on where we want to go with regards to reducing gender bias in our countries, businesses and the OSH profession.’
‘By providing knowledge from mentors and access to C-suite operations from sponsors, the gender gap can be decreased with regard to pay, diversity, equality and inclusion.’
Dr Aseni Wickramatillake
Technical adviser, Workplace Safety and Health Association, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka had the world’s first female prime minister (in 1960), but its society is still dominated by the belief that a woman’s role is in the home, meaning many women aren’t given equal work opportunities, says Aseni.
In her career she has experienced bias when coping with a heavy workload or working late at night. ‘There have been many instances where I have conducted site evaluations under harsh environmental conditions that male colleagues thought would be overwhelming,’ she says.
‘By being prepared in advance for the work conditions, with extensive prior preparation for the tasks, and completing the task over and beyond the expectations, I earned respect from male colleagues.’
Aseni believes gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping should be addressed early in women’s lives, creating more awareness among parents and educators in providing equal educational opportunities.
EHS manager, AnCam region (Andes and Central America covering Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia), Givaudan Colombia SAS
Working on empathy and respect while establishing healthy working environments and codes of conduct is crucial to preventing gender bias, according to Diana. ‘I think it is necessary to work in communication channels, in training people on biases, creating codes of behaviour that promote respect and equal conditions and establishing processes for conflict resolution,’ she says.
Diana is proud of her work integrating psychosocial risk within OSH management systems in Colombia. ‘It has allowed me to understand the fine line between psychosocial risk, wellbeing and health, and to look for strategies that will contribute to reducing more than one risk at a time,’ she adds.
Top Tips: How to break the bias
- Confront bias head-on. ‘It might be that the person is unaware that what they’re saying may cause offence, so giving someone the opportunity to learn and apologise for their behaviour would always be the recommended course of action,’ says Ellis.
- Focus on objectives and demonstrate results. ‘Never lower your head, always follow through with your goals, one day at a time,’ says Diana.
- Provide equal opportunities in different career paths for women from an early age. ‘I think there is more unconscious gender bias within every society, which stems from traditions, culture and experience,’ says Aseni.
- Get a mentor and have conversations about how you can succeed as a woman, says Gill.
- Join affinity groups within and outside your organisation. ‘When you have a rally of allies behind you, it becomes easier,’ says Kesi.
- Never feel afraid to ask for help. ‘This could involve counselling, speaking to the HR department and lodging a grievance, or getting professional assistance if the situation is one that cannot be handled on a personal level,’says Sheena.
Group health and safety specialist, Sun International, South Africa
Workplace education is critical to prevent bias and discrimination, says Sheena. ‘We naturally categorise individuals into classes or strata,’ she says. ‘But while we have genetic differences, we are all capable of the same or similar things.’
Sheena is proud of creating a safer working environment for her organisation in South Africa. ‘When I started at our corporate office in 2017, there was no real strategic direction when it came to health and safety,’ she says.
‘Over the years I have created the organisation’s health, safety and wellness strategy, obtained leadership buy-in and support to drive various health and safety initiatives, and observed a mindset shift in leadership and our employees around doing the right thing and protecting our people.’
‘Safety Diva™’, CEO and President, CDT EHS Consulting, US
Crystal describes a situation when she was not invited to an executive meeting that she had prepared for as part of the construction safety team in an insurance company because she had cut her hair
and gone ‘natural’.
She’s also been on construction sites where people didn’t want to work with her or share a trailer because of her gender or colour, and has received uncomfortable comments about her sexuality and age.
people are unaware of prejudices they hold that influence decisions
‘As an African-American woman in a white male-dominated industry, I have seen these obstacles first-hand – and overcame them with a mix of tenacity, personality and passion for safety. I continue to be ‘Safety Diva™’ and do not give in to façades of conformity,’ she says.
Leadership and change consultant, UK
A resident of Grenfell Tower in west London from 2011 to 2014, Gill lost seven former neighbours when the building was destroyed by fire in 2017. Her book Catastrophe and systemic change, is dedicated to them.
‘The book considers the complexities surrounding systemic change,’ she says. ‘Change requires disruption and challenge. I think if you’re a woman and you challenge [ideas], you are seen in a different way from a man.
‘I’ve experienced a lot of gender bias because I challenge people. As a woman I’m seen as problematic or difficult. Before I understood the gender bias, it made me question the validity of my thinking or speaking.
‘Grenfell changed me – it’s not for me that I’m speaking up; I have to speak up because 72 people died. I’m now quite proud of these “problematic and difficult” labels and don’t worry about them.’
Equality, diversity and inclusion: Making everyday inclusion a reality
Fayola Francis became IOSH equality diversity and inclusion lead in November. She is leading a review of diversity and inclusion at IOSH to identify areas for improvement.
‘We want every IOSH member, volunteer and colleague to be treated inclusively, regardless of their religion, nationality, socioeconomic background, disability, neurodiversity, mental health, academic background, sexual orientation and more,’ Fayola says.
Like OSH, inclusion isn’t an ‘optional extra’ but an imperative that must be integrated. ‘All IOSH policies, e-learning and competency frameworks are tied to the core value of integrity,’ Fayola adds. ‘Avoiding discrimination, bias and stereotyping is a great first step but we’d like members to go even further and be actively inclusive.’
Safety, health and environmental adviser, Luminate Education Group, UK
As a member of the IOSH Future Leaders Steering Group, Ellis promotes OSH as a first career choice, dispelling the idea that the profession is only accessible to those with 30 to 40 years in the industry.
‘The world of OSH is diversifying,’ she says. ‘Equality, diversity and inclusivity initiatives are integral to tackling bias, and increasingly having women in senior roles who can challenge gender preconceptions. Globally, providing equal opportunities to females is integral.’
Ellis has experienced bias, but has been able to resolve situations by using them to challenge preconceptions about women in OSH. ‘I know I have a lot of skills and knowledge to bring to the table, so I let these speak for themselves through the work I do.’
Health and safety assessor, CHAS – Constructors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme, UK
When Kesi tells people about her job, a common response is: ‘You don’t get many women doing that, do you?’ She says: ‘It seems like something very small but, particularly in my early career, it told me internally that I didn’t belong. It fed into impostor syndrome and made me overwork to prove myself.’
Kesi started to attend events for women and engage with other female OSH professionals, which boosted her self-esteem. ‘Meeting accomplished professionals who had overcome some of the obstacles I was experiencing was inspirational and affirming.
‘People are unaware of prejudices they hold and how they influence decisions, making this harder to address. There needs to be industry-wide uptake of actively challenging this.’
European Commission. (2021) Report on gender equality in the EU. See: https://ec.europa.eu/info/files/2021-report-on-gender-equality-in-the-eu_en (accessed 1 December 2021).