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How Can We Help Support Women’s Safety Leadership?

Pam Walaski, CSP, CHMM, ASSP at-large director
Jan 07, 2019

On Oct. 29, 2018, we hosted more than 50 safety experts for a Women’s Workplace Safety Summit. During this daylong event in Rosemont, Ill., sponsored by Amazon, three breakout groups met to address the gender-specific issues related to workplace violence, PPE and leadership. Pam Walaski, CSP, CHMM, facilitated the women in leadership group.

This article is part three of a three-part series designed to help safety professionals better understand the purpose of the summit and how we and our partners are working to remove the gender-related barriers to success for women.

Learn more about the workplace violence group from facilitator Kelly Bernish, CSP, founding member of our Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) Common Interest Group.

Learn more about the personal protective equipment (PPE) group from facilitator Abby Ferri, CSP, administrator of our Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) Common Interest Group. 

smiling business woman“Women face challenges in advancing into leadership positions in the occupational safety and health (OSH) profession.”

That problem statement served as the basis for our group’s daylong discussion. It also provided the foundation for our dialogue around three important questions:

  • Which factors demonstrate that women face challenges in advancing into leadership positions?
  • Which barriers prevent women from achieving upward movement in their organizations?
  • Which worker safety outcomes result from women facing challenges in advancing into leadership positions?

The Journey to Leadership Positions

Many women in the OSH profession can share stories of the challenges they have faced in advancing into leadership positions. However, we lack comprehensive and universally gathered and reported data to corroborate those personal experiences. While multiple organizations gather some information on women in leadership positions, no one source gathers and reports data specific to women in OSH leadership positions. Establishing this data source will be a critical step in stimulating change.

With respect to barriers that get in the way of upward movement, our discussion evolved from the typical focus on internal changes that women must make to be ready to assume a leadership role. Instead, we began a deeper conversation about the systemic changes that must occur to ensure that qualified women can move into those positions.

This crucial concept aligned with a key message from our keynote presenter, Cori Wong, Ph.D., assistant vice president for gender equity at Colorado State University, who highlighted the key difference between empowerment and support. Rather than empowering a woman to become an OSH leader, which assumes there is something intrinsic in the woman that needs to be changed or improved, organizational allies need to support women by removing the barriers that prevent them (and other marginalized people) from moving into positions for which they are already eminently qualified.

A growing body of evidence indicates that gender diversity within management improves a company's performance, so it’s reasonable to be concerned that the lack of women in OSH leadership positions could negatively affect worker safety. When an organizational culture lacks women in leadership positions, management is communicating a lack of inclusivity and alignment with business values. This affects perceived and actual safety and health risk to workers. In addition, the lack of a female perspective at the decision-making table potentially limits worker access to a more empathetic and collaborative environment.

Key Elements of Successful Support Initiatives

There have been and continue to be a wide range of efforts to advance women into OSH leadership roles. What sets the successful initiatives apart? Our group concluded that these actions are key:

  • Ensure that senior leaders are clear, consistent and transparent champions of the initiative.
  • Identify measures of success in advance, then track and report those outcomes to the entire organization.
  • Develop an effective communication plan before rollout so that everyone understands what is being done and why.
  • Promote the initiative as a way to foster a sense of community and shared purpose throughout the organization, rather than singling out some people as different or needy.
  • Tie outcomes to sustainable actions associated with succession planning.

Identifying Next Steps

Ultimately, influencing change in this area will require some difficult conversations. Needed across all levels of organizations, these discussions will enable the shift to a different paradigm that is focused on inclusive leadership. Achieving this requires opportunities to learn how to build the internal courage needed to open the dialogue and stay with the uncomfortable process.

The work started at the summit is only the beginning of our larger effort to move these issues forward with intent and purpose. Help us continue the conversation on these topics in the ASSP Community. Log in using your username and password, or create a new account to start sharing your insights and ideas on how we can create more leadership opportunities for women in the OSH field.


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