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Gender Diversity in the Safety Profession: Why Equality Is Not Equity

Feb 09, 2023
Two safety professional women looking at a desktop computer at the office

Diversity, equity and inclusion are much more than just buzzwords.

“A diverse safety function is more likely to understand the issues faced by a diverse workforce and be more effective in preventing illnesses, injuries and fatalities,” according to a recent report by L’Oréal and ERM on women in safety and health.

Yet the report points to a mix of progress and stagnancy in women’s experience in the safety and health industry, where just 19% of workers are women, compared to nearly 50% of the overall U.S. workforce.

Consider this: While most organizations have structured programs in place to target the leadership development needs of women, most say they’re not helping move the needle on women promoted into leadership positions, the report says.

What’s more interesting: Men and women feel differently about how women are treated and the opportunities afforded them. Men feel much more positive about these issues than women do.

Don’t Confuse Equality With Equity

Most safety processes, policies and frameworks fail to consider differences between genders, according to the report. A desire for equality may push the focus away from equity, which ensures people are treated fairly based on their different circumstances.

While 61% of the report's respondents say working conditions are adapted to their gender needs and circumstances, only 40% agree that policies and/or procedures implemented consider the differences between genders — and just 15% say they fully consider them.

“We treated everyone the same for so long it can be difficult to anticipate and plan for individual needs,” one survey respondent said.

Additionally, respondents say existing protocols that make these considerations often center around maternity rather than on women globally.

There’s also a clear difference in perception around these policies and procedures. Specifically, 70% of women say the policies and procedures do not or only moderately make these considerations, while 70% of men say they moderately to greatly make these considerations.

It Goes Beyond a Process or a Program

Although more than half of companies reported having a structured program for developing women leaders in place for more than three years, these programs are having limited impact. In fact, 60% of respondents say those programs are ineffective — a number that climbs to 75% when specific to leadership positions in safety and health.

“There is no role model and sometimes it’s difficult when you go into a room, and everyone is senior, older and male,” one respondent says. “You get more challenged in your opinions. My opinion is undermined.”

The Safety Profession Lags in Terms of Organizational Support

As far as organizational support goes, 37% report their company’s organizational climate fully supports the development of women leaders. That number drops to 23% when specific to safety and health professionals.

Here again, perceptions between men and women differ greatly. When asked if the organizational climate supports the development of women leaders, the majority of women say to a “small extent,” while the majority of men say to a “great extent.”

Women Made Gains in Representation But Barriers Remain

Both men and women say that work-life balance and lack of opportunities for career advancement are among the top three factors preventing women from advancing in a safety and health career. However, women identified the “gender credibility gap” as their second-biggest barrier, while men cited “willingness to relocate.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Based on the survey results, the report shared suggestions and resources for addressing these gender gaps.

  1. Start with leadership. Leaders should start with a self-examination: What are their blind spots or hidden agendas? Have they embraced or ignored diversity as a business directive? To break gender bias, leaders can rely on the same tools used for building a safety culture and transformational engagements driven by courageous conversations across all levels.
  2. Assume public commitments. When senior leaders assume public commitments, they are more likely to act on those commitments, the report says. Companies may be signatories of initiatives such as the sustainable development goals or women’s empowerment principles.
  3. Advocate for women. The report recommends visiting the International Women’s Day website to find practical guidance on how to effectively address biased situations. As the report shows, “perspectives may differ when analyzed by men and women, so these open discussions about bias are an opportunity for finding ‘common ground’ and increasing understanding for both men and women.”
  4. Take a data-driven approach. It’s widely known that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t exist. Allocate resources for analyzing the current gender situation to understand next steps and define strategies, actions, performance indicators and measurement schedules. Check out the guidance from the European Institute for Gender Equity on gender institutional transformation to explore how your organization can take planned and coordinated steps toward organizational change and external influence.

The report was completed through a global survey of 205 people and supplemented with select interviews.

We Are Committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

We aim to provide an organizational culture that is diverse, inclusive and advances equity across all aspects of our Society. We know that bringing together, listening to and incorporating a wide range of perspectives makes us stronger and workplaces safer.

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