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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Women in safety

MARGARET VAN SCHAIK, founder of the Women in Safety NZ networking group, on encouraging more women to enter H&S and enabling them to flourish.

Women in Safety’s aims include collaboration, promoting the health and safety profession, and providing support and mentoring through regular networking. The network includes not only health and safety generalists but also those working in occupational health, human factors, occupational hygiene and those working in health and safety regulation.

Health and safety has historically been a male-dominated profession and still is in other countries. In New Zealand we have seen this change over the last 10 years. The 2017 HASANZ Health and Safety Professionals Survey showed a split of around 53% men and 47% women respondents.

Women in H&S face issues include unconscious bias, juggling children and work demands, and pay inequity. Unconscious gender bias is defined as unintentional and automatic mental associations based on gender, stemming from traditions, norms, values, culture and/or experience.


Unconscious bias is something many of our members have experienced personally. Many women working in the health and safety sector have worked extremely hard to develop their careers and to gain respect from their male counterparts. Many of our members have stories to tell about male colleagues openly challenging them in front of others about their experience and qualifications and their ability to do the job, being passed over for promotions or being mistaken for the company secretary (and being asked to take minutes at meetings!).

Unconscious gender bias remains a significant barrier to women’s career advancement in many professions, not just health and safety. The International Labour Organisation has recognised this as a significant issue in many countries and has completed research on overcoming unconscious gender bias in the workplace.

To help overcome gender bias in our workplaces we can ensure that hiring and promotion processes extend equal opportunities to both men and women. We can focus on having better conversations, transparency and accountability; and on having structured recruitment and performance evaluation systems.

Then there is the raising family/career juggle. Most mothers understand juggling work and raising families can be physically and emotionally draining. The struggle is very real for many. Many working mums often feel guilty and don’t get enough time out.

To better support working mothers organisations can offer flexible working conditions, including job sharing options or flexible working hours and locations of work. Many large organisations in New Zealand already offer these benefits. Family and community support are equally important.


Another challenge that women can face is pay inequity. The gender pay gap is a high-level indicator of the difference between women and men’s earnings. Earlier this year Statistics New Zealand announced that the gender pay gap was 9.2 percent. The gender pay gap has reduced since 1998 (16.3 percent), but has stalled in the last decade.

The causes of the gender pay gap are complex and attitudes, biases and behaviours are inter-related. There are still deeply held societal attitudes and beliefs about the types of work that are appropriate for men and women, the relative importance of occupations where men or women dominate, and the allocation of unpaid work (eg caring for children and housework).

In July 2018, the State Services and Women’s Ministers jointly announced an action plan to eliminate the gender pay gap in the public service. There are also other initiatives under way in New Zealand to address the gender pay gap.


Another barrier which can prevent or discourage women from progressing further in their H&S careers includes a lack of support and mentoring from others into leadership roles. In the early days of my own career there were no women working in leadership roles in the health and safety profession. This is now changing.

Personally, I’ve had a number of great supportive mentors in my career who have been men (mostly engineers who have gone on to work in health and safety). These people provided me with support and mentoring. It is important that as women we provide support and mentoring to other women in our profession to assist them in their career development.

Health and safety can be highly competitive and we need a different approach to grow our profession in New Zealand. We talk a lot about the skillset of the modern H&S practitioner and the Safety II approach. Our profession often focuses on core technical skills which are fundamental, but we also need many other skills to be effective in our roles. These include:

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    Communication skills; the ability to listen and communicate effectively is imperative in our profession.
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    Emotional intelligence; the ability to read and respond to others across all levels of an organisation. This also includes the ability to show empathy.
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    Leadership skills; authentic leadership and the ability to influence positive outcomes.
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    Coaching/mentoring; providing support and coaching to enable better H&S outcomes.
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    Facilitation/teaching; educating across all levels of an organisation is fundamental to culture change.

Women often have a natural aptitude for these skills and use a different approach that doesn’t involve ego. Women are good listeners and are able to respond with emotional intelligence. Many of these skills directly align with the Safety II approach where the focus is on people as a solution.

On the flipside, women may lack the confidence to take the lead. This is why mentoring and support are so important.


New Zealand is only just beginning to understand the role and skillset of a health and safety professional and how this can add value to businesses. Health and safety has long been recognised as a profession in other countries, including the United States, UK, Europe and Australia. Contrary to what many young Kiwi women think, a career in health and safety can be fulfilling and rewarding. Working in health and safety provides opportunities to work across many different industries at both a national and international level. There are no boring work stories in our profession.

We should do our best to promote health and safety as a viable career option from a younger age through schools and to explain the different skillsets required to consider a career in health and safety. This should ideally include the different areas of specialisation including health and safety generalists, occupational health specialists, human factors specialists, and careers in the regulatory space.


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