Recent research has revealed that women in leadership positions within health and safety show lower levels of innovation, confidence and risk-taking compared to their male counterparts.
Ruth Denyer, Group Risk Director at ITV, explored the issue in a recent seminar at Safety & Health Expo. An accomplished leader in Risk, she talked about what’s worked for her and offered advice for others in, or aspiring to be in, similar leadership positions. Ruth graduated from her first degree in health and safety in 1997, and attracted by the idea of a challenging job in health and safety, chose a role at the National Theatre: it was interesting to take health and safety learnings and apply them, to really make them work, in this type of environment. Similarly with her role at ITV, an organisation that employs people in all sorts of locations – including war zones and jungles!
The session was part of a series of presentations led by Women in Health and Safety, a thriving network of people who support gender equality and want to see women flourish in the profession. It followed Steph McGovern's keynote speech, where the broadcaster and journalist shared what she thinks it takes to run a good business in the UK today, and how underestimating vocational training is fuelling the skills gap. The network holds regular meetings and encourages both men and women to join.
What are the reasons?
There are many factors which can influence low levels of confidence, but psychology research suggests it can stem from childhood, with a common approach to the way in which children are taught from a young age being: “Raise girls to be perfect and boys to be brave” .
This is one of the reasons Ruth felt it’s harder for women at work to have confidence, and she predicted it will take more than one generation for women to alter the situation. Also, the changes that have taken place have happened so fast, and have brought about a huge shift – that’s why it’s still a challenge because the work landscape for women is still evolving.
Another contributory factor is ‘imposter syndrome’ – something that many women can suffer from. A symptom of those who suffer from imposter syndrome is to talk too much to cover up/make up for their perceived shortcomings – instead of just focusing on their job and the skills they have. This in itself can have a further, negative impact on confidence levels.
Using technology to make safety accessible
Currently there is a wide range of exciting and diverse developments in technology that are increasingly being used in approaches to health and safety, for example in equipment and devices that: measure; monitor; check compliance; using new technology such as AI; augmented reality; and virtual reality – to name a few.
At ITV, an example of fairly recent technology that’s now in everyday use is drones, which they’ve found to be more manageable than using helicopters, for instance. But of course the risks of using this equipment still have to be managed – which is another interesting challenge to overcome.
Other technology tools that Ruth deploys includes podcasts; also videos or short form films – in the style of YouTube, which she said works really well in delivering information to staff about health and safety procedures
Collaborating with the business
For anyone aspiring to a leadership position, or just wishing to progress their career, it’s vital to support the strategic objectives of the organisation. There are many ways to engage with this, and a few of the methods and scenarios Ruth shared included:
- It’s vital to coach people to speak up: give them the tools they need, and this will help increase their confidence;
- Share information to solve problems: then the team will feel they have a part to play in the whole story;
- Clarity is key: to what the team is trying to achieve. It’s good to keep checking “Does this deliver on what we’re trying to achieve?”;
- Engagement: encouraging engagement is a great way to generate ideas. Find out what the employees really need in order to achieve their tasks.
Ruth also said she is fascinated by the ‘voice of dissent’ – which rather than being seen as a negative influence can in fact have positive repercussions: by listening to that voice and empowering it to speak, this can lead to the sharing of ideas – which in turn can contribute to multiple improvements in an organisation.
Taking a risk
Ruth revealed she is riveted by how risk fits into health and safety, and has undertaken research in this area: she believes the link between risk and health and safety isn’t always made – and that it needs to be focused on as a wider consideration.
Her passion for risk management stems from a deep understanding of the principles. But trying to tie this up with business goals can be challenging – however, by simply having discussions is a great place to begin the process of connecting it all within the organisation.
Ruth talked about how at ITV there is a focus on wellbeing, and their approach includes looking at stress risk assessment. She felt it’s ‘not perfect’ yet, but they’re still working on it, by trying to get everyone working together to share and learn – “sharing the nuggets of information”. She added that in some organisations people can be unsure what doing health and safety well looks like – but this isn’t a negative observation because the overriding view is that everyone wants to do it well.
One question asked by the audience was: “How can you get people from health and safety roles into risk management?” Ruth advised people to “Make sure you tell someone you’re interested, then it might happen. If you don’t, no one will know! Take a risk with your career!”
Additionally, career advancement doesn’t necessarily mean a strictly vertical progression: a ‘sideways’ move into a different role can be extremely fulfilling and rewarding.
Another way that engagement and traction can be facilitated is via shareholders: at ITV Ruth has to report risk to the Board – there are shareholders in the business – and by highlighting the role of risk to this level of the organisation, it nurtures engagement and influences traction, because people at all levels are then involved in the process.
Changing the landscape
The world of work is a rapidly changing landscape nowadays, with employees being able to access more flexibility in their work patterns, and also the advent of the gig economy – which has changed the way that employees are contracted, or choose to work.
Another question posed was: “How can we address the gender difference – to encourage people into a career in health and safety?” Clearly this is not a straightforward challenge to overcome – research by Acre examined health and safety careers, and looked at the gender divide. This revealed that in the health and safety profession there are three male employees to each female employee, and a £10K – £20K pay difference, in broad spectrum terms. The response was to strongly encourage conversations about what’s happening in health and safety, and what is positive – in order for it to appear more appealing to more people. One successful method used can be to offer secondments to employees, so they can try a ‘taster’ of a new role and discover how interesting a job in health and safety can be.
A (female) member of the audience asked a question about how to overcome the challenge of returning to work after having children. Ruth’s view was that the approach must centre around flexibility – in two ways: a flexible approach from the organisation; and of the returnee – demonstrating their commitment. But she stressed that flexibility should also reflect equality, and be extended to male employees: and that initiatives like sabbaticals should be more common. Also, the trends that are transforming the work landscape could mean, for example, that the next generation will have very different ideas on work patterns and choices, and may only want to work three days a week – in order to have more free time.
Confidence – Go for it
The view was expressed that for women who want to progress into leadership roles, it can seem daunting as this currently remains a male-dominated area – a view illustrated by statistics such as:
- Around 29% of FTSE 100 board members are women;
- There are only six female CEOs in FTSE 100 firms;
- Around 30% of MPs are women.
Although the above statistics may be disappointing to some, on the positive side it’s encouraging to note that in all the above three scenarios the situation is improving. For example, the number of women MPs has increased year on year since 1979), and the number of women FTSE 100 board members is at an all time high.
And there are of course positive scenarios and forward-thinking organisations: ITV is just one example – it has a female chief executive, and the organisation actively supports progression for those women who want to pursue it.
Summing up, Ruth expressed her view that if you want something, then you ‘Just have to go for it’, and that sometimes it’s OK to accept ‘it’s as good as it can be now’ rather than to be perfect – looking back to the ‘perfection’ scenario mentioned earlier.
Other key takeaways included:
- Health and safety needs to feel it’s supporting the staff to deliver, by engaging with them, rather than the process simply being a tick-box exercise;
- Apply more risk-taking to your working environment. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” – it may seem scary, but if you don’t ask the question then no one will know and therefore nothing will happen.