Driving Change with Women in Safety

Addressing gender bias during International Women's Day.

Dana Mueller
March 08, 2021

March 8 is designated International Women’s Day and was observed for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland in 1911, and celebrated by the UN for the first time in 1975. This year the theme is #ChooseToChallenge, driving personal accountability for our thoughts and actions. As it relates to gender bias or inequality, the call is to acknowledge problems, challenge the status quo and generate the change that is necessary for solutions. Occupational health and safety nurtures this same message to challenge existing behaviors that potentially generate harm. What a fabulous combination to drive change … women in occupational health and safety! 

Deliberate and unconscious biases are embedded in workplaces around the world. While I like to think those in occupational health and safety roles already have the tools to take action, this does not mean women in these roles do not struggle. I have been fortunate to have mentors and peers throughout my career, male and female, who have supported me in my path. Conversely, I have experienced biases at different levels. At many points I chose not speak up or challenge, though this has changed over time and I continue to learn how best to contribute to solutions. 

In pondering where we have come from, where we are today and where we are going, I reached out to current and former colleagues around the world to obtain their perspectives as women in occupational health and safety related roles. The generosity and transparency in their responses was inspiring. They shared challenges and advances in personal protective equipment and facilities addressing women-specific needs, but by and large the dialogue centered on how gender disparity factored into their positions. There were obstacles and direct experiences of disbelief and disregard of a woman filling a professional role, gender pay gaps, subtle and overt exclusion from decision making, disrespectful and threatening encounters. They shared methods learned to deal with or manage these situations and, in some cases, how they contributed to change. Additionally, many identified improvements over the course of their career, shared the critical impact of positive mentors and imparted the value of supportive work organizations. 

Some countries and organizations may be more advanced than others in managing disparities, and while there are positive changes around the world, action is still needed. The women I spoke with shared great insights around where we can go. Positive actions being taken today include training and employers investing in supportive and inclusive work environments. 

Shared concepts and perspectives included intersectionality, bringing me to research thought leaders such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the need to embed other marginalized demographics, such as race, disability and LGBTQ+ within the conversation around gender disparity. Despite the value I place on my accomplishments, diverse experiences and global exposures, I recognize my limited perspective.  

Strength through association was recognized, with organizations such as Lean In generating robust support networks and providing valuable data framing the challenges. Books, such as Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, were shared as excellent resources that can be valuable in our individual efforts to understand the issue.

I am truly thankful for the women in safety who took the time to share with me. Through this blog, I celebrate them and all the women of the world engaged in moving the needle. The #ChooseToChallenge theme of International Women’s Day gives us an individual choice for when and how we might choose to challenge the status quo. Personally, I am truly motivated to hold myself accountable to be a part of further change. My colleagues around the world all shared a resounding message: never underestimate the impact of your actions. 

Dana Mueller

Dana Mueller is director for corporate safety, health and environment at AECOM and a member of the NSC Women's Division.

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