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Head of Content, IFSEC and FIREX

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Charlotte Geoghegan is Head of Content for the Protection & Management portfolio, which includes IFSEC and FIREX live events and IFSEC Insider.
November 9, 2022

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Women’s networks and experiences in fire, safety and security – Your questions answered

Doesn’t having networks that specifically focus on women in a sector exacerbate the issue of gender bias? If we’re talking about diversity & inclusivity, shouldn’t we be talking about men as well? And what can organisations, managers and individuals do to support gender equality in our professions?

These were some of the questions I put to a panel of speakers in October 2022 as part of SHP & IFSEC Global’s Webinar Wednesdays series. Each of the speakers joining me on the panel has had success in their profession and, alongside their ‘day jobs’, have been involved in running womens’ networks in security, fire and safety. Sharing their views on the webinar were:

  • Heather Beach, Founder & Managing Director, Healthy Work Company
  • Fiona Perrin, Health, Safety & Fire Manager, Royal Academy
  • Andrea White, Managing Director, A W Fire Ltd
  • Letitia Emeana, Chapter Chair, ASIS UK & Global Security Capability Manager Unilever

Watch the whole webinar below.

Following the broadcast the speakers have kindly answered further audience questions, which appear in the Q&A below the video. Find out more about each of the speakers here.

 

 


Q: The world has un unconscious gender bias. I have been in H&S for over 20 years. I work part-time and have a busy life with 3 children. I know that I am able to achieve IOSH Chartered status but by the time I finish work and housework I can’t face the forms to move from Graduate. This must be the case for most other mothers – any tips on moving forward?

Letitia Emeana: I had a similar experience when asked to complete my ASIS CPP certification at Amazon, not only was I setting up a new function, a new team, I was a single mother and also needed to juggle many personal and home things. My solution was to accept that some things were going to have to change. My cleaning regime suffered, my holiday with my son suffered , my weekends relaxing with family and friends suffered but only for a period of eight months. To me the benefit and setting a realistic time frame were important as it meant I was accountable to achieve it in that time otherwise I would have to give up and admit I just could not do it, something I never do if at all possible. I achieved my CPP and it was a turning point in my career but also how I approach my life, some things can have lower standards for a while, or be re-prioritised.

Andrea White: I hear you! My advice is to cut the task up into small chunks. Can you just work on the first page of the application form this week, which asks for your name, address etc.? Can you map out some ideas for your IPD objective evidence next week? I would also see if there are others who are looking to complete the forms and create a six-week workshop – we do this for different membership grade applications for the IFE. Having a 45-minute webinar every week and a goal to move your application forward just a little by the next session, can be really helpful. Good luck!

Fiona Perrin: Being a working mum is so tough isn’t it?! My advice is to break the task down into manageable chunks. Good luck – I know you can do it! Also speak to your organisation – it’s in their favour for you to become Chartered so they should give you some ‘study’ time to help achieve this during the work day. Also, seek out a Mentor. IOSH have a great online Mentoring platform where you can find somebody that will guide you through the CMIOSH process.

Q: There’s also the sexism around appearance and objectification which is another way of disempowering a woman. Do the panel have a view on this form of disempowerment?

Letitia Emeana: It is human nature and totally unconscious to make an opinion on looks for everyone in the first few seconds of meeting a person. It takes active decisioning to really be open minded to move on and past that initial opinion. Knowing this I use how I dress as much as I can to give me an advantage in those first few crucial moments, but it can still not be effective. The unconscious view of another is not mine to change, and I am not ever going to win everyone over, it is my perspective if I feel disempowered and then my decision on how to respond, react or counter. However if the behaviour is overt and the comments obvious then again this must be addressed and then the way and by who this addressed is a different discussion.

Andrea White: Yes, it can be hard to work out how to dress. I’ve chosen to stick with what I’m comfortable wearing, which tends to be trousers, a shirt and a jumper. When I was younger, I certainly found it was difficult to be taken seriously and that I was judged on my looks.

Fiona Perrin: Yes, this totally happens all the time! I often see this taking the shape of a micro-aggression. But it’s also one that we can work together to help combat. Speak up when you see this happening – especially in the work place. Male allies and women in a senior position can affect change in this area.

Q: Is it more about education? There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that greater prejudice is linked in industries associated with lower skills/education requirements etc. what does the panel think about this thought?

Letitia Emeana: Education is certainly key and the basics can be seen to correlate with this theory, however there are some people that have such inherent beliefs that education, circumstance etc. will not change their view and so there are some battles that will not be won.

Andrea White: In the fire safety industry, I believe it is more related to generational expectations that have then perpetuated. The fire safety industry is a profession which traditionally has employed retired Fire Service personnel and their attitudes, beliefs and expectations around women have prevailed.

Fiona Perrin: I don’t think it has anything to do with a person’s education level – it’s more about exposure and what you’re used to. The company I currently work with have a large number of females. Even in the Estates Team – so there’s not any discrimination as we’re all seen as equal. But other organisations with a very low level of females may have issues.

Q: Should all industry courses include a diversity training/education element?

Letitia Emeana: Definitely! Even if it is just to help recognised unconscious bias and the impacts to creativity and general wellbeing.

Fiona Perrin: Absolutely! I think most do offer this nowadays. But for those that don’t there is so much literature out there that you can read on the subject.

Q: Do we need to anominise application processes to improve diversity within the recruitment process?

Letitia Emeana: I believe that there have been some good moves to do this with software, however the software can also have bias and I believe we must do more in educating hiring managers in general across business units that may have security responsibility such as HR/Legal/etc.

Andrea White: I think not. At some point, your gender will become apparent to the interviewers. If this is an issue for them, then I’d suggest it wouldn’t be the right environment for you to work in. Go where you’re celebrated not where you’re tolerated.

Fiona Perrin: Education on gender biases and support for managers doing the recruiting will all help. I actually believe that in some industries we should be actively promoting females into leadership roles – so anonymising doesn’t always work for this.

Q: What’s really interesting is that all the speakers are white females reflecting a small societal demographic in the UK… what steps are the panel suggesting to remedy this?

Letitia Emeana: TOTALLY LOVE THIS SHOUT!!! I have seen that the demographic shift has improved female representation but I also recognise the lack of diversity across females now too in the space. Please reach out on this topic whoever posted this as I want to find ways to support other minorities. I’m also a big advocate for disability and ethnic empowerment and so need to grow my network to help with this! ASIS and my role means I can develop working groups and partner across association sectors to “Turn Up The Volume” on these topics.

Andrea White: Fair question. There are very few women in the fire safety industry who are currently willing/able to give the time to speaking up on these issues. And the majority of women in our industry are white. Parina Patel has just been voted onto the IFE Board, though. And last year’s Women of the Year at the Women in Fire Safety Awards was Janine Kayode.

Fiona Perrin: I agree – we’ve got a long way to go before we are truly diverse!

Q: What is one thing I can do to make a positive impact on gender equality within my organisation?

Andrea White: Be the change! Can you suggest to HR that they offer allyship training? Can you speak up at meetings? Can you call out inappropriate behaviour?

Fiona Perrin: Become an ally! Learn to speak up and challenge micro-aggressions in the workplace. Actively encourage females in your work to go for that promotion (Imposter Syndrome may be the only thing holding them back). Help ensure women are paid farely and equally.

Q: How do I find out more about mentoring, Andrea hit the nail on the head for me around confidence and I feel this keeps me from moving forward, as I don’t want to come across as the ‘bossy woman’.

Letitia Emeana: In ASIS we have a mentoring program but also I know many women who will offer informal mentoring to also help with these types of topics. In ASIS I have also grown the ED&I agenda and we have working groups specifically addressing Women, young professionals, military and services personal transition out of public service.

Andrea White: Good question! I do a lot of reading around this subject. A book that I found really insightful was ‘How Women Rise’ by Helgesen and Goldsmith. I’ve just started to read “How to Own the Room” by Groskop.

Fiona Perrin: Seek out official mentoring programmes in your industry. Look for Women ambassadors or champions who may be able to help. In addition to Andrea’s book recommendations – try Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

Q: Do the WIFENG offer mentoring to younger female engineers?

Andrea White: We don’t have a formal mentoring programme (yet). But we’re happy to find you someone who can give you the support you’re looking for.

Fiona Perrin: We are hoping to role out a mentoring programme at the beginning of 2023.

Q: As an employee, how do you approach the topic of gender equality and diversity?

Letitia Emeana: In my previous roles I have set up a group informally with likeminded people, put together a proposal and presentation and invited influential or key stakeholders to attend to provide insight and perspective to the challenges. Once you have a senior buy-in then the programme can begin with awareness days, lunch/learn sessions and even 5/10 minutes in team meetings. In order to make a change you must make a start, and this can sometimes be the hardest as we sometimes are fearful of what others might think, say or do.

Andrea White: I decided to set up my own consultancy so that I could have the autonomy and flexibility I was looking for.

Fiona Perrin: I think it’s different depending on what level you are in your career. But speaking to HR about what options there are (whether it’s an official or informal groups etc.) and what training can be provided. Also seek out like minded people in your industry to learn from.

Q: Have any of the speakers suffered a negative consequence as a result of promoting gender equality/diversity? If yes, how did they handle it?

Letitia Emeana: Not yet I haven’t, but it must be done in a sensitive way appreciating that it is a journey for some people over time to “Get it”.

Andrea White: Yes. On a number of occasions. I finally realised that sometimes you need to stop banging on a door that is nailed firmly shut and look for another way in. I have looked for opportunities where I am welcomed rather than tried to push into situations where it is made known that I am not welcome.

Fiona Perrin: Yes, I’ve been asked questions before like “why do we need a Women’s Networking Group?” And “What about the men?” I’m quite quick to respond that until we are 50/50 gender split in the industry and women are paid equally and represented at senior level equally – there will always be a need for these groups.

Q: As a H&S consultant in construction I agree with Andrea that sometimes this could be an ‘unconscious’ issue… Having been in H&S for 30 plus years, things are changing, albeit slowly, but this week I was asked if I wanted an umbrella on a site inspection…

Fiona Perrin: Oh yes, I’ve been there too! Also trying to find a female toilet onsite or PPE that actually fits!

Q: What is imposter syndrome?

Letitia Emeana: Ahhhhh I love this as the phrase is very common to describe the feeling felt by an individual of “Fraud” having a role by “Luck” not really well qualified etc. This is not only a women issue as I have discovered that many people also feel this. It appears more common in females and possibly tied to the microaggressions faced in early career/life. I for many years have felt this and live with regularly, however in my current role and being more honest/authentic and using better communication techniques I am slowly feeling this anxiety leave me. It can be a long and tough/lonely place sometimes so developing a network of people you can call, email or meet to share will help balance what your mind tells you and the reality of the situation.

Andrea White & Fiona Perrin: What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it? – Elizabeth Cox – YouTube


Letitia speaks more about imposter syndrome and the benefits of a diverse security industry in episode 1 of the IFSEC Global Security in Focus podcast – listen below!

Q: Can you elaborate on how to “say no without saying no” any tips greatly received!

Letitia Emeana: Certainly. It is my experience we instinctively know when something is going to be too much, or is not achievable but that is because we have other priorities that we feel are more important at that time. In order to help the requester understand I would normally ask which of the other priorities would they like me to de-prioritise? Or if I have a personal conflict, I normally ask about the expectation of the timeframe in order the achieve the outcome and realistic standard achievable. Many people are happy with 80% of our high standards we usually hold also, so being prepared to submit something below your own personal standard may also be acceptable to the requestor. There are many examples where it is own perception that is actually the barrier or our perspective of the expectation, aligning this and asking questions or the requestor is a way to better understand the request, the expectation and timeframe, and usually this means it can be done or the requestor alters the request.

Q: What is the biggest single piece of advice you can give to a female applying for a promotion into a role that has been a male role for the past 20 years?

Letitia Emeana: You are not the predecessor, you have been selected based on your own unique skills, different personality and may well do things differently so be open and clear about this change to the team, stakeholders and manager, set out your vision, how you want people to work with you, be authentic, true to yourself and find someone you can speak with to help and support you in those tough moments.

Andrea White: Be confident!

Fiona Perrin: You’ve got this!

Q: I currently work in a Sales Support role for a security company. I desperately want to progress but I’m not sure on the best steps and what my career path could be. Are there any external qualifications I could look in to?

Letitia Emeana: Skills map your areas or strength and those you would like to develop. Look at roles that interest you and try to figure out “Why”, this can help with your purpose and ultimately your drive to commit and progress. Once you have an idea of the areas you want to develop then mentors may well be able to guide you and or provide advice. The security field has so many opportunities available it is knowing where to look and also by speaking with a variety or people. Reach out to people to ask for their advice and support. I feel in my area there are many people willing to share advice and guidance and associations like ASIS are wonderful for networking, education and opportunity to meet like-minded people.

Andrea White: Find a professional association or institution and join them. Attend some of the annual expos that run. Connect on LinkedIn or follow those in your industry and start to like or comment on posts made. There is a benefit to being easily identifiable in your industry!

Q: I just wanted to thank you for acknowledging the issues we face, including lack of PPE in a good size for women and also how being the only woman on a construction site, meeting or conference can be intimidating and isolating.

Letitia Emeana: Without improved awareness and male allyship these topics will only slowly be uncovered through experience, many firms want to know the challenges so if you feel you can be brave and share your experiences and ask for improvements, many firms will value this boldness. (Some may not and that speaks volumes about their longevity).

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