Women In WHS Shattering The Glass Ceiling

Sponsored Article by NSCA

The work health and safety profession has come a long way in recent years, but there is still a way to go in terms of female representation within the profession and the variety of industries in which women work in WHS roles. WHS manager REBECCA STEIGER shares her experience as a senior woman in WHS, setting out a number of practical steps and tips that other WHS leaders can adopt to foster diversity and enhance female participation in the field, which is something that also offers opportunities for operational enhancement.

The findings of recruitment and consulting firm Safesearch’s ‘2020/21 Health, safety and environment remuneration survey’ show male candidates still fill 66% of safety roles. Some industries have more female work health and safety (WHS) workers in them than others, with the report showing women have better representation in government, manufacturing and utilities and telecommunications, and less representation in retail and facilities management. While the safety profession is already outperforming most industries and occupations, there is still work to be done to encourage more diverse groups of people to choose a career in WHS. Importantly, we need a more diverse group of people at all levels to have more of a say when making decisions about managing workplace risks.


Against this backdrop, there are a number of practical steps all businesses could explore to promote greater levels of diversity in WHS roles. A good place to start is to investigate how representatives are appointed to safety committees. The ways people find themselves on committees can be through formal election, shoulder tapping or inheriting the role. Especially in cases of volunteering and nomination, it is good practice to question if that process is providing diversity of thought and voices representative of the workforce.

Also consider who is given the opportunity to participate in the coordination of wellbeing initiatives and safety campaigns within your organisation and see if there are opportunities to be more inclusive. To help foster a culture of inclusivity, it is important to ensure women in our profession are encouraged to participate in industry networking events and special interest groups. Such events and groups exist to support women in our industry and promote their advancement. These sorts of initiatives provide a great opportunity for professional development and to connect with and be inspired by others in the industry.


Quotas and diversity targets do play a role in supporting genuine inclusion in the workforce. But even more than the numbers, what is important is how we are nurturing and supporting full diversity in our operations. As a leader, this means giving all people a voice to raise their ideas and concerns and recognising the diverse perspective they might bring. Specifically, when it comes to gender diversity, we need women not just to be in the safety team, but to actively participate in and influence decision-making.

As leaders, we have an opportunity to challenge entrenched norms in the workplace that prevent roles being equally adopted by all genders. There are still perceptions in Australia that men are more likely to be technical or trades workers, while women are more likely to be admin and service workers — but this is not always the case. I often find women working in areas where they are traditionally underrepresented and where I do, I purposely seek to engage them on safety initiatives for their area.

In other words, awareness is only the beginning. It is not about talk, it is about action — although understanding that gender imbalances exist is a good start. Then, you have to be clear as an organisation or team about your future diversity goals and the actions needed to get there. This involves seeding a diversity of talent in the pipeline — not just waiting until we have to recruit someone but developing and nurturing that talent. It is about making sure that we create clear career pathways from entry-level positions onwards.


It is important to understand the value of an inclusive workforce, with emphasis on supporting a diverse cohort of workers into WHS positions. Actively recruit top female talent, especially for leadership positions. And also foster an inclusive workplace, not just in terms of gender but across national origin and sexual orientation, as well as education and life experience. Inclusion is also important beyond recruitment; it is part of our culture day to day. Seek out opportunities to create a broad range of initiatives to support a focus on diversity. For example, you could seek out an existing, or create a new, affinity group, the aim of which is to advance women across your sector by providing education and mentorship, as well as networking and collaboration opportunities.

There is still lots more we can do as a profession to encourage fair access to opportunity. For example, there is an opportunity for more companies to provide graduate positions for women. There is also potential for businesses to sponsor women who may not have completed tertiary studies, who are already working in a business and who have demonstrated talent in safety, to enroll in related university courses. To other senior women in the field, I say this: we must mentor and coach our younger colleagues.

I have seen first-hand the benefits mentorship can have for women, helping them to build confidence, identify opportunities and build their expertise so they can grow in their careers. Having other women take the time to invest in my development, give me very specific feedback and make sure I had a chance to work on projects to stretch my experience made a huge difference in my career. So, we need to encourage our female colleagues to be part of new projects, bring them into the conversation and make sure they are heard. That way, when new female hires start in WHS roles they can hit the ground running, without having to break through any glass ceiling to get their job done.

NSCA Foundation Content Attribution

This article was originally featured in the National Safety magazine, the flagship publication for the work health and safety profession in Australia. The National Safety is published by the NSCA Foundation, a not-for-profit work health and safety association. Since 1927, NSCA Foundation has been committed to inspire, educate, inform, and engage the Australian work health and safety profession to create and sustain safe and healthy workplaces. For more information, visit www.nscafoundation.org.au.

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