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Practitioner's viewpoint

04 February 2019

Attracting women into male dominated industries can be a challenge, and Louise Ward points out that businesses need to ensure that they do enough to retain them to sustain a gender balanced workforce.

OVER RECENT months there has been much public discussion and debate about the profile of women in society and in the workplace. It’s now widely recognised that gender balance is a positive workforce attribute, but some of the more traditional heavy industrial sectors still struggle to attract female workers. 

There are a number of high profile campaigns aiming to promote the benefits of careers in these sectors to young women, and to those returning to the workforce following a career break. Awareness events, sector awards, high profile role models, networking groups, work based study programmes, mentoring and placement schemes are just some of the initiatives being deployed to help attract female workers into sectors such as engineering, manufacturing, science and technology, construction, utilities and transport, and many of the programmes are reporting a positive trend in recruitment.

However, we need to ask ourselves whether our businesses are ready to support the safety and wellbeing of a gender balanced workforce.

My first health and safety job following qualification was in the printing industry, a noisy and hot environment with lots of high speed heavy machinery, inks, solvents, dust and grease etc. On my first day someone helpfully suggested that I might like to order myself a lab coat and a pair of safety court shoes to use if I was visiting the shop floor! As a young woman in a very male dominated environment I was keen to fit in, so politely declined and opted for the same workwear as my male colleagues. I therefore spent years working in polo shirts that came down to my knees, trousers which had to be rolled up at the hem and held up with a belt and several pairs of socks worn together to fill the extra space in my boots!

We’d all like to think that this would never happen today, but it’s only relatively recently that the PPE market has accepted that women’s bodies and feet are a different size and shape to men’s. Leading suppliers are now starting to offer ranges designed specifically for women but in many cases are still not offering the same levels of specification and protection – which is unacceptable. In this day and age there is no reason not to offer like for like protection designed to fit women, and more work is required urgently in this area. The provisions that have made haven’t been heavily marketed and I suspect that many companies have yet to add these products to their local catalogues and approved product lists. This means that even today women continue to work using inadequate clothing and equipment.

Washing, changing and toilet facilities are often a challenge too. I have spent much of my career in sectors which have traditionally had a very male dominated workforce. On visiting operational sites, my experience is that most can direct me to a separate toilet area with a lockable door. However, as these are rarely used they have often ‘evolved’ to fulfil another purpose too; consumables store; waste store; cleaners sluice room etc, and frequently have no working light, soap or handtowels. It’s not at all unusual to find yourself sharing an unlit space with the Christmas decorations, mop and bucket and fluorescent tubes awaiting recycling – and I always carry antibacterial wipes in my bag just in case!!

This isn’t too much of a problem during a short visit, but if allowed to persist it could adversely impact the wellbeing of operational female staff. On a site visit a few years ago I met a young female engineering apprentice. She was engaged, enthusiastic and doing really well, but when I asked her what we could do to attract more women into the business she simply asked for a toilet and shower area. It turned out that the only ladies toilet on the site was in the admin building, and the staff there didn’t like her using this in her workwear and PPE so required her to remove these at reception before going into the building. Feeling unwelcome in this area she was going out to the local fast food restaurant to use the toilet, and had no access to a shower or changing facilities at all. The company were horrified when I pointed this out. They were actively engaged in programmes to attract more women to work in operational roles, but just hadn’t thought through what additional facilities might be required at site level to support their safety and wellbeing.

So, the promotional campaigns and career support are all really positive, but if we are to really welcome, embrace and sustain a more gender balanced workforce we need to make sure that we do get the basics right at every level to establish equality, inclusion, safety and wellbeing.

Louise Ward is the health, safety and environment director at Siemens.For more information visit,www.siemens.com/mobility