How women cope with competing demands

May 5, 2000
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It's still a man's world in environmental health and safety. Surveys by ISHN in recent years indicate women make up perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the professional ranks. The difference is reflected most starkly in pay: Women EHS pros had a median income of $48,500 in 1997, compared to $53,400 for men, according to ISHN's 1997 Salary Survey. Nine out of ten professionals earning more than $70,000 annually were men.

So how are women making their way in the male-dominated EHS field? We interviewed ten female professionals to find out. Setting up interviews alone said something about the issues many women wrestle with. One consultant couldn't take a call on a Friday afternoon because her two young children had to be fed and put to bed for their afternoon nap. She was too busy to take several calls the following week. At one point, she had to beg off because her kids had painted themselves and the carpet. Finally, she answered questions on a cell' phone while doing dishes.

In our informal focus group of ten female professionals, six are married with children. Two of the six have kids not yet in school or just starting out; the remaining four are at later stages of parenthood, with children who are grown or in high school or college.

Based on interviews with our focus group, together with reader research conducted by ISHN, it's apparent that the world of female EHS professionals does not lend itself to easy generalizations. Experiences and opinions vary depending on:

  • age,
  • marital status,
  • parental responsibilities, and age of children,
  • place of employment,
  • nature of work, (consulting versus nursing versus industry jobs, for example).

One woman interviewed for this article has switched jobs and is now working as a consultant from her home to allow for the flexibility she needs to balance clients and children. Another has no children and dines out with her husband three or four nights a week because of her hectic travel schedule. A third had a job where she was loaned out to "18 different facilities with 1,000 different needs." Still, she didn't complain -- "I'm 28 years old, I have no kids, I'm not married, so it didn't hurt me at all," she says. Let's look at what these women have to say about career challenges, gender bias, time management, and tips for getting ahead.

Career challenges Since the influx of women into the EHS field is really a post-OSHA development that took hold in the seventies and eighties, more women are at an earlier point in their EHS careers than men. According to ISHN's 1998 White Paper Planning Survey only 11 percent of women surveyed said they are nearing retirement, compared to 25 percent of men.

No wonder then much of the pressures and challenges these younger women face depend on the choices they make early in their careers. While single women with no kids confront issues of longer hours, increased job responsibilities, more travel and job uncertainty much the same as men, women with young children have a different story to tell.

"It's part of our basic DNA -- our basic nature -- to make sure the children are taken care of," says a safety professional in an executive position and a mother of two girls -- a 19-month-old and a five-year-old. Her husband is a wonderful man and very helpful around the house, she says, "but it is I who make the doctor's appointments; it is I who remember what shots they need." Mothers with younger children say they are constantly juggling and balancing the needs of their home and children with work. They often find themselves sacrificing one for the other -- sometimes even on a daily basis.

Consultant Laura Newton, president, Newton Health & Safety Associates, Inc., normally the primary caregiver for her two children, a one-year-old and a five-year-old, had to have her husband take off from work to take their daughter the first day of school because she had to visit a client.

Newton, like many working mothers, says she finds the flexibility of consulting a good way to stay current in the field until her children are old enough to go back to school. Presently, she works out of her home but has a nanny come in three times a week so she does not get interrupted while working.

"You have to work extra hard to be there for your clients and to be there for your family," Newton says.

Perhaps it's because on average women EHS pros are younger that they're more optimistic about their jobs than men. Sixty-one percent of women in our salary survey said that EHS jobs are rewarding, compared to 54 percent of men. On the other hand, women more than men (44 percent versus 35 percent in the '97 salary survey) say they need more cooperation from upper management. Women, like Usha Wright, who have worked in corporate jobs all through their child raising years say, a lot depends on the company and your immediate supervisor. When Wright, vp and associate general counsel, ITT Industries, worked at Ciba Geigy, her boss allowed her to take time off for her daughter's surgery. She says it was a simple statement -- "take all the time you need and want," -- but she never forgot the consideration shown to her and says it actually helped her develop an even greater commitment to her work.

Gender bias

Gender bias remains a significant issue for women. According to ISHN's salary survey the clearest discrepancy is in pay. Still, only 27 percent of women say they are somewhat or very dissatisfied with their pay.

Regarding career advancement opportunities, one woman consultant says, "companies pay mere lip service when it comes to gender equality."

Another, a high ranking industrial hygienist says, "women are not taken seriously . . . not looked upon as serious contenders. Mistakes made by men are more tolerated while women's slip-ups are exaggerated and made fun of." She says it has not been as hard for her to get to where she is as it has been to stay there.

"Our knowledge and opinion is discounted," says yet another EHS professional in a large corporation.

"The fact is we are not part of the old boys' club," adds a consultant. "We don't share the same interests -- we don't play golf as well and we don't tell the same jokes."

But, again, our '97 salary survey says, more men (31 percent) than women (27 percent) are likely to complain about the lack of career growth opportunities. And, for the record, most women qualified their remarks saying that the sexist attitude was a lot less prevalent among younger males especially those with working wives.

Is there really a glass ceiling, then?

Women like Gayla McCluskey, consultant and principal of Global EHS say, "In a technical field, you get paid for your knowledge." Others say, "It is alive and well."

Time management

So what happens when women, especially working mothers, have gadzillion obligations and very little time to fulfill them?

Personal hobbies and activities are the first things to go, women say. Cooking, reading for pleasure, meeting friends socially are some of the major sacrifices our interviewees say they make. Next, they cut back on doing work-related reading, attending local association meetings and association involvement. Though they all agree it is the best way to network and keep current with the goings-on in their field.

On a more personal note, women like Leslie Peterson, manager of safety and industrial hygiene, Motorola's Land Mobile Products Sector, are disappointed at how "compromising" time and work pressures have made them. "My house is always a mess," she says. "I actually allow dishes to pile up in the sink," -- something she would normally never let happen.

Even more difficult for some women is winding down after a stressful day. They are less tolerant with their family and spouse. One EHS consultant, a mother with young children, even talks about sometimes feeling resentful and jealous of her male counterparts, who are busy building their careers and making money while she has chosen to take care of her family responsibilities, for now.

Reinforcing what our focus group says, the 1998 White Paper survey results indicate more women (81 percent) than men (70 percent) say they don't have sufficient time to accomplish their EHS goals.

Getting ahead

Overall, women's ambitions and career goals are much the same as men's. The White Paper Survey says that 60 percent of women as against 62 percent of men want to pursue professional certification as part of their career goal this year. In fact, according to the salary survey, more women EHS pros are likely to have a master's degree than men (42 percent versus 30 percent). Women who have entered the ranks of management say, ultimately it's a matter of understanding where your skills lie.

"Women have the skills for success; they are just not the same as men's," McCluskey says. "Women make good managers, especially when they use their skills in communication, negotiation, and team building."

At the same time, successful women advise aspiring female safety and health pros to not take things personally and try and learn some of men's interests so they can converse knowledgeably, be it sports or politics. One woman consultant who found her male colleagues frequently discussing fishing says she went ahead and read up on it so she could join in the conversation. It's also important, they suggest, to be able to see the difference between sexual harassment and harmless normal joking and keep your agenda out of any discussions.

One consultant recounts an incident when she was brainstorming ideas and solutions with her male client in his office. In the course of the conversation, she says she came up with an idea that fit in perfectly with his plans for the company.

'That's it!' he said, and bent over and tapped her on the hand, she tells us. Then, embarrassed, he turned red. I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to touch your arm, he told her. She did not react, she says, because experience and maturity told her it was only a natural reaction to what she had said. What about working mothers? How do they shepherd their careers through the various stages -- slowing down while raising children and then coming back and reinstating themselves alongside their peers?

Sue Adams, corporate occupational health nurse manager at Intel Corporation, is a mother of two boys, now grown up. Adams, who has been in the profession 18 years, remembers the days when her sons were young.

"It was tough," she says. "But as soon as they were old enough I began to take on more responsibility." In the early years, she says she had to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. She took time when they were young, worked part-time for about two years, and then rejoined the workforce full-time.

Final analysis

If these are fast times for EHS professionals in general, they are probably faster times for working mothers with small children, or women who take time out to study fishing or learn golf to share interests with men. That is why our expert sources emphasize that women need to prioritize not simply their work, but also their lives. Through inventiveness and resourcefulness many women are gradually turning the perceived disadvantages into assets.

Kathy Seabrook, president, Global Solutions, Inc., who was recently elected to the board of directors for the American Society of Safety Engineers, says she was chosen on the basis of her contribution and credibility. According to Seabrook, women who are active and involved and demonstrate their knowledge build a comfort level and natural acceptance among male colleagues.

"You need a strategy to survive," says health and safety consultant, Annette Haag. And take heart, it should be getting easier as more women continue to enter the field.

If you are a woman and want to survive and thrive in the safety and health profession today consider these suggestions from our expert sources:

  • Prioritize your life not just your work. Live by your calendar on a daily basis. Make lists. Don't over-commit your time.
  • Be competent and flexible. It helps build credibility.
  • Don't ask for special consideration. Assume complete responsibility for the job.
  • Learn the politics of your company.
  • Confront issues. Don't be the martyr.
  • Don't accept without question.
  • Learn to negotiate, sell and market your talent.
  • Build on commonalities. Understand some people will never like you as a female.
  • Get a mentor/mentors -- both men and women. Become a mentor and give advice.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Educate people about what you really do. Demonstrate your knowledge. It builds credibility and leads to natural acceptance.
  • Blow your own horn, push, demand, brag, argue.
  • Trust your instincts. As a woman, you bring your own skills set.
  • Be active and involved. It increases people's comfort level and enhances credibility.
  • Look at the bigger picture. Control your ego and ask yourself, "What am I trying to accomplish and how do I get there?"

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