Opportunity Knocks

The most pressing issue cited in a poll by ASSE's Women in Safety Engineering group: gaining credibility in the workplace.

WHAT is it that draws women into the realm of safety consultants? Like many others, Pamela Ferrante, CSP, a consultant in Pittsburgh, was searching for a new career that would provide the potential for more income, and she knew that potential could be found in male-dominated fields. "When I decided to change careers, I went in 180 degrees--where salary was a big part of it and potential down the road for myself," she said. She has been working in the field for 10 years and operating in private practice as a consultant for the past two and a half years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual earnings of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians was $46,010 in 2002. Laura Comstock, MS, CSP, CUSA, currently a safety advisor in North Carolina, said she was attracted to consulting because of the earning potential. In her case, consulting has increased her income by 50 percent.

During the past century, women have made their mark in politics, business, and the military; achieving success in professions that formerly were deemed "for men only." Statistics show that most of the U.S. female workforce resides in more female-centric professions. For example, the top five occupations of employed women in 2002 were: retail and personal sales workers, secretaries, elementary school teachers, and registered nurses, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A growing number of women, however, are making their mark as consultants under the umbrella of safety-related professions. A study conducted in the 1970s by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals showed about 1 percent of Certified Safety Professionals at that time were female. The rate has increased to 11 percent, according to a BCSP study from 2000. The American Board of Industrial Hygiene reports 20 percent of its members are women, and about 27 percent of the total members are registered as consultants. In addition, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) reports 4,000 of its more than 30,000 members are women.

According to BLS, occupational health and safety specialists and technicians held approximately 41,000 jobs in 2002 and the employment levels are expected to increase 10 percent to 20 percent, or as fast as the average for all occupations, through 2012.

Obstacles for women in the workforce still abound, as women continue to struggle for monetary success equaling that of their male counterparts. In April 2004, the Institute for Women's Policy Research released an analysis of Census Bureau poverty and income figures that revealed no improvement in the difference between men and women's annual earnings. Women earned 76.6 percent of what men earned; the wage gap in 2001 was 76.3 percent, the institute reported.

Additional Benefits of the Job
Debbi Creed, a CIH in Dallas, had gone back to school when she changed careers. "When I graduated, I was looking for a financial increase. About 60 to 70 percent of my decision was based on [money]," she said. Other factors besides money come into play when women examine the benefits of consulting.

"The biggest joy was getting to be exposed to the safety systems at all the major corporations. I got a first-hand learning opportunity that you can't pay for," Comstock said. "In the year that I traveled and got to see all these companies, I just got an intensive saturation of education."

Flexibility and control over work schedules also can be attractive benefits and can have a lasting effect. Ferrante said she had not planned to stay in a consulting capacity once she switched careers.

"This was originally going to be a bridge for me between back to full-time work while having young children," she said. "It's now more and more becoming a long-term plan for me, where I think I would rather work this business and just develop my own company and continue to have that kind of control over my income."

Creed also said the flexible schedule and array of projects that comes with being a consultant are attractive aspects. "I need a lot of varied, dynamic process in my projects, and being a consultant affords me that," she said.

The Value of Peer-to-Peer Networking
Once women are in the field, however, there are certain dynamics that aid in maintaining success and satisfaction with the chosen profession, one being the support of peers.

In response to the growing number of women within the industry, ASSE recently established Women in Safety Engineering (WISE). The group was founded to help women in the field share information about leading workplace issues. WISE has more than 600 of the 4,000 ASSE female members and offers opportunities for mentoring and recruiting programs, book reviews, and a white paper group. "So many women have been so excited about this, that's the best part of the whole thing," said Amy McGlasson, a WISE sponsoring volunteer member.

There also is an emphasis coming from WISE to develop a kind of support center, no doubt a benefit to consultants who work on their own. Creed said having more women's groups within the industry would be beneficial, not only for general support, but also for networking opportunities. "I'm a small operation, so for a lot of jobs bid, I'm looking for partners to bid on those as well," she said.

Linda Gardner, a consultant in Anchorage, Alaska, and a WISE member, added that women also gain a different perspective when they participate in a group composed entirely of women. "I think we actually need to support each other," she said. "Women do things and don't tend to pat themselves on the back, so it helps because other women will do that. Just a way of saying, 'You're doing a good job.' I think we help each other that way."

The group surveyed its members to find out what issues were most pressing for women. Thirty-five percent of the respondents said the top issue was gaining credibility in the workplace. "That's probably the biggest obstacle that women have, is trying to overcome that persona that women are probably not as rough-and-tumble as they might need to be," McGlasson said.

"I think a woman in a safety profession has a slightly bigger challenge when they come into a male-dominated, operational-type environment," Comstock said. "I think that women can be a little successful in this role because of some of those different ways of communicating and different ways of soliciting participation and response."

Education and Certification
Female consultants contacted for this article also stressed the importance of education and certification to being successful. "I recommend that [recent graduates] would get in and take courses and get certified. It is an important issue to have some certification, and I think we're going to see that [in the future]," Gardner said.

Comstock agreed. "It is important to be degreed because that is critical to your certifications, and your certifications are critical to respect," she said.

Some university programs for safety and health report increases in the number of women enrolled in their programs. Alvaro D. Taveira, Ph.D., from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said 15 to 25 percent of the students in both the bachelor's and master' s degree programs are female. "There's a tremendous opportunity for women in safety," Taveira said. "Our recent graduates all found excellent jobs."

The Industrial Hygiene Program at UCLA reports 70 percent of students in its master's program are women. "The fraction of female students in our master's program has been gradually increasing over the years," said Professor Williams Hinds, director of the program.

Earl Hansen, Ed.D., said the female-to-male ratio for Northern Illinois University's undergraduate program in Industrial Technology is about 50/50. Students from other majors such as chemistry, biology, and psychology, and from professions such as human resources, also are taking an interest in individual courses, he added.

Hansen said there is a trend of more requests from companies for female students. "As an academic institution and as safety professionals in academia, as we pick up on more needs that are appearing, we in turn will see a greater interest from females in these programs," he said.

Mentoring and Recruiting
The members of WISE look to develop their mentoring and recruiting programs as part of the process. "We want to align experienced women with non-experienced women, talk about career paths, where they want to go, what's their vision, set goals. They'll be our next population to move up to the next level," McGlasson offered.

The group will be working with young high school populations through Junior Achievement and may develop a mentoring program with college students across the country, in addition to tapping the ASSE student chapters already in place. The goal is simply to make more potential recruits aware that the safety professions are good options, members said.

Looking Ahead
Despite the varied elements and challenges they face as consultants, at the end of the day, the women participating in safety consulting aren't going anywhere but up.

"The one thing I will say in the end is that no matter what environment I've walked into [and] how people may have judged me when I walked in the door, in the end I've always been well received," Ferrante said. "I can't ever say people have not given me an opportunity and not given me credit for what I can offer."

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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