Health and Safety Consultant, Claire Saunders

March 8, 2021

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Why are there so few female Chartered Fellows in IOSH?

Claire Saunders CFIOSH is one of just 0.1% of chartered Fellows within IOSH that are women. In this article, she asks whether IOSH should be doing more to help its female members to become Fellows, whether women are creating their own barriers and provides some information on getting your Fellowship Portfolio together.

Why are there so few female Chartered Fellows in IOSHChartered Fellowship is IOSH’s highest level of professional membership, awarded to members who “demonstrate an outstanding dedication to the profession by going ‘above and beyond’”. Achieving Fellowship is powerful for an individual, recognising their commitment to the highest standards and their wider contribution to the profession. It is also important to us all, in raising the status of the role of safety and health practitioners and increasing our influence.

I became a Fellow back in 1999, nine years after I first entered the profession. At the time I thought it was the natural career path, due thankfully to a very supportive manager. When I began my career as a trainee safety adviser, he encouraged me to go through the IOSH membership grades and to contribute to the wider world of safety, by joining safety groups and making contributions at a local and national level, which I continued to do when I moved on to new workplaces and more senior roles. When I achieved my Fellowship, I wasn’t aware that I must have been one of just a handful of women with the accolade.

However, I recently found out that just 1% of IOSH’s 48,000 members are Fellows and just 0.1% are female Fellows. That’s just 48! (Which makes me wonder how many there were back in 1999). As 21% of IOSH’s members are female, all being equal the number of female Fellows should be more than double what it is.

I consider myself very lucky. I have worked for organisations and managers who supported my development, encouraged me to get involved with safety beyond my workplace both locally and nationally, and allowed me the time to do so. I also had time outside of work to devote to safety related projects and had also progressed my career to a level where I was able to demonstrate influence at a senior level.

I have been considering the reasons why fewer women have made the Fellowship journey than men. Some will no doubt be juggling career and family and others may be struggling to get into the upper echelons of their organisation, where they can exert their influence. For a long time, the safety profession has been male dominated, and I still remember the days when I would be picked out as one of a handful of the “lovely ladies” at safety conference. (Those were also the days when I didn’t have to queue for the loos during the break!). Things are changing, but most of the female members of IOSH are in the “Future Leaders” community, meaning they are student members, under 36 or have five or fewer years OSH experience. So maybe a greater proportion haven’t yet achieved the level of experience required for Fellowship.

In response to this article, IOSH says it is taking ‘positive steps’ to address the equality, diversity and inclusion imbalance in the profession.

Gender bias

Why are there so few female Chartered Fellows in IOSH 1Bearing in mind that it is well recognised that women are already at a disadvantage to men when it comes to attaining a senior level in an organisation, I am concerned that IOSH’s new membership structure, due to come into place later this year, is going to make it even more difficult for them to achieve Fellowship. The new criteria specifically states that to become an IOSH Chartered Fellow, an individual will need to demonstrate significant seniority and experience and be highly influential within the OSH profession locally, nationally and/or internationally. I see women who are influential nationally in health and safety, but they aren’t all in senior health and safety positions. Does this mean they will not be able to achieve Fellowship under the new criteria? Should IOSH be doing more to help its female members to become Fellows? Or is it up to women to address the barriers that may be preventing them for getting into senior positions?

It would be interesting to consider whether there is gender bias in how being “influential” is measured. People who overtly exhibit a lot of charisma and confidence, putting themselves in the spotlight may seem influential. But maybe women are stronger at exerting influence in subtler ways, using their softer skills to achieve ends without seeking to be in the spotlight. They may be exerting their influence by building positive relationships, through collaborating, getting to know people, and though giving attention to what they care about, helping them to achieve. Maybe IOSH’s new competency framework (Blueprint 2.0), with its greater emphasis on behaviours, will help women to demonstrate influence in different ways.

Whilst the “glass ceiling” may prevent some women from having the opportunity to achieve the “significant seniority and experience” necessary to achieve Fellowship, my greatest concern is that women are creating their own barriers, either by just assuming they are not good enough to apply, or because they are not recognising the value Fellowship brings. It seems to me that generally women underplay their achievements, whilst men are comfortable to draw attention to, or even exaggerate, theirs. A timely piece of research around this very point popped up on Linkedin just the other day. The study found a large gender gap in self-promotion, with men rating their performance 33% higher than equally performing women. The study was unable to pinpoint a reason for this, but what is clear is that those who self- promote are more likely to get both hired and promoted than those who do not. Men may be seeing Fellowship as a way to self-promote, whilst women are holding back and keeping quiet, continuing to undervalue their attainments.

Fellowship Portfolio

So, I am finishing with a call to action to my female colleagues. To give our best, we need to get over our inhibitions and be prepared to push our achievements into the open. We owe it to ourselves to look for opportunities to grow and increase our influence. Only then will we be able to tackle the barriers that are preventing women from rising to the top of the profession. So, if you are a CMIOSH and you haven’t already done so, start getting your Fellowship Portfolio together. If you are not in a position of significant seniority, do it before IOSH’s new criteria kicks in. If you need a helping hand, why not find a mentor who can support you and encourage you to sing about your achievements. As well as informal mentoring from valued colleagues who may have made the journey, you can find mentors though IOSH or Women in Health and Safety. I’ve included some links below.

IOSH’s response to this opinion piece.

Additional resources:

Find out about IOSH Mentoring

Join the Women in Health and Safety Network

References (and data sources):

Types of membership: Chartered Fellow

Chartered fellow journey

Has gende equality gone into reverse?

IOSH membership grade review

Why don’t women self-promote as much as men? (Harvard Business Review, 2019).

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Tim Briggs
Tim Briggs
3 years ago

I cannot agree more with your observations and enjoyed reading this article. I also think your observation of “I have worked for organisations and managers who supported my development, encouraged me to get involved with safety beyond my workplace both locally and nationally, and allowed me the time to do so“ has played a large part in this. More people should be doing this. Sadly, generally the view seems to be “Am I developing employees for others to poach”? or “For the employee to go and get a better well paid job”? I get more requests from males to help… Read more »

Mary Darlington
Mary Darlington
3 years ago

I fully agree with many of the points made in this article. I became a Chartered Fellow in 2005 and I feel I fully deserved it. However, even though I was ready for it, it was a suggestion by a fellow male professional that made me apply for it at that time. I agree that many women feel they are unworthy, not up to it, or that they could not possibly apply etc. and we need to get over feeling of insecurity and not being deserving. Men and women need to mentor and assist other women to gain fellowship. I… Read more »

Christopher Pettifer
Christopher Pettifer
3 years ago

This is just an unhelpful statistic that does not necessarily identify a problem as it may well be down to personal choice and factors outside of those being put forward. It is a matter of fact that there are, quite rightly, many women in senior positions in many industries so what is so different here? Why assume that many women feel unworthy and then put this forward as part of the explanation? Unfortunately, we live in a society where people are constantly looking to find problems relating to discrimination in one form or another where none exists so as long… Read more »