March 8, 2023

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Health and safety – it IS for girls.

Lucilla Cummings says a sexist slogan for a chocolate bar mirrored the early days of her career. On International Women’s Day, she explains how one meeting, in particular, gave her the courage to speak up, find her voice and ultimately strive in the profession.

Lucilla Cummings

Do you remember the old tagline for Yorkie chocolate bars “It’s not for girls”?

Its entire advertising campaign was centred around provocative, heavy gender stereotypes.

Although the slogan has now been retired, the phrase lingered with me as I was starting my career; because just like the chocolate bar, it can feel like the safety world, particularly in merchanting or construction is also not for girls.

I started my health and safety journey as a health and safety graduate at a builders’ merchant. I didn’t realise how hard the transition would be in going from a diverse postgraduate learning space, where I was the odd one out in predominantly white, male and middle-aged meetings.

In such an environment, it’s easy to experience imposter syndrome while dealing with the guilt of conforming to gender stereotypes;  being intimidated to speak or when I did, be spoken over. Voicing my opinion felt difficult and gaining influence was an internal ongoing struggle, as I would be quiet as a mouse. From meeting to meeting, for nearly two years the feelings remained.

Then came the turning point.

Sat in a leadership meeting one May morning, the topic of mental health and wellbeing came up. No one was really saying anything, but I was bubbling with ideas and feedback. At that moment, I realised how much a female point of view can add value and fresh insight. I began to speak, rather apprehensively at first. My words were met with silence, but I continued to talk, gaining confidence with every sentence as I saw others nodding their approval. My opinions were being listened to and absorbed, rather than responded to in the occasional brush-off manner.

When I started researching this article, I was keen to see how I could offer a different perspective and encouragement to others.

This has never been about being ‘one of the lads’

Since then, I’ve continued to push myself with my newfound inner confidence. I found myself sharing ideas and found my niche for all things load security and have gone on to influence industry standards and change the way in which our business applies these them.

I strive to break stereotypes, create development opportunities, and support other females in the industry. For me, this has never been about being ‘one of the lads’, but instead realising my worth and value to the industry, and not shrinking into the background.

Gender discriminationMost importantly, I wanted to prove that equality and diversity in the merchanting industry can lead to greater results in terms of productivity, engagement and job satisfaction. It’s not just me that has changed, the business (Travis Perkins) has made step changes too; creating a women’s network and enhancing maternity pay to name a few. I will be honest there’s still some way to go and it’s easy though to get frustrated, but progress is progress.

When I started researching this article, I was keen to see how I could offer a different perspective and encouragement to others. To begin with, I wanted to see what the current state of play was – how many females are in the sector?

I was disappointed but not surprised by the bleak results. According to RoSPA, women only make up less than 30% of HSE professionals. This statistic was ultimately why it is important for me to write this piece. Put simply, we need more diversity and equality in the health and safety profession.

Uplift, empower and elevate other women too

I spoke to Jade Hartley a fellow HSE Improvement specialist at Travis Perkins, and asked her what advice she would give to females in the profession. “Build your network and listen to advise,” she told me. “These will be the people who will help you create the career that you want.” Inspired by Jade’s words, these are my piece of advice for those who are perhaps starting out on their own health and safety journey.

  • Be Bold. Speak up
  • Break through the glass ceiling, then smash through the concrete one. Set your ambitions high and invested in your development
  • Create opportunities, even if there aren’t one
  • No two career journeys are the same. Don’t compare yourself to other’s journeys
  • Find a mentor who gives their time and listens
  • Uplift, empower and elevate other women too
  • Make sure you network. This has done wonders for my confidence and knowledge. Whether it’s work- or development-related having someone to sense check, share ideas with or just listen to can make such a difference. Networking doesn’t just mean joining IOSH or big branded events, this can be done internally within your own business

Safety is for girls and it’s time we embraced, celebrated and valued the females in our profession. And for males reading this and thinking what’s next – a good place to start is to be an ally.

Lucilla Cummings is HSE Improvement Specialist at Travis Perkins and 2023 SHP Editorial Board Member.

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Vimel Budhdev
Vimel Budhdev
1 year ago

Great article Lucilla!

1 year ago

Of course health and safety is for girls just as it is for anyone. If you have the competence and experience it shouldn’t matter what your gender or skin colour is. All that matters is if you can do the job and can make a difference.

1 year ago

Great story and positive encouragement for other females to choose a career in Health & Safety. I’m a bloke and the first to admit we don’t know it all, and some of us underestimate the value a female perspective can bring to the subject. I wish you continued success Lucilla and thank you for sharing your story.

Nigel Evelyn-dupree
Nigel Evelyn-dupree
1 year ago

The chasm between Professional PC Ideology and Personal Ideology presenting in bias still has someway to go before “mind the gap” removed regardless of equality, accessibility, governance whatever with judgmental and subtle insidious degree of approval deprivation embedded in society, education and the workplace cultures.

Lindsey Poston-Simms
Lindsey Poston-Simms
1 year ago

So pleased to read your story Lucilla. I sincerely hope you inspire others to be brave in male dominated industries and strive to be their authentic self. – Well done you!