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March 15, 2022

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Gender bias

‘I hid the fact I was pregnant for a long time at work; I feared being replaced’, OneWISH – Breaking the bias for International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day 2022, OneWISH, the Global Coalition for Women and Inclusion in Safety and Health, hosted a series of webinars following the theme ‘Break the Bias’.

In this discussion, Vice President HSE at Jacobs, Paul Hendry, talked to health and safety professionals Fiona O’Donnell, Amanda Aldred, Jennifer Gagnier and Amana Finnegan about the long and winding road that has led them to their current positions.

Host Paul Hendry began the discussion by asking the women about the barriers they have faced in their career that are unique to them as females.

Fiona O’Donnell, Head of Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) People and Places Solutions, Europe at Jacobs Engineering and mother of three, claimed the biggest problem she faced was balancing having a family and building a successful career.

She stated: “I remember feeling almost embarrassed about being pregnant in this industry.

“I felt like I had to prove something that the men I was working with didn’t. I hid the fact I was pregnant for a long time and worked on construction projects for the majority of all my pregnancies, which I should not have been doing, but I was scared of losing my job. I also went back to work very quickly after having my children because I feared, if I didn’t go back, I’d be replaced.”

Jennifer Gagnier, HSE Director – Buildings and Infrastructure Americas – West at Jacobs, shared a different perspective, stating that the biggest challenge she has faced throughout her career has been experiencing various forms of intimidation.

She said: “A large part of my career was spent in Chicago, dealing with Chicago Unions. As a young woman out in the field, everyone knows who you are because you stand out. Early on, I found a guy up on a ladder, several feet above a handrail, exposed to over 40-foot fall.

“I called him down, had a conversation with him, we had a zero-tolerance policy, so he was taken off the project. Shortly after that, I was assigned a company vehicle, which one of our trade partners utilised during the day, one of their guys came up to me one day and tried to intimidate me, it was the same guy whom I had reported.

“He threatened me, saying “you better think about checking your lug nuts every time you go down the interstate at 70mph, they might not all be tight”. His attempt to intimidate me didn’t faze me, but it was an encounter that stuck with me throughout my career, I’m not sure it’s an experience any of my male counterparts would’ve faced.”

Speaking on the impact they’ve had on others throughout their careers, Amanda Aldred, Head of HSEW Major Projects and Programs Europe & Global at Jacobs, expressed the pride she feels knowing she has helped to bring people into the industry who are now proving to majorly compliment the profession.

She commented: “I’ve coached and mentored a number of successful women in the industry who are now leading up regional roles, it’s amazing to see.”

Amanda Finnegan, Senior HSE Manager at Jacobs, shared her take, having worked in Alaska for the majority of her early career.

She said: “In Alaska, a lot of people would become HSE appointed simply because it was assigned to them. I worked with the university to put together a four degree in health and safety, and also mentored people in the program, equipping them with the qualification to do the job properly.

Paul Hendry then goes on to ask the panel whether they had any regrets, to which Fiona shared her guilt over the time she missed when her children were young.

She stated: “I rushed the front-end of my career and missed a lot of my children’s younger years which is my biggest regret. I also wish I’d realised sooner that everyone you meet along the way in your career is winging it, no one really knows what they’re doing, so you don’t always need to either.”

Amanda Aldred also shared an interesting insight, saying she wished she’d had the confidence to speak up more in certain situations.

She said: “When I first started my career, it was an emerging industry with not a lot of women in it, but, in my case, the women who were in it didn’t support each other. I should’ve had the confidence to pull people up on their behaviour.

“For me, the barrier wasn’t being in a male dominated industry, it was the terrible way women working in the industry treated each other.”

Amanda Finnegan added: “In the early stages of my career, I let the industry change me. I care a lot about people and I’m an emotional person, but, when I was working my way through leadership, I became very rigid. I never let my workers know I cared about them, which is so important to me now. I wasn’t genuine to myself, but I’m so glad I’ve overcome that and am confident in who I am now.”

The group concluded by sharing what they are most proud of in their career. Answers varied from achieving a good work life balance, to realising it was time to take a step back.

Fiona said: “I’ve got three small children, I’ve built a career, I’ve grown both personally and professionally. When I do take a moment to stand back and reflect, I realise just how much I’ve achieved.”

Amanda Aldred added: “I was most proud of myself when I made the decision to step back from HSE for 12 months. I was experiencing burnout and had poor mental health, so I made a conscious choice to step back and reset.

“When I did come back, I came back with a bang. It enabled me to be much better at what I do, be a better mother, and gave me a more well-rounded perspective.”

Jennifer concluded: “When I was younger, I was terrified of change, what I’m most proud of now is my ability to embrace change. That shift in mindset has enabled me to learn so many new things and work on some amazing projects. That is definitely my proudest achievement.”

Watch this session in full here…

If you’d like to read more from women in the profession, visit SHP’s Women in Health and Safety network, see our hub page here.

To learn more about the Women in Health & Safety Network workstreams and mailing list, click here.

To learn more about OneWISH, click here.

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