A workplace safety culture is built on the shared values, beliefs and attitudes of an organisation and its employees, and is translated into specific policies, procedures and practices that are internalised and enforced across all levels of the organisation. Such a culture is key to ensure the workforce’s safety and productivity and it is therefore crucial that an organisation’s safety culture considers the specific risks faced by women in the workplace, which are distinctly different in many ways than those faced by men.
To be sure, several aspects of a good workplace safety culture are best implemented as “gender-blind”, as they are aimed at creating a safe environment for all employees regardless of gender. This does not mean, however, that special attention should be paid to those specific risks that are a) more frequently faced by women or that b) are materially different for women. A “one-size fits all” approach would ultimately negate the objectives of having a safety culture in the first place for women employees and would be very detrimental to an organisation’s diversity and inclusion objectives.
The risks that women face in the workplace cover a series of acts that range from the most subtle expressions of psychological and social violence to more direct aggressions, including those of a sexual nature. To build a safe space, free of harassment and violence, it is important to implement an institutional culture that prioritises gender perspective. Awareness about gender roles and stereotypes inside and outside the company is a first step in building safe, fair, and egalitarian workspaces. Let’s consider the following safety culture building strategies:
- Establish a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment: any form of sexual harassment, including verbal, physical or visual, cannot be tolerated in the workplace.
- Provide training to all employees on the importance of creating a safe, respectful, inclusive, and gender-aware workplace. The importance of having effective mechanisms for the prevention, reporting and follow-up of all kinds of harassment and violence must be accompanied by internal sensitivity trainings that work to promote increased awareness and a more inclusive and respectful environment.
- Create an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting incidents of harassment, and provide multiple avenues for reporting, such as an anonymous hotline or an online reporting system.
- Take all reports of harassment seriously and investigate them thoroughly. Ensure that employees who report harassment are protected from retaliation.
- Encourage diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, including gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Ensure that all employees feel valued and included.
- Create a supportive work environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns and challenges. Encourage open communication and provide support to employees who have experienced harassment.
- Regularly review and update workplace policies to ensure they align with best practices and reflect changes in the legal landscape.
All these strategies are conducive to a safe and respectful work environment, regardless of gender. The available data across many countries clearly indicates that women are sexually harassed and subjected to sexual violence in a much greater proportion than men and that they are, for the most part, reluctant to report such behaviour. The adequate enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment would thus have a much greater positive impact on women employees than it would do on men. Likewise with the training, reporting, and investigating strategies: all employees should be well versed on the organisation’s policies and procedures, and they should all comply with them thoroughly, but given the disparity in victimisation between men and women, the impact of each strategy is likely to be very differentiated as well.
As the available data would suggest that women are more likely to be victims of harassment, the design and implementation of all these mechanisms should take that into account, as well as any cultural and social factors outside of the organisation that might encourage harassment and discourage reporting. A rigid gender-blind and culture-blind approach to implementing policies and procedures is, as mentioned before, likely to miss many of the women-specific risks in the workplace.
It may be hard, of course, to recognise the specific challenges and risks that affect women in the workplace, particularly if the overall culture of the organisation skews towards a male-dominated leadership, particularly in more traditional societies. In addition to policies and procedures, a positive women security workplace culture should therefore also involve promoting gender equality and inclusivity, such as encouraging women to pursue leadership roles and promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This can help create a culture where women feel valued and respected, and where they can thrive and succeed without fear of harassment or discrimination.
Organisations should also be mindful of the need to take physical security measures to improve women's safety in the workplace, such as installing security cameras, providing safe transportation options, and implementing access control measures to restrict access to certain areas of the workplace. Overnight and constantly changing shifts create very specific challenges for women that should be recognised as a matter of policy and procedure whenever possible.
Finally, nothing can be set in stone. It is crucial that organisations continually assess and improve their women security workplace culture and measures to ensure the safety and well-being of all employees. And to this end, it is crucial that the leadership of the organisation pay close attention to the overt outcomes of the strategies that were put in place, but also, crucially, to less obvious indicators, such as women attrition and workplace satisfaction. A high turn-over of women employees and widespread dissatisfaction might be indicators that the current safety is falling short of expectations.