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Tags: Diversity

IFSJ Exclusive: Gender diversity in the fire sector

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Sarah Dixon, at Johnson Controls, speaks to IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey about the gender balance in a male-dominated field

What is your professional background and your position at Johnson Controls? What was your career progression to this point?

I have been with Johnson Controls now for 2 years where I’ve moved from UK&I GM Fire Suppression to Enterprise Sales Director. Prior to this, I spent 20 years in senior director roles across facilities management, lift maintenance, service delivery and manufacturing, and have a range of experience developing and managing businesses and supporting business infrastructure and delivering profitability and growth.

The fire industry is a traditionally male dominated field – what are your views on and experiences of gender bias in the sector?

It’s no surprise that the fire industry has traditionally been a male dominated one. In fact, when I first joined the industry, I was one of the only women in the Suppression leadership team. But now that is changing and we’re making great progress at encouraging more women to join our industry. In recent years, we’ve talked a lot about bringing a shift to culture in the fire industry but while gender diversity is a key part of the puzzle, improving it can’t be a standalone measure. We need so much more than that. The Hackitt report made the need for change across the buildings industry crystal clear. It described a resistance to change and the need to drive ‘real culture change’ and the right behaviours.

For me, if we’re all working towards a new standard, we need more than gender diversity, we need to be bringing in diversity of thought to challenge our practice and allow innovation to cut through. Anyway, why wouldn’t you want to champion diversity of thought? It unlocks values we should all be aiming for – like synergy and collaboration – and opens the door to new connected ways of working. And it makes good commercial sense.

At the end of the day, we aren’t here because we are women. We’re here because we want to create safer spaces for people to live comfortably. Our industry needs to go beyond gender diversity to a fuller understanding that brings business wide benefits at every level.

What are your views on diversity in the fire industry?

The fire industry is no different to other industries within the construction environment. In all of these industries, we see a lack of diversity. We don’t have a large portion of women in the construction environment, therefore we’re underrepresented across the board. It’s not always an appealing environment for women to go into, particularly with the digital era appealing to the younger generations – and it is generally seen as a more masculine industry.

But it’s not simply a diversity problem, it’s largely a cultural problem. We see this across the board, there’s a reluctance for managers to hire someone different from themselves. As a leader, if you open up those conversations with the team, you can see a fundamental shift. We still see that alpha culture in the industry, but we need to change that culture in order to have open communication. This starts from leadership.

What you want in a business is a lot of different people offering different insights and opinions- you don’t want carbon copies of yourself, as it doesn’t generate a mix of ideas. It’s not specifically a gender diversity conversation, it’s diversity of thinking as a whole.

What can the industry do to be more welcoming/to encourage more women to choose a career in fire engineering?

Despite modest progress, women are still drastically underrepresented in leadership roles. For every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted. The industry needs to educate and empower women to think differently about their career paths. Fire engineering is not just a physical engineering job on site – there’s a range of roles. We need to educate those within the industry on supporting younger talent through their careers. In doing so, we create the right environments to retain diversity within the business. It’s a real cultural shift, and you do need organisations to change that dynamic. At certain levels you get a lot of female drop out, as life takes over and we have to prioritise things like hybrid work and flexibility.

We all have one goal – to make fire safety a priority in buildings, it’s not a tick box exercise and we need diverse thoughts and opinions to make this happen. We know there is still more to do to achieve gender equality, but I think we should aim even higher with company cultures that leave space for diverse perspectives and ideas from everyone.

As fire industry professionals, we have a part to play in a better buildings industry, one which has improved collaboration with all parties coming together as a whole. In our business our people are the hidden heroes of the buildings industry, but change has to be seen to be believed and it has to involve everyone. This sort of culture change is underpinned by diversity of thought all the way. That’s why we need to take strides across everything from HR to policies and processes to communication.

Why is cultural change at a people-level important for the fire industry?

In our business the ultimate goal is for contractors and developers to want an industry partner who can deliver all aspects of fire safety, not just one.  At its heart, it’s an exercise in coming together with our partners to make everything gel in sync as it should. It’s about scrapping the tick box approach to safety and believing in the value of what we bring to every stage of a building’s lifecycle.  But scrapping the tick-box approach and changing how we work can’t be just all about regulations, it has to be about a shift in culture that brings shared motivation.

To achieve this, we need a broad field of view that recognises the value a diverse workforce. Businesses must also take leadership in setting the direction and knowing what skills in your workforce will get you there. This informs everything from the way teams work together, to recruitment processes and even how you implement a framework for success. It’s a top-down mindset that involves teams across your whole operation. This has numerous benefits in terms of sharing knowledge and experience, but it also enables all teams to play their part.

What values should companies in the fire industry strive to build into their employee culture?

Simply, a positive, collaborative culture. If you create the right environment in your workforce, you reap the benefits. It’s not about handholding, it’s about creating that positive company culture, where good behaviours can grow.

Education, learning resources and opportunities for teachable moments that can engage everyone at any level is invaluable too. An organisation should encourage teams to have open and frank conversations where they can freely share their thoughts and feelings. Success relies on the engagement and emotional connection employees have the values your business is building into its culture. If you haven’t got that buy-in, you’ll never be able to create a more diverse, well-rounded approach to fire safety.

This article was originally published in the January edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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