As part of our week-long International Women’s Day celebrations, the Society's Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group spoke to six women geographers working in Disaster Risk Management (DRM).
Liz Hughes OBE, Dr Vanessa Lawrence CGeog, Vanessa Pilley CGeog, Lucy Stanbrough, Jane Toothill and Caroline Yormesor discuss their experiences of working in DRM, the challenges women working in this field face, and the advice they’d give to fellow female geographers.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for leadership roles today and how can we promote gender equality?
Jane Toothill (JT): As business leaders we need to address gender equality in the broader context of diversity and inclusion. This means setting up an environment where people are recognised and valued for what they are good at. Beyond creating policies to promote equality, it’s important to ensure a strong population of female leaders to set the right example of achievement and encourage younger women.
Caroline Yormesor (CY): Promoting awareness and ensuring accountability for instances of gender inequity are key to reaching gender equality. Working and campaigning together will not provide a quick fix but there is strength in numbers and collaboration widens our reach. Equally, understanding intersectional factors which can have an impact on women’s progress is a further building block in promoting gender equality.
Vanessa Lawrence (VL): To be a successful leader it is vital that you spend time gaining insight from many others in your team and those in your stakeholder landscape. I urge all senior women and men to seek out both men and women who can lead in these ‘new times’ but being mindful all the time that they must create encouraging conditions for women to realise that they personally could take a significant role in leadership.
What advice would you give to young female geographers looking to get into Disaster Risk Management (DRM)?
Vanessa Pilley (VP): Learn the basics, and then get experience in a variety of risk management roles. As a Chartered Geographer with the Society, I’d also like to flag the wealth of resources they have online, and the associated Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group.
CY: Be resourceful, determined and inquisitive; immerse yourselves in the field and gain as much exposure and experience as you can early on. Whether it is a placement in a DRM organisation, seeking out a mentor in the field or just following DRM-related themes and organisations on social media - there is a wealth of information available which will help expand your understanding of the field and inform your career choices.
Liz Hughes (LH): Focus in on specific specialisms which add value and ground that professional knowledge in experience – geospatial analysis is one, but there are others around data science, statistics and climate change-related disciplines. Without good information, it is really hard to make informed decisions and there is a need to keep pushing the boundary on this all the time.
Do you have any examples of where gender differences have surfaced in disaster risk management?
VP: The majority of women are still the primary caregivers for their families, and this is an issue in DRM circles, given many roles require unsocial working hours, time away from the home, and last-minute flexibility.
Lucy Stanbrough: The one that sticks clearest in my mind came from work I did with Marla Petal on global school safety – Marla shared a Save the Children report that introduced me to gendered differences. There was speculation that the higher death rates for women may have been the result of gendered division of labour 'with more women indoors cooking and caring for young children may have contributed to some of this imbalance'. There are a lot of hidden biases out there that you don’t see until they are pointed out.
CY: It is recognised that women are often disproportionately impacted by disasters. Following a major hurricane, shelter managers on one of the affected islands shared their concerns with me about gender-specific issues including ensuring access to safe spaces for nursing mothers and providing access to sanitary protection – key to dignity in disasters. In another instance, deploying gender balanced teams into multi-cultural environments allowed the team I was working with to complete needs assessments for displaced women who, for cultural reasons, could not speak to men outside of their families. Appreciating these differences allows us to be effective DRM professionals and to build relationships with the women in affected communities.
What do you see in other females that inspires you?
JT: The answer is no different for men or women. I’m inspired by people who are brave, who overcome challenges, and who stand up for their beliefs or their vision. To pick some inspirational female role models, then from very different backgrounds and for very different reasons, I think Helen Keller, Alison Hargreaves and Greta Thunberg are all worthy of mention.
LH: Many things! I have several female colleagues who lead their organisations with such energy, vision, clarity and courage – it is so inspiring. I am inspired also by young women making their mark because they believe in something – Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai – it takes a great deal of courage to swim against the trend. One of the most influential people for me was a woman of 94, an ordinary Joanna Bloggs but inspiring because of her positive and curious outlook even at that great age. That takes courage too!
VL: The females who inspire me have a sense of purpose and a drive to get things completed, but they also take their team and their stakeholders with them, whilst undertaking the leadership challenge.
What is your message for fellow women in Disaster Risk Management?
VP: SUPPORT EACH OTHER. I’d love to see more female peer-to-peer sharing, solidarity, and kindness.
JT: Don’t dwell on your gender and the difference it makes; you risk perpetuating inequality. Do your job well, meet the challenges you’re set, excel at what you do - and enjoy every minute of it.
LS: Don’t wait to be asked – be brave.
Liz Hughes is a Chief Executive at Map Action; Dr Vanessa Lawrence is a Director of Location International Ltd; Vanessa Pilley is a Senior Scientific Officer at DEFRA; Lucy Stanbrough is Head of Emerging Risks and Geopolitical Risks Research; Jane Toothill is a Managing Director at JBA Risk Management; and Caroline Yormesor is a Senior Resilience Advisor at Applied Resilience.
Read the full interviews.
Find out more about our Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group.