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Gender issues in civil contingencies and homeland security leadership 

What is the personal experience of women who work in the civil contingencies field? Does gender ever emerge as an issue within the traditional command and control context? Are there barriers, seen or unseen, to women in civil contingencies? Emily Hough provides a short summary of a two-part in depth series by Editorial Advisory Panel Member Andy Marshall, in which he delves into the timeless minefield of gender debate, researching the experience of women working in civil contingencies and homeland security.


A woman being too assertive in a meeting can often be perceived more negatively than if a male colleague takes the same approach - the latter often being seen as bold, decisive and strong (photo: Jorgen McLeman / 123RF)

  • Marshall interviewed several senior women in the field:
  • Helen Braithwaite, OBE – Department of Communities and Local Government, UK, and Member of CRJ’s Editorial Advisory Panel;
  • Nina Dawes, OBE – Former Chief Executive, Lichfield District Council, UK;
  • Lianne Deathridge – Emergency Planning Team Leader, Shropshire Council, UK;
  • Ellie Gatrill-Smith – Civil Contingencies Officer, Staffordshire County Council, UK;
  • Amanda Hayde, American Red Cross, New York City, USA;
  • Helen Hinds - Emergency Planning and Resilience Manager, Newcastle City Council and Chair of the Emergency Planning Society, UK;
  • Laura Palmer – Flood Incident Management Team Leader, Environment Agency, UK;
  • El Parker – Course Director and Associate Head of Department for Disaster Management, Coventry University, UK; and
  • Christina Scott, Director, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, UK, 2009 – 2013.

Marshall is convinced that high-performing teams are, by default, diverse, saying this research was: “Partly a first hand insight as a manger into the challenge and the ultimate reward of tackling gender disparity in the workplace.” He describes how working with Nina Dawes, OBE, as she led the response to flooding in her community in the summer of 2007, turned her into a role model, not just for how to lead a complex multiagency civil contingencies operation, but also demonstrating: “Without ever drawing direct attention to it, that a woman was just as capable as any male peer in this particular environment. What was fascinating for me, was that she led it differently,” he says.

The two articles raise discussion points that Marshall says merit further research. Most respondents perceived command and control as being a universally male oriented, male driven activity. Marshall says that emotional intelligence appears to assume a greater significance when women are involved in decision-making within this context, using a more multi-dimensional construct based on longer term thinking and a broader focus on societal and people-based impacts.

When talking to Nina Dawes in particular, Marshall notes that she does not hail from a traditional emergency services background and therefore had no structured, progressive command training at, for example a uniformed staff college. “What she did have, was a track record of leadership in housing, benefits and neighbourhood services, all of which provide to be transferable skills in a crisis.”

Blocking out any external noise relating to gender is an important skill in such environments and, Marshall says, he was also struck by how the women he spoke to with the most frontline experience appeared to have: “Developed an almost stoic resolve, bordering on an almost inverted intolerance for weakness among other female colleagues.” He summarises this as: “You know what the civil contingencies role entails and if it’s not for you, then maybe you should think about doing something else.”

With regard to perceived barriers with regard to gender, Marshal emphasises that he has no way of knowing whether these are entirely and exclusively associated with the civil contingencies domain. He also found no consensus as to whether these significantly limited careers or opportunities. However, one or two of the comments made by the respondents about meetings will strike a familiar chord with many women who work in all types of environments.

He says: “With almost chilling consistency, respondents outlined how, as a woman, they had been talked over or around at meetings chaired by male colleagues and, in some instances, been ignored completely.

“Others recounted instances where they had attended a meeting with a junior male colleague and observed that he was addressed directly at the meeting, the inference being that it is often assumed the woman is invariably the subordinate. In many cases, the woman is assumed to be not just the subordinate, but there to take notes and to administer refreshments.”

It was also noted how difficult it is for a woman to challenge a meeting chair without coming across as negative or aggressive. Amanda Hayde, for example, explained that in her view it was entirely appropriate for women to be ‘assertive’ active meeting participants, but how a woman being too assertive can often be perceived more negatively at a meeting than when a male colleague takes the same approach, the latter often being seen as bold, decisive and strong.

But, it must be emphasised, that women have a range of ways of dealing with such challenges, including using reverse psychology.

Human resources processes around gender discrimination and equal pay were held in very low esteem, where trust is the exception not the norm.

Marshall sees these initial findings as an open invitation to further investigation, saying there are three main areas where further policy research might yield practical dividends. These are:

  • Multiagency command and control;
  • Career development; and
  • Human resources.

Naturally, this is a very short summary of two detailed articles published across consecutive issues of the Crisis Response Journal. The full articles are available to subscribers here and here. For details on how to subscribe, click here

Emily Hough, 15/09/2015
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