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The Future (might be more) Female: Gender Trends in Emergency Management

by Lauren Stienstra on Mar 21, 2017 2:22:22 PM


Last year, I was eating lunch with some of my emergency management colleagues and brainstorming on the women we could feature on our social media feeds for Women’s History Month. Beyond Clara Barton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Janet Napolitano, it was tough to find women of import in emergency-related fields. Local heroines were particularly difficult to come by. Having encountered this, I was driven to look up some statistics. While I have always felt mildly underrepresented in emergency management, I didn’t realize how stark the statistics actually were. As of 2014, women occupied only 34% of emergency management staff jobs, and only 8% of those employed held director-level positions within the field. Even at the highest level, just once has a woman held the position of FEMA Administrator, and that was just in an “acting” capacity for a matter of months.

In truth, it’s no surprise that emergency management is a profession that predominantly draws males. As an offshoot from the fields of public safety and civil defense, emergency management has naturally inherited the characteristics of those workforces. However, as emergency management continues to grow its own roots and develop its own professional values as an industry, the character and make-up of the workforce will also change. We’re already seeing it—as we pivot to progressive, predictive emergency management, many job descriptions strongly emphasize strategic planning, analytic skills and flexibility. This focus is a notable shift away from reactive posture, the previous emphasis that would often favor decisiveness, authority and experience.

By evolving the description of what an emergency manager is, as well as the nature of the work, an increased focus has been attributed to collaboration, engagement, facilitation and the “whole community.” In the next decade, I’m willing to bet that you’ll see an increasing number of women opting in to preparedness, response and recovery careers. Such will be the case not only because the field is expanding, but also because women are uniquely suited to make significant contributions during both routine and emergency operations. Women, often more so than their male counterparts:

Are naturally collaborative: We hear it in emergency management all the time: “It’s all about relationships!” Relationships, between individuals, agencies and organizations, are a core part of our business, and it takes well-honed “soft skills” to manage them well. Consistently, and often intuitively, women rank higher in these types of competencies, including collaboration, communication and emotional intelligence. Additionally, as the field becomes more automated and technologically complex with developments such as digital collaboration tools, GIS, cloud services and so forth, a premium is being placed on strong “soft skills.” A computer is incapable of understanding people, agency politics or organizational attitudes, and women generally have the aptitude to do this type of work well.

To balance these intuitive skills of the female gender, men are highly talented networkers and may have greater aptitude at creating opportunities outside their organization and across their field.

Are skillful multitaskers: Emergency management is notorious for trying to do more with less, especially in terms of personnel. Often, a single employee may be juggling mitigation, preparedness and protection projects when they are suddenly asked to respond to an incident. As part of that response, they may be asked to fill multiple roles, from Planning Section Chief to Public Information or Liaison Officer. Then, they’ll likely be asked to integrate information from a variety of disciplines such as infrastructure, human services or public safety. An effective emergency manager can switch rapidly and effectively between tasks, and research is demonstrating that women are adept at this.

Furthermore, early studies show that women may have a greater ability to strategize, plan and monitor activity in task-rich environments, like EOCs. For EOCs to function, though, managers must be able to speak up and request resources no matter whether these resources include equipment, policies or staff. Although women do ask for help, men tend to be more savvy in this regard and have proven to be slightly stronger negotiators.

Excel at supporting their teams:  Teamwork is a critical competency for any group of people working at an Incident Command Post or EOC. Teamwork can be developed before an emergency ever occurs, and its presence and strength stems from leadership and whether empathy was used in daily activities. Compared to men, women tend to excel at building such teamwork. Women are more likely to recognize and reward their teams for good performance, which improves employee retention and engagement. They are also more likely to provide detailed feedback and high quality on-the-job training, which is critical to both performance and job satisfaction.

Additionally, women seem more inclined to develop and challenge their employees. Employees who work for a female manager are more than 1.25 times as likely to strongly agree with the statements, “There is someone at work who encourages my development” and “In the last 6 months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.” Every emergency manager I know can point to a mentor or a coach that provided guidance, and women seem apt to fill that mentor role.

In contrast, men are more likely to utilize transactional leadership, which “establishes give-and-take relationships that appeal to a subordinate’s self-interest” and clarifies responsibilities, rewards performances and corrects failures. This conventional style can also be beneficial, establishing standards, familiarity, security and trust between supervisors and employees.

Recognize and respect risk: Emergency managers need to employ sound risk management principles to prioritize efforts and assign resources. Women inherently understand this concept; in fact, in the financial world, females tend to be better investors. For a host of complex reasons, gender norms and societal constructs encourage risk avoidance behaviors among women.

Even within their own homes, women tend to be the ones anchoring preparedness efforts. They seek out information about hazards and threats that may impact their property, and they are often the ones who prepare family members. The social networks that women create provide them with more information and warnings during disasters. In light of a warning, women are also more likely to comply with evacuation orders. This sensibility can be leveraged into sound practices across the emergency management cycle.

Despite these characteristics of women, men’s risk tolerance is still equally important. The risk tolerance held by men can generate incredible results and business success, and it can also play a key role in quickly initiating life-saving or rescue-based interventions.

Help solve the most difficult problems: It’s natural for emergency managers to handle challenging problems. Simple structure fires are handled by the fire department, modest outbreaks are easily managed by public health responders and water main breaks are the bread and butter of public works. It’s not until a problem becomes complex, uncertain, chaotic or ambiguous—in other words, really hard—that it lands in the hands of emergency managers.

Often, ingenuity, creativity and flexibility contribute to the development of a coherent solution. The  presence of women can also contribute to devising a logical solution. Evidence suggests that the number of women on a given team significantly increases that team’s ability to problem solve, maintain social sensitivity and take turns when communicating ideas.

As seen with every other trait attributed to women, we find that men have a complimentary attribute that makes the entire management team more successful. In this instance, the confidence and self-assuredness of men helps proposed solutions get recognized and implemented.

The above-listed characteristics are the underpinning of professional emergency management, as outlined in the vision, mission and principles developed by FEMA in 2007. This alignment is encouraging, but we need to continue to actively support women as they pursue careers in emergency management. I suspect that, not unlike STEM and other gender-disparate fields, women need to be actively recruited and supported, especially in the early stages of their careers. In light of this idea and all the characteristics outlined above, I encourage you to be proactive in your support of women across the field so that we can strengthen so that emergency management organizations, and the profession as a whole, can continue to be strengthened and fortified beyond its perceived limits.

Author's note: It’s worth noting that there may not be a whole lot of gender-based difference in cognitive performance between men and women; that is to say, a man’s brain is not necessarily better at one thing or another compared to a woman’s brain. Yet, our culture does treat men and women differently, and there are long held cognitive biases that both incentivize and discourage different behaviors among the genders. These trends are also just that: descriptions of groups, tendencies, and predispositions. There will always be individual variance and people who challenge the norms.

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Intermedix is proud to be a charter supporter of HERricane Arlington, a program that encourages teenage girls to consider careers in emergency management-related fields.

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This post was written by Lauren Stienstra

Lauren Stienstra currently serves as a Senior Manager for Research and Policy for the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management. She holds additional posts as an Adjunct Faculty Member and Advisory Board Member for the UCLA Extension Homeland Security and Emergency Management program.