Take Care: Navigating Professional Safety for Women in Conduct
By Amanda Mesirow
Individuals who identify as women face different, and sometimes dangerous, challenges than do other professionals. From mindsets to #MeToo, many women encounter daily safety concerns. Based on the presenter's session at ASCA 2019, blog post will include information about how to gain situational awareness, how to advocate for your safety at work, and about how to be an ally. The focus is on women; however, intersectionality will be honored.
At an ASCA session some years ago, the presenter—from a sexual assault awareness and education group—asked the women-identified individuals in the session to share what safety measures they practice every day. Many examples were given: carrying keys in their hand when walking to their cars, downloading tracking apps that allow friends to know where they are, having a code to text or call a friend during a first date, etc. The presenter then asked the men to share their safety measures. None of the men had any to share.
These kinds of moments are strong visual reminders that women-identified individuals live in the same environment as men, but experience it completely differently. There are also considerations for intersectional identities—one stark example is the difference in safety for a white male being pulled over vs. a Black male; walking down the street wearing a hijab vs. not wearing religious garments—but this blog will focus on women, and women in conduct in particular.
Why women? According to a 2018 study, Stop Street Harassment (2018), found that 81% of women have experienced harassment, as opposed to 43% of men. Additionally, 38% of women have experienced that harassment at work, as opposed to 13% of men (Stop Street Harassment, 2018). Over 1/5 of the women surveyed had to change their regular routine or route (Stop Street Harassment, 2018). Living with safety concerns begins early: 30% of women who reported being harassed experienced the first incident before the age of 14 (Stop Street Harassment, 2018). The impacts on women, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2014) include experiencing stress-related disorders at twice the rate of working men, and a higher likelihood of experiencing hostile or uncivil behavior in the workplace, even from other women (Gabriel, Butts, & Sliter, 2018). This is to say nothing of experiences also impacting physical and emotional safety, such as the pay gap, the “second shift” at home, and having to monitor clothing, attitude, language, and other factors that men do not have to consider nearly as often or as intensely.
I acknowledge that not all individuals will identify with the terms used here, have the same access to resources, or face similar safety challenges (for example, again, cis women face different challenges than trans women, women with different mobility face different challenges than able-bodied women, etc.) Based on presentations on this topic I have given in multiple settings, the goal for this blog is to increase awareness of the need for safety considerations to be discussed and addressed in our workplaces. The hope is that you will walk away with ideas to protect your environmental, professional, and physical (including emotional) safety, and that our male-identified supervisors and colleagues will advocate for the same for us.
COVID has heightened environmental safety concerns for everyone, but I want to point out a specific safety issue for women during the pandemic, especially women hearing officers. As campuses slowly reopen, more and more staff are working alone in an office or even an entire building. If we are having in-person meetings, it is extremely likely no other colleagues are around. It is vital that conduct staff are speaking up about this specific concern. We meet with students who are emotional, who have posed a threat, who are dealing with intense life occurrences, and who may even become physically violent. A plan needs to be made, and these issues need to be addressed. Should in-person meetings happen in conference rooms in occupied buildings only? Should an emergency “panic button” or similar safety technology be installed? Where is your office located—even during non-pandemic times, this is important to note—and how easily can you exit the area or get help? What are students allowed to bring into the room with them? How acceptable is it, and what kind of reaction will occur, for you to ask for extra staffing presence?
As you consider these points, also consider some of the low or no cost measures you can take to secure your own environmental safety:
· During times when you are staffing your office alone, keep your door/the outer door locked. A sign can be placed encouraging visitors to knock or call for entry. This allows you some control over your space and the ability to call for help, if needed, before the person can access the office.
· Know what your keys do, and who else has those same keys. Make sure your staff understands that access to a master or similar is closely monitored. If you live on-campus, you need to advocate to have a key—that you carry on your person—for every single exterior door. This is especially true in summers or when halls are taken offline for any reason (e.g., construction). There is no reason for you not to have access at any entry point.
· Know your building. You should know what is behind every door, where the exits are, and how to use those exits quickly, or where to shelter in place. Make note of where students congregate, where individuals could enter or exit unobserved by staff, and who frequents each space.
o Others should know the building. Each door should have a number outside of it. Telling off-campus EMTs “It's in Smith Hall, next to the student life office” is much less helpful than “Smith Hall, room 104.” Exterior doors should also be numbered. This is helpful for visitors, as well, who may be calling for help. You may be used to the layout, but they certainly are not. Emergency response is much faster with a precise location. Parking lot light poles can also have identifiers—even if it's a small lot, saying “Area 1” or “Area 2” gets an even faster response going.
o Grounds issues. As they pertain to access: are there objects near doors that can be used to prop them? Does everyone know that if you pull hard enough on the electronic door, it'll open? Are we sure the accessible button doesn't trigger the doors to open after hours?
o Late/Early Access. Who has access to your building before administrative staff (receptionist, front desk staff, etc.) are there to open it? Do you have access? Do you go into your building before others are there? Are the doors locking behind them? Who is allowed to access the building/stay late after hours? For evening hours, you should have protocol in place. If staff is working more than 15 minutes over time, have them call security/police to let them know. Make this a standard so that staff doesn't “tough it out.” Especially if they are meeting with a student. This is courtesy as well to security to know where people are and at what times. Make it an expectation that people do not come in early/leave late without making sure someone knows. This relieves individuals of having to fear asking for something that is a basic safety measure, particularly since women are often concerned for the perception of their professional abilities if they request extra security measures.
Again, our work is very different than the majority of work done on campus. One particular concept that every conduct professional should know for their safety is “situational awareness” or SA (Altizer & Stafford, 2017). The US Coast Guard, cited in Altizeer and Stafford (2017) defines SA as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend elements of information about what is happening to the team with regard to the mission.” Kevin Reeve, from onPoint Tactical, cited in Altizer & Stafford (2017) refers to SA as an “acquired ability to scan the environment and sense dangers, challenges, and opportunities…in the course of normal activity…in sufficient time to affect an outcome.”
We practice SA every day, unconsciously—when driving a car, when walking up or down stairs, when considering how we need to safely use assistive equipment to get through a door or participate in an activity. We can tell when something is “off” in our environment—these skills exist, whether we believe we have them or not (deBecker, 2010). (I recommend that every woman reads deBecker's Gift of Fear, if you have not already). We need to use these skills.
Altizer and Stafford (2017) write that the three components of SA are as follows: understanding what constitutes a “baseline,” being sensitive to “normalcy bias,” and refusing to be distracted by “focus lock.” As women, it is imperative that we understand what is common and what is normal for our surroundings. If something feels “off,” you have probably noticed subconsciously that something is amiss (e.g., “My boss never leaves their lights on when they leave for the day.”) Once you begin to get used to your surroundings, you are more likely to notice when something is a safety issue.
Again, as stated earlier, women may avoid speaking up about safety concerns due to perceptions about their professionalism or ability to handle their work, specifically in conduct. This normalcy bias can literally be deadly. We do not want to appear jumpy, so we try not to react when the door slams. We do not want to overreact, so we do not report that strange comment made to us or how uncomfortable it made us feel. We ignore what our instinct is telling us (deBecker, 2010), in order to appear polite, to go along, and to not be perceived as hysterical, bitchy, or dramatic. We do this at our own peril.
Finally, in terms of SA, we need to be aware of focus lock. My uncle worked summers in a northwest Indiana steel mill. While he was managing a dangerous project, another employee made a mistake that caused a heavy, deadly object to careen towards my uncle. Fortunately, another employee saw what was happening and yanked him out of the way, moments before he would have been crushed. My uncle shares this story as an example of focus lock: he was ignoring everything else around him as he worked on his project. We cannot afford to do this. When we are in our offices and working intently on email, or walking around campus and checking our phones, or walking to our cars and thinking about errands we need to run, we are engaged in focus lock, we have lost our situational awareness, and we are more open to danger. This is why I train, in these sessions, on “look up vs. look out.” The goal is not to create paranoia; rather, the goal is to encourage people to make it a practice to look up when someone enters the office, to stop your presentation and acknowledge that someone has entered the room, and to be able to see at least the door to your office from where you sit (i.e., not have your back to the door). This is why I also argue that, yes, a desk needs to be between you and the student. There are other ways to create a welcoming environment--lighting, decorations, comfortable visitor chairs--that do not compromise your safety.
The set up of your office environment is a good transition to my first point about professional safety. We want our offices to be welcoming, comfortable, and have some personality to help build rapport with students. We can do all of these things, and still be safe.
In terms of office décor, I am more likely to keep things neutral, rather than personal. I do not have photographs of family or friends displayed in my office. There are too many examples of professionals who have experience with a range of student behaviors—from inappropriate comments to stalking—for it to be comfortable to display photographs. This is especially true regarding images of children. It is safest to keep décor neutral and pleasant, and to keep projectiles (e.g., mugs, vases, frames) out of reach of visitors. This only sounds paranoid if you have never had a student threaten you or themselves with a sharp or heavy object.
It is also important to keep verbal communication neutral and pleasant, in terms of personal information. Sharing information about your transportation method to work, where you live, your marital status, etc. can all create physical and professional safety concerns. I also recommend that women not share information about hobbies with public involvement, such as marathon running, theater, or volunteering with certain groups. You can also maintain physical boundaries by monitoring your routine before someone else does. Considering parking in a different space or lot each day, taking a bus or train at alternating times, or entering/exiting the building from different doors can assist with someone not being able to track your routine. In general, it is okay for you to be a “blank slate” when meeting with students. It is more appropriate for a therapist or counselor to determine if the student would be helped by the sharing of personal information from a professional. Your role is to build rapport, not a relationship.
Physical and Emotional Safety
Your environmental and professional safety certainly impact your physical and emotional safety, but this section will focus specifically on measures to protect your physical and emotional health. These can sometimes be the hardest to do, because we are accountable only to ourselves for these. They are the most easily hidden, and often the last to prioritize. They are, though, a key part to keeping yourself safe in your work. I also, in presentations on safety, avoid giving advice or suggestions about diet, exercise, medication, etc. These are so specific and individual, and often rooted in sexist and ableist quasi-medical culture, that my reluctance to mention them is not because they are not important, but because they are something to be discussed with a qualified medical professional, should that opportunity be available to you.
Women are often not Type A, or B…we are Type E: Everything. This phrase, coined by Dr. Harriet B. Braiker (2002) describes the stress women feel about doing everything for everyone every time. We can find ways to avoid this feeling at work by setting boundaries. If you usually take a walk over lunch, do not schedule meetings then. Do not encourage staff to schedule their meetings over lunch, either. Do not compromise sleep for non-emergencies (and when we are honest with ourselves, we know what is truly an emergency). I recently saw a Tweet from Doomscrolling Reminder Lady (2020) that reads:
Hi, are you doomscrolling? Staying up late might feel like an act of agency when so many activities aren't available due to the pandemic. Why not use that agency to take care of yourself through a screen break, going to bed early, and/or another activity that makes you happy?
In other words, we do not feel control, so we look for control, and it is usually not something helpful. We engage in self-destructive or maladaptive behaviors, and excuse it as “I need this.” Setting boundaries is one of the first ways we can gain actual control over our health, and therefore over our safety.
Regarding emotional safety, here is another area where I tend to avoid advice such as “see a therapist;” perhaps it is better expressed in subliminal messages (see a therapist) or by just gently encouraging people to SEE A THERAPIST THIS IS SO KEY YOU SHOULD DO THIS. I am being, of course, humorous here, but after having presented multiple times on secondary trauma and safety and talking to women, the vast majority of women I have interacted with in these settings are absolutely seeking mental health resources. I understand there are financial, cultural, religious, time, and other barriers. If you want to protect your emotional safety, engage in secondary trauma work through books, workshops, therapy, etc.; how you choose to take care of your emotional health is up to you, but it is imperative that you do something.
I am going to call some of you out. For fairness, I will include myself. When was the last time you took a day off? I know that for those of us working from home or working only certain hours in the office, it may feel like time “off” because we are wearing bunny slippers while responding to email. But are you actually taking vacation? Are you taking sick leave when you are sick? Taking time away during “normal” times is also rare, and it is interesting to note that most colleagues I know are taking less time away now, when it may actually be the most helpful to do so. Again, acknowledging that there are a lot of factors at play—this may be a very helpful consideration for your emotional and physical health to actually take time away, even when working from home.
When presenting this topic as a session, I've asked people to make a plan for three things they will advocate for in each area for their safety: environmental, professional, and physical/emotional. And I also conclude with two questions, and a quotation:
One: Do you feel confident that your supervisor, colleagues, and police would take you seriously if you brought up a concern for your safety?
Two: Do you take your own safety seriously?
Activist, poet, and icon Audre Lorde once said: I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.
Alitzer, A. & Stafford, T. (2017, September 2018). 10 tips for improving your situational awareness on campus.
Campus Safety Magazine. https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/emergency/emergency-managers-situational-awareness/
Braiker, H.B. (2006). The type E* woman: How to overcome the stress of being *everything to everybody.
deBecker, G. (1997). The gift of fear: And other survival signals that protect us from violence. Dell.
Doomscrolling Reminder Lady [@karenkho]. (2020, October 12). Hi, are you doomscrolling? Staying up late
might feel like an act of agency when so many activities aren't available. [Tweet.] Twitter.
Gabriel, A.S., Butts, M.M., & Sliter, M.T. (2018, March 28). Women experience more incivility at work—
especially from other women. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/women-experience-more-incivility-at-work-especially-from-other-women
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2014, June 6). Women's safety and health issues at work.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Center for Disease Control.
Stop Street Harassment (2018). The facts behind the Me Too movement: A national study on sexual harassmentand assault. Stop Street Harassment, Raliance: Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation, Center on Gender Equity and Health. http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Full-Report-2018-National-Study-on-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault.pdf