Women in product safety

3-minute read

In the past week, while reading about International Women’s Day, I paused to consider the number of women involved in consumer product safety. I decided to write this article to reflect on the key role that women have in consumer safety – as professionals and as consumers.

Meaningful work

Product safety is a very rewarding area in which to work – and there’s roles across a range of disciplines. At the professional level, women are well represented across policy, consumer education, law firms, regulators, injury prevention and so on. And increasingly in leadership roles.

A 2018 IWD blog posted by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission showcased a number of its female staff. These women worked in a range of areas including policy, international relations, textile technology and investigation. Each of them said what they like most about product safety work is the opportunity to apply their skills in a way that’s meaningful to the community. Many also valued the diversity and challenges in their day to day work. I know these aspects are what’s driven my passion for more than 30 years.

I think that with the push to attract more women into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, product safety offers many options: laboratory testing, product materials and design, epidemiology, research,  compliance, behavioural economics, psychology … the list goes on. Contributing to safer products that we all use is a wonderful practical application of a STEM background and studies.

In STEM fields and otherwise, consumer product safety can be a great career choice.

Women and product safety

Corporate opportunities to contribute

Women can play a key part in good Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) at consumer product companies. Diversity on boards is known to have a positive effect on company performance. It has even been shown to influence consumer safety.

A study of the US medical products industry published in 2020 was the first to examine the impact of female board representation on product recalls. It examined nearly 5,000 recalls and found that firms with female directors on their boards announce high-severity recalls 28-days faster than all-male boards.

This is a 35% reduction in the time between when a firm was first made aware of the defect and when it decided to recall the defective product.

And the more women on the board, the faster the product was recalled.

The Influence of Female Directors on Product Recall Decisions, Management and Service Operations Management

The study’s authors pointed out that while boards don’t make the recall decisions, they do set the tone and expectations for how managers should make these decisions.

I think it’s reasonable to infer that similar results could be found within other sectors of the consumer market. I wonder if anyone will conduct that research.

As consumers

Around the world, women are known to make more purchasing decisions than men. They also have the majority role in care of home and family. Companies making and selling products need to be conscious of women’s approach to risk taking and safety. Including women in corporate decision-making can make a positive difference to company success.

At a recent international conference, I heard of an infant product safety standard in the past for which the all male technical committee was quite sure that their warning for supervision would mean the parent would always have their eyes on the child using the product. And so the product was designed accordingly, with fewer safeguards. Only when a woman joined the standard committee were they able to understand that for that particular product, their assumptions did not match the reality of parental behaviour. New safeguards were then added into the product standard.

Women and product safety
Andrea and Allison on ABC Australian Story

Women are often front and centre when it comes to campaigning for safety. Sadly, it often takes a fatality to demonstrate the need for action. Bereaved mothers sometimes have to be at the forefront of efforts to bring about change, as highlighted by a recent television program. Andrea Shoesmith and Allison Rees both lost their young daughters who had swallowed a button battery. These mothers were a key part of the campaign for a new Australian regulation declared in December. The full half-hour program is very informative. It can be seen on YouTube: Australian Story, Sisters in Arms.

On International Women’s Day 2021, here’s cheers to all the women working to make our daily lives safer.