For International Women’s Day 2023, we are pleased to highlight a special interest group dedicated to advocating for all people at BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) who identify as women.
Today and every day, BCEHS celebrates the contributions of all women throughout our organization. Together, we can all play a role as we #EmbraceEquity
Paramedicine has historically been a male-dominated field. While statistics show a steady increase in women entering paramedicine in the past decade in B.C. and across Canada, the data also shows women still haven’t reached equity in more senior paramedic and leadership roles.
To raise the profile of women in paramedicine and advocate for people working at BC Emergency Health Services who identify as women, in September 2021, five women at BCEHS formed the Women in Paramedicine Special Interest Group (WIPSIG). Since then, the BC Women in Paramedicine Facebook group associated with WIPSIG has grown to upwards of 400 members and allies.
WIPSIG founding members Jennifer (Jen) Bolster, Maria Cirstea, Shauna Speers, and Melissa Vose dedicate their personal time to move this important work forward. Kelly Noel joined the group in the fall of 2022.
“Between our own experiences and what we were hearing our colleagues had experienced, we knew there needed to be a more robust system to support women,” says Shauna Speers, unit chief of Station 413 in Golden, B.C.
The BCEHS leadership team has endorsed WIPSIG from the start.
“From the very beginning, there has been overwhelming support,” says paramedic practice leader Jen Bolster. Chief operating officer, Neil Lilley, is the current executive sponsor of the group. Leanne Heppell, chief ambulance officer, Nicola Price, executive director of Human Resources, and Leslie White, director of Communications and Engagement, were all early advocates of the group.
The founding members reached out to the Australasian College of Paramedicine
, an umbrella group that includes Ambulance Victoria, who had formed their own Special Interest Group to advance women’s issues and interests. These organizations provided WIPSIG with a springboard to move their work forward in B.C.
As a group that is supported, but not mandated, by the employer, WIPSIG’s mission is to bring gender equity to the forefront of BCEHS by advocating for long-lasting policies and procedures that remove obstacles for women and support them in obtaining fulfilling careers within the organization. To that end, a better understanding of workplace gender equity, sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination at BCEHS, was needed. Senior leadership supported this request and continues to work with WIPSIG and others to push the organization forward on these important issues. The founding members also conducted two focus groups to hear experiences from other women at BCEHS, allowing them to glean more data from the general working population.
“What we heard was that women had difficulties navigating the reporting process, had limited access to supports, peer mentorship and support, and that in some cases they were experiencing either overt or covert sexism and micro-aggressions,” says Bolster.
Adds Shauna Speers: “If retention is a thing that is important to our employer, we needed to look at our work from a lens that allows women to stay with the organization and succeed.”
While the landscape is changing for women in paramedicine, the founding members of WIPSIG agree there is room for improvement.
Melissa Vose is an advanced care paramedic (ACP) based in Victoria who has been working for BCEHS for 20 years. “One of the driving forces is to see better gender equity represented across the organization,” she says. “40 per cent of our workforce is female, but very few become ACPs, managers and leaders. I’ve seen a vast improvement, but we’re still not at equity. We want to see our ACPs, critical care paramedics, unit chiefs and senior leaders also be 40 per cent or more, female.”
Jen Bolster adds: “There are expanded opportunities for women in leadership now, but this has not always been the case. When I looked at leadership teams as a new paramedic, I didn’t see any women so I didn’t see that as something I could achieve.”
Shauna Speers cites the founding members’ recent accomplishments as something to be proud of.
“Even within our group internally, since we’ve started, Jen has become a Paramedic Practice Leader, Maria is a clinical operations manager, and I’ve become a unit chief. Because we’re in these positions, I think we’re starting to set the path for others,” she says.
When asked about what lights them up about the future of paramedicine for women, Melissa Vose says: “I’m a preceptor, so I take paramedic ACP students. It lights me up and gets me excited when I have strong students who are female, who are ambitious, who are navigating the system and learning. I love watching them grow their wings and fly.”
“We believe there are a lot of talented women who work for BCEHS – I’d love to see them reach their full potential. We hope to provide an example for other marginalized groups within BCEHS, and a template for others to follow,” she adds.