Your Call’s Strategic Advisor, Professor Jane Burns, was delighted to give the keynote address at the Emergency Services Foundation (ESF) annual International Women’s Day (IWD) event.

The 2022 event welcomed 300 women and men representing Victoria’s 14 emergency service and management organisations to learn about action that is occurring across the sector to improve gender equity, and to share ideas on how they can collectively act to break the bias.

Professor Burns’ address focused on the well-being of Victoria’s frontline women workers, and what it means to have a psychologically safe workplace.

Several independent reports find frontline women face widespread discrimination

Since 2015, there has been a number of independent reviews into the workplace culture at several Victorian emergency services organisations including Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, the SES and the CFA, with each review finding women working in emergency services face issues including sexual assault, sexual harassment, predatory behaviour and workplace discrimination.

Chair of Ambulance Victoria, Ken Lay AO APM, says the reviews paint a very grim picture.


The breadth and depth of issues of incivility, disrespect, discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and victimisation in our workplace are deeply disturbing. Far too many of these stories hide in plain sight – accepted, tolerated, or ignored. Each and every one of these stories recount a level of harm that has been inflicted on our people by those they work alongside. Sometimes the harm is short lived, sometimes it is career ending, often it ends in long term pain and suffering, said Mr Lay.

What does it mean to have a listen up, speak up culture?

Professor Burns invited the audience to discuss what a listen up, speak up culture means to them.

Some shared stories of their lived experience, which reiterate the findings of the various independent reviews.


It was known throughout the organisation, including by the CEO, that there was harassment throughout the organisation but there was no action at a senior level. We only had one female senior executive, and she was bullied out of her job, said one conference delegate.


Professor Burns talked about the structural barriers leaders should address that could result in fear of retribution for speaking up, including ‘chain of command’ and fear of job loss, or being overlooked for a promotion. This was echoed by delegates with one agreeing that it was a career limiting move.


I’ve been the person in the room who wants to speak up but I’ve kept quiet because I didn’t want a target on my back, said another conference delegate.


Delegates also spoke about their organisation’s whistleblowing policy being a ‘tick the box’ process rather than a genuine desire from the organisation to uncover and investigate issues of wrongdoing.


The whistleblowing policy is a tick-the-box exercise – there’s always that question at the back of your mind ‘is it supported?’ and ‘is it confidential?’ said conference delegate.

Feeling the benefits of brave and courageous leadership

However, others who reported stronger action from senior executives, leading to a safer, more inclusive and more enjoyable place to work for all.


In our organisation, one in three executives is a woman. Our CEO is very aware of discrimination and walks the talk. The senior executives are also very aware. This is very different from my last workplace where the executives did a lot of talk but there wasn’t much walk, said a conference delegate.

It’s up to workplaces to do better

Professor Burns said individuals can take measures to build their own mental fitness and resilience, outlining some key pillars of good mental health such as maintaining social connection, finding meaning and purpose, managing stress, getting enough sleep and eating healthy food. However, the onus sits with organisations to create a work environment where all employees feel psychologically and physically safe.

Your Call helps organisations identify wrongdoing and build Listen Up, Speak Up cultures that are inclusive and psychologically safe for all employees.  Download our free best practice whistleblowing program checklist to help audit your current program or get started on your whistleblowing journey.


Watch the entire keynote address here:

Video source Emergency Services Foundation.


Additional learning resources: