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Leadership Q&A: Diversity and Women’s Role in Emergency Management


Is diversity important in emergency management? How do you break into emergency management?  What advice do you have for women looking to move up in emergency management? I sat down with Elizabeth A. Zimmerman, one of FEMA’s most accomplished leaders and head of the Office of Response and Recovery, to talk about her recent induction to the International Network of Women in Emergency Management Hall of Fame and to get her perspective on those big questions.

Here’s what she had to say:

Question: What role does diversity play in emergency management? Can having a diverse workforce help with how emergency management responds to disasters?

Beth: Emergency management serves people of every race, culture, religion, and ethnic background.  Often, the people who need the most help are traditionally vulnerable or underserved populations.  This is part of the “whole community” approach we have at FEMA, which means we need to be inclusive in everything that we do.  The makeup of emergency management agencies should reflect the makeup of the communities they are likely to serve.  Granted, it's not possible to know every culture and understand the entire scope of diversity across the United States, tribal nations, and our territories - but cultural awareness and inclusiveness should be targets we're always striving for.

Diversity also includes acknowledging male and female perspectives within your organization, as well.  The old saying that "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" is true in some ways.  Men and women approach problems differently, respond differently to stress, and work differently with colleagues.  Embracing both male and female approaches to problems is a key factor for organizational success - regardless of the field or industry. 

Question: One of the great things you've started at FEMA is a Women's Speaker Series, where FEMA employees can hear from women in leadership positions across emergency management and the federal government.  What advice do you have for women currently in emergency management? 

Beth: You can't give up. Let your voice and ideas be heard, and do it while being a respectful, positive team player.  I believe one of the reasons I was recruited to FEMA was all of the feedback and ideas I provided about how the federal government could improve disaster recovery.  I used my position with the state of Arizona to voice my concerns along with possible solutions; and I stuck with it.  When FEMA called, I was ready to take the opportunity.  

As a woman in emergency management, there will be times when you will be "outnumbered": expect to have meetings or projects where women are in the minority.  That's when it is important to listen to others around the table, then offer your perspective so it is acknowledged and considered.  And if the team or project goes in a different direction than your ideas, it's important to keep contributing in a positive way to improve it.  Tirades and finger pointing aren't helpful - so look for ways to effect change that builds trust within your team.

One other thought for those within emergency management, and I can't stress this enough: if emergency management isn't your passion, then go follow your real calling.  This is a field that if you love what you do, you'll have a very enjoyable career and won't mind the extra stresses we face.  If your passion is emergency management, it doesn't matter what level you're working at - you are going to enjoy the work you do. But if you don't enjoy this business, you're going to be miserable.  We spend way too much time working and face too many stressful situations to dread coming into the office every day.   

Question: What advice do you have for those looking to break into emergency management?  Any specific thoughts about the best ways to do that? 

Beth: First of all - network, network, network.  The more people you know, the more familiar you will become with the different career paths and opportunities within emergency management.  I'd also avoid "stove piping" yourself.  Be open to new training opportunities or other positions that may serve as a gateway to your ultimate career goal.  It's important to gain a broad understanding of emergency management when you're starting out.  This will serve you well later on if you're being considered for a promotion or management role.  There are lots of ways to advance your career once you're in emergency management - the key is staying open to new experiences to get your foot in the door.

Question: This past weekend, you were inducted into the International Network of Women in Emergency Management Hall of Fame.  Inductees have to commit to doing additional projects over the next year to promote women in emergency management. What are your plans? 

Beth: First, I'm going to expand the Women's Forum and Speaker Series at FEMA.  There have been some great events so far - the latest was bringing a group of Girl Scouts to FEMA for a day to earn their Girl Scout Preparedness badge.  I am going to take the forum outside of FEMA and include external partners and groups with an interest in furthering women's careers in emergency management.  More to come on that in the coming weeks; I am excited for what we'll do with the forum series. 

The second thing is that emerging female leaders at FEMA will express their passion and vision with the International Women in Emergency Management members.  The IWEM regularly communicates with their membership and I am excited they will be able to learn from several of the other female leaders we have within our agency.  

We are also excited about the things to come! Leave us a comment to congratulate Beth on her induction, or to share your thoughts on diversity and women’s role in emergency management.

Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:21


Congratulations to Beth Zimmerman. I work in the emergency management field and I enjoy what I do. This article was good and I appreciate the women in this field.

Beth is one of the smartest people I know. I owe large gratitude as a big part of my success is because of what Beth was willing to teach anyone eager enough to learn years ago. Whole Community aka no one left behind has been a common working model for years in the emergency management community that she helped build here in Arizona before heading off to DC to help improve their overarching view.