Women's Recycling Alliance founder: 'If we have more females in senior positions, they’ll naturally attract more women into the industry'

Written by: Maddie Ballard | Published:
Sarah Sanpher-McDowell

Sarah Sanpher-McDowell is development director at Clearpoint Recycling and founder of the Women’s Recycling Alliance (WRA).

She speaks to RWW about how we can encourage diversity in the waste industry and where the WRA is headed after its triumphant first year.

Why did you found the WRA?

Just after I’d become a Clearpoint director, I attended a networking event, and there were 90 men in the room and 10 women. I asked Will, “Where are all the women?” and he said, “Well, they’re in our industry but they don’t really come out”.

So I put feelers out. I asked women in the industry whether they’d want to come if they had their own event – and they said yes. I promised to facilitate the group but asked them what kind of workshops and learning topics they’d like to see.

I used to run a women’s group in Harrogate for five years, which was fantastic. The core of the WRA is similar to that group, although it’s industry-specific and not geographically based.

What do the WRA events look like?

Our quarterly events run in Birmingham, a central, accessible location. Everyone signs a confidentiality agreement so the ladies feel they can talk openly about any challenges they’re experiencing.

We have a personal development workshop led by a professional speaker – topics covered this year have included presentation skills and confidence.

After the workshop, there’s a three-course networking lunch, held in a restaurant to encourage people to network a bit more freely.

In the afternoon, we have an industry discussion. For example, at our last event, Sheila [Chauhan] from Veolia led a discussion about the circular economy and whether it’s a real possibility.

What do you hope the WRA might achieve?

I’d like to think the WRA gives ladies the skills and confidence to progress their careers in a male-dominated industry. There’s evidence that women don’t necessarily put themselves forward for that project as much as perhaps their male colleagues would. The WRA is about empowering women to put themselves forward.

I hope that through personal enrichment, the WRA will ultimately help more ladies get into senior positions. We know that ‘likes attract likes’, so if we have more females in senior positions, they’ll naturally attract more women into the industry.

What have been the most enjoyable and most difficult parts of running the WRA?

The hardest thing has been spreading the word about it in the right way, where the message is really positive. I didn’t want to come across as a bunch of bra-burning men-haters, because that’s not what we are.

The best thing has been the feedback from the ladies and how they’ve grown. One lady was in a job she absolutely hated, and our first workshop about confidence resonated so strongly with her, she resigned from her position and set up her own business providing industry services. We helped her find a way to still work in the industry but enjoy herself too.

How can companies support women?

This is hard to answer because I work with such a supportive company – when I approached my male Clearpoint codirectors with the idea of the WRA, they released me from work one day per week to focus on the group, and they financially backed it.

But I think generally, companies can support women by ensuring there are provisions for them. I’ve just been speaking to Natalie [Wilson] from Shield360 who designs PPE that actually fits women’s waists.

That’s a really new thing. Also, on a site you always have female toilets – but I’ve heard of sites that don’t have female showers yet. Ensuring that sort of thing is figured out can really help women feel welcome.

Companies can also be understanding of women’s lives outside of work. Just because a woman has kids doesn’t make her a less dedicated worker – actually, mothers are good at juggling. Employers need to understand that.

How has the WRA been received by men in the industry?

Their support has been really overwhelming. I’ve had the odd sarcastic comment like “Oh what you going to do, spa days?” – but they’ve been a minority. They’re mostly like, “Yay, it’s about time there was something for the ladies”.

Harriet Shave, northern buyer at Clearpoint Recycling and Sanpher-McDowell

How important is it to have male allies in the sector?

Very important. We don’t want to isolate ourselves and it’s important the WRA doesn’t become an “us and them” thing.

We’ve actually been talking about having one event a year where we invite men along. I want them to see what we do for themselves and to realise how their female colleagues could benefit from it.

One lady said to me at an WRA event, “I’m so pleased I could come to this – it’s taken me ages to get my boss to sign off on it because he just doesn’t get it”.

That was really interesting feedback. I want to invite men like her boss along to an WRA event so they can see why it’s valuable.

How do we encourage diversity in the sector?

We can encourage organic diversity by looking at how we promote our industry as a whole. I was privileged to be part of a panel at the RWM show earlier this year where we talked about whether ‘waste’ is the right word to attract anyone into the industry.

We need to look at the wording we use, even in job adverts, and when we talk about our work with people outside the industry.

Those in our industry love it and it seems that once you’re in, you never leave. But we need to make young people, and especially women, aware that working in waste doesn’t just mean being a bin person. So it’s really important that our sector represents itself well at education seminars and careers fairs.

I don’t think diversity should ever be a box-ticking exercise, just something a company does to fulfil equal opportunities requirements.

Where is the WRA headed in 2020?

I’d like to put a charity committee together to support some environmental charities. By doing this, the WRA ladies have the opportunity to be involved and it doesn’t drain my time too much. We might get involved in a beach comb, or something else – we’re still evolving ideas.

We’d also like to put together a members’ forum. I really wanted the WRA to be inclusive so we offer a non-member’s package, where you just pay for the events you can attend as they come up. But we also offer a member’s package, which includes access to all events and an e-learning portal, among other things.

What do you hope to see in the industry in future?

The circular economy discussion at our birthday event showed me that the experts in our industry work in silos. I hope to see a more joined-up way of our industry working together to come up with solutions that benefit the whole industry, not just one area.

The waste strategy is also developing, so I’d like to see industry working more closely with government too.

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