Let's put an end to the waste industry 'manel'

Written by: Beverley Simonson | Published:
Beverley Simonson

I have just celebrated my 17th anniversary of starting in the resources and waste industry (wasterversary?).

I cut my teeth in the waste team at Dacorum Borough Council, based in the male-dominated depot, but within an all-female team. I have seen the resources industry go through many changes, having to address – among other things – LATS, TEEP, Pickles, market commodity price crashes and negative media commentary.

But I have also witnessed an increasing number of women rising through the ranks in the industry. I spent over six years working at WRAP at a time when the outgoing female chief executive had just been replaced with an incoming female chief executive (a position she held for nine years).

I currently work at the London Waste and Recycling Board where 66% of the staff are women, as are half the board, including the chair (former CEO of WRAP) and the Deputy Mayor of London. I have made a lot of female friends in the industry. So why is it that the one thing that doesn’t seem to have moved on, and in fact seems to be on the rise, is the manel?

For those not in the know, manel is a term to describe an all-male panel – and they were all too evident at this year’s RWM exhibition. I look forward to RWM every year, as it’s a great opportunity to have a massive catch-up with all things technical and operational, as well as networking with colleagues in the industry. When I first went, there were very few seminars, but many scantily dressed women hired by companies to sell products.

As time has moved on, the women are wearing more clothes, with barely any company stooping to this level to attract potential customers’ attention. There are now many seminars covering a wide range of relevant topics throughout the day, which enrich your visit.

However, for me, the main thing that was glaringly wrong was that every seminar or talk I went to (even the CIWM AGM) had the manel in full swing. And to make things worse, there were a handful of men who cropped up on multiple panels throughout both days.

What grated most was that, even though our industry has moved on and there are now many successful women, I felt like I was stepping back in time and it still seemed like I had walked into an old boys’ club. So, I made a comment on Twitter.

From the resulting reaction to my tweeting, I know I was not alone in my impression and frustration. Obviously women were represented and RWM were quick to point out that there were 47 women presenting on the seminar stages. But as their website shows, that was out of more than 350 seminars – a paltry 13% of speaking opportunities (assuming one woman per slot).

"There is no shortage of well-qualified, bright articular senior women in our industry. Why aren't more of them being given a voice?"

RWM is not the only industry event I have attended where this is prevalent. Very often a CIWM open meeting has a male-dominated panel, and the LARAC conference has suffered from this in the past. I am not suggesting there should be women on the panel for women’s sake, but if we are to represent the industry fairly, organisers should always strive to get that balance.

There is no shortage of well-qualified, bright, articulate, senior women in our industry. Why aren’t more of them being given a voice? It is unnecessary still to be peddling out the same men at these events. In fact, I’m now starting to find it quite offensive.

This is not just a problem in the waste industry. There has been a panel pledge movement around for several years, which asks men to pledge never to accept being on an all-male panel. I challenge those of you reading this (both men and women) to take the pledge and help me address this issue. There is even a handy website you can visit to put the pledge in writing – https://www.owen.org/pledge – and if you do, let me know by tweeting using the hashtag #comingled and I’ll share it around!

We, men and women, are the industry. And unless we change, our industry will continue to misrepresent itself to the world.

N.B.: Since writing this article, I have been contacted by the head of marketing for the RWM conference who is keen to ensure better representation – and invited me to present at next year’s event. While I did not intend to put myself out there as the token female to be invited to all panels, I’m glad the industry is taking note.

Beverley Simonson is local authority support manager at Resource London

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