Our industry must fight gender discrimination and sexism

Written by: Victoria Manning | Published:
Victoria Manning is director at Vitaka Consulting

Sexism is a real problem across society generally, and the waste management industry is no exception. In order to attract more women to the sector, it needs to take the issue seriously.

Let’s talk about sexism and harassment in the workplace. It is a timely subject matter given the number of women coming forward to publicly discuss their experiences, ranging from serious sexual assault to sexist language, and everything in between.

Historically the waste industry has been male-dominated and, unsurprisingly, this has permeated the culture. I have experienced sexism in the waste industry, alongside every single other woman I have spoken to within the waste sector.

This article is directed mainly towards men because the vast majority of sexism and harassment is typically directed by men towards women. That is not to say that women do not hold sexist views or that men do not harass and bully other men; they do and I have witnessed it.

Let’s first get our vocabulary defined. “Sexism” means prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination against a person because of their gender. “Harassment and bullying” includes unwanted behaviour which violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Sexism is fundamentally about gender inequality and it is a complex and intersectional subject matter. Straight white men are still considered the benchmark against which all others are measured. Sexism is closely related to other forms of discrimination, in particular racism and homophobia. But for now I want to focus on two main sources of sexism: the institutional and the individual.


Inequality is an institutional (systemic) problem. It starts with defining gender “norms” and “acceptable behaviour” for girls and boys in the home and at school. By the time men and women start work, these gender stereotypes and prejudices are resolutely established.

Society still considers raising children primarily the
responsibility of women. Many women end up working in roles below their skill level because these are the jobs that provide the flexibility needed for childcare.

Women of child-bearing (ie, working) age are often perceived to be a problem because they might take maternity leave. It is illegal to discriminate against women based on their maternal status, or even ask about it, but many companies overcome this issue by not hiring women. Women are also at risk of losing their job if they become pregnant or can face discrimination because of it.

Women are underrepresented in positions of power. Fewer women run big companies than men called John. The reasons can be related to lack of flexible working and unequal childcare responsibilities, but also gender discrimination and unconscious bias. Consider the words used to describe a focused and driven individual in the workplace: for men it could be “ambitious”; for women it’s more likely to be “pushy”, or worse.


The majority of sexism and other forms of discrimination in the workplace, and in other areas of life, go unreported. Sexism often comes in the form of “banter” or “joking”, and if women express their disquiet they are often labelled as “kill-joys” or accused of not being

able to take a joke. But sexist comments, regardless of how they are delivered, create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Work social events can often exclude women. For example, the Christmas event that included a “sexy Santa”, which was highly inappropriate for a work-related event which appalled the women in attendance. This company-sponsored diminishing of women to sexual objects is a perfect example of creating a hostile environment. In the workplace, if one woman is degraded, all women are degraded.


What can men do to help on a personal level? Take sexism seriously. Respect women as equals. Be aware of your own behaviour and those of your colleagues. Don’t touch women without their permission, don’t interrupt or speak over women, don’t make misogynist jokes, and challenge your work mates if they are overstepping the line.

As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t do it to a male colleague, don’t do it to a female colleague. Don’t assume that because you don’t see it happening that there is an absence of harassment.Your experience of the workplace and those of your female colleagues will all be different.

What can be done at a corporate level? Take sexism seriously. Believe women and protect them by ensuring a fast and impartial complaints procedure. Adopt inclusive policies for recruitment. Include women in decision- making committees. Get employees to sign up to a code of conduct and attend equalities training. Pay women equally, ensure there are flexible working arrangements and equal parental leave. Ensure half of all apprenticeships go to women.

If we want to attract more women into the industry, and keep those we have, to benefit from their skills and knowledge, we need to ensure there is a safe and inclusive working environment. This starts with you.

Victoria Manning is director at Vitaka Consulting

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