We need to put diversity on the agenda in the waste management industry

Written by: Beverley Simonson | Published:
Beverley Simonson

I am pleased to report that diversity in our industry seems to have moved up the agenda since my piece last year on the lack of female representation on panels at RWM’s 2018 exhibition.

There have been several positive actions as a result of my and others’ observation that male-dominated #manels were not a true reflection of our changing industry.

This included productive conversations with RWM organisers, a crop of ‘women in waste’ sessions organised by various groups and an increase in the number of women and young people in attendance at this year’s conference.

Why is there a lack of diversity in our industry?

Following my piece last year, CIWM and RWM were keen to discuss equity and diversity in our industry and invited me to chair two panels at this year’s RWM exhibition.

We were especially eager to understand why there is an obvious lack of diversity in the industry and what we can do to encourage women to remain in the industry and have a voice.

The pre-panel conversations I had with my panellists were enlightening. A couple of the women shared very positive stories from their careers. In their section of the industry they had no issue being the only woman in the room and received plenty of support from their employer.

However, it was evident that some parts of the industry are still seen as a ‘man’s world’ and are rife with blatant sexism and bullying.

A couple of the stories exchanged focused on how men and women in the same office are openly treated differently by management (although these examples may not be specific to waste management and may be more about the underlying male chauvinism that still exists globally).

This is clearly something our industry needs to work on within both the public and private sector.

Cultural differences and language barriers

The panel sessions afforded an opportunity to discuss how women are perceived in the industry and what we could do to change things.

There was a strong message to employers in the room to consider providing all staff with equity and diversity training and to do more to create a welcoming environment. We also touched on the difference between diversity and inclusion and the importance of ensuring employment is not just a box-ticking exercise.

Discussions about the lack of diversity focused on why there aren’t many Asian people attracted to the industry. Some panellists admitted they had slightly bent the truth when telling their families about their jobs, as working in the waste or environmental sectors was not seen as a ‘proper’ career within their culture. A few had also unfortunately experienced racism among their peers.

However, one panel member had been adamant in her career that her race didn’t define her and shared how she has approached engaging with people by emphasising that she is a person. Such efforts go a long way towards changing stereotypes.

We also held a lively debate on whether we should change the name of our industry to attract a more diverse workforce. Many felt that using the word ‘resources’ instead of ‘waste’ was a good solution. However, it was pointed out that not everyone in the room can define what they work with as resources – and if there is no getting away from the fact that what they work with is waste, why cover that up?

For others, linking their work in the industry to positively tackling climate change – for example, through adopting circular economy approaches – was considered a good way of attracting younger people.

What else can we do to make our industry more equitable?

There is certainly more that can be done to support women and people of colour in the industry. Employers might ask themselves several questions to work out whether they could be doing more.

For example, have all our depots now got toilets and changing rooms for women as well as men? Do we ensure there is PPE in women’s sizes, and will we provide for it without guilt-tripping women about possible extra costs (as was not the case in one uncomfortable story we heard). Are we supporting a mother’s, or indeed a father’s, return to work? Have we conducted any recent equity and diversity training among our staff?

One reason men are predominant at industry events is that employers choose who will represent their company.

In the taxi to the CIWM gala, I heard from a couple of women that their employer asked them to write a presentation for RWM on a project they had managed and successfully delivered, only for a male colleague to present it, even though he had not been involved in the project. I was thrilled to hear that they pushed back and were able to present it themselves.

This kind of employer attitude is not going to help change the image of our industry, nor will it empower women or minority groups. It is vital that, where time allows, all members of staff are encouraged to attend conferences and seminars to help them build confidence and embrace networking opportunities.

Finally, a call out to those of you ever invited to sit on panels. Probe the organisers on the diversity of said panel. Challenge any unequal representation and if necessary, refuse to participate. We need to demonstrate progress in our industry across the board.

Thanks to CIWM and RWM for taking on this topic and to my fellow panellists who contributed to the debate.

Beverley Simonson is local authority support manager at Resource London.

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