Levelling the field

1st March 2019

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Danai Grafakou

Admit it, says Paul Gosling – the environmental sector has an ethnic diversity problem

In 2017, the Policy Exchange produced a survey to find out the most and least diverse occupations. It saw 202 occupations categorised, and 'environmental professionals' came in at 201st – second only to farming as the least diverse profession in the UK. According to the survey, 96.9% of the people working in the sector were White British.

Look around next time you are at a conference, summit or exhibition. I suspect you will see predominantly white delegates – and this is even more pronounced when talking with senior directors. In a sector that is so reliant on talented individuals, we are not doing enough to attract an ethnically diverse workforce.

According to recent surveys, the gender split is significantly better in terms of numbers, with a slight majority of women. However, the pay gap was still in play, with the average salary for men reported as £8,720 more than women. It beggars belief that we are still in this situation nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act of 1970 – but at least we are aware of the issue, and the recent increase in reporting will hopefully make a difference.

Many articles and management pieces extol the virtues of a diverse workforce – from the benefits that different perspectives can bring, to the importance of businesses looking and feeling like the communities they serve. According to research by management consultancy McKinsey, businesses with a healthy mix of ethnic backgrounds are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors.

What can be done?

The environment and sustainability sector has always been a scavenger of talent from different disciplines. It has traditionally been dominated by engineers and scientists, but there are individuals from a range of other backgrounds who work in various areas, from marketing and communication specialists to finance experts and project managers. Whatever their background, most people come into this space out of a desire for a career that is helping to solve the huge challenges facing our planet, and to improve quality of life for generations to come. So why is it not more diverse?

While there has been limited research undertaken into this question in the environment and sustainability sector specifically, I would suggest that we have the same issues as those affecting the wider STEM sector, which suffers from a lack of role models for non-white entrants – engendering a feeling of 'this is not for me'.

This is starting to be addressed, with work being done to increase the numbers of women in engineering through campaigns such as WISE, and some excellent work being done by the Royal Society. This needs to continue, and to go further by also recognising and addressing limited ethnic diversity.

On a practical level, we need to be aware that the historical lack of diversity in our sector means there is an element of 'unconscious bias' in recruiting, where hiring managers are most comfortable with 'someone like me'. This exacerbates this issue.

There can be little doubt that most areas of the environment and sustainability market are people businesses, and most of those looking to recruit into this space will tell you that this is a skills-short market. This is compounded at a time when the UK is facing skills shortages due to Brexit, making it even more important to attract talent from as wide a candidate base as possible. We need to be sure that, individually and collectively, we are extolling the benefits of working in the environment and sustainability sector as widely as possible. It's vital that people from all backgrounds recognise what attractive and rewarding work this is.


Paul Gosling is founding managing director of Porter Gosling Ltd, a specialist independent recruitment firm focused on providing services to the environment and sustainability sector

Image credit: IKON


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