Mind the gender gap

29th September 2016

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Matthew Payne

With women a minority in the environment profession, Samantha Lyster talks to leading IEMA figures on increasing their number

Clothes retailer Gap recently attracted criticism for children’s T-shirts that suggested boys aspire to be science geniuses like Albert Einstein, while girls want to be social butterflies.

Statistically, the criticism raises an important point. According to Women In Science and Environment (WISE), females make up just 12.8 % of the workforce in jobs that require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) skills. And in the environmental sector the lack of female visibility could lead one to assume Gap was on the money, and that it is not a profession for women.

In the workforce

According to the Office for National Statistics, a record 14 million women were working in the UK in 2014 – a figure that reinforces the need for an explanation as to why they seem to be under-represented in parts of the environment and sustainability profession.

Nicola Stopps, chief executive and founder of consultancy Simply Sustainable, says this perception is accurate only for the environment side: ‘There’s a very small percentage of women working in that area, but in wider sustainability sectors such as corporate social responsibility (CSR) it’s almost the opposite.

‘My personal opinion, from what I have seen, is that people in environment feed in from science subjects and engineering, so you are already starting with a small pool of females to draw from.’

There is no figure available for how many of the 12.8% of female Stem workers are in the environment industry.

Stopps, who started out in the profession in 1995 as a climate change research assistant at University of Exeter before working for the BBC, Travelodge and T-Mobile among others, has set up Empowering Women in Energy to address under-representation in what has been a male-dominated field. She is one of many who recognise a need for more women in the profession, not just in terms of addressing a gender balance, but also to widen the channels to new talent. ‘The main reason we set up the group is because [women] need to empower each other and share best practice,’ she says. ‘We need to come together, network and become a more vocal presence. This would be good for the sector because, if you’re excluding 50% of the potential talent pool, if you don’t have initiatives and make a stand, then as a sector you start to lose integrity.’

An attractive option

To increase the number of women in the profession, leading figures say the sector has to change the way it approaches recruitment and retention. Although entrants to environment careers have historically come from Stem areas, some industry figures say the profession is diverse enough to attract talent from a range of backgrounds.

Stephanie McGibbon, associate director at consultancy Arup, believes the industry ought to do more to communicate the different jobs on offer, especially in areas that have a ‘male’ reputation, such as transport or energy. ‘The sector I work in, environmental impact assessment, is very diverse in terms of the projects and people you work with,’ she says. ‘Technically, it’s work you can be trained for but I think there could be more help in terms of training to help women to be confident when dealing with lawyers, developers and contractors.

‘Now we have four female graduates working with us. In terms of directors or management there are more men than women, but I think that’s more of a historical legacy. I’m optimistic that is going to change as there’s more scrutiny of [the gender mix] at board level.

‘The fact that diversity is even talked about now, and talked about in a meaningful way, is a big step change from when I joined the profession. Then, if you attempted to have a discussion about it, you were seen as trouble-making. The industry needs good people, so who cares where they come from?’

The skills set

McGibbon, who is an IEMA Fellow, joined Arup in 2000 and completed an environment law degree in 2004, adds: ‘Women have a lot to offer. My impression is they have a lot more tenacity and resilience, and pragmatism when things go off course. You need that because you can find yourself in challenging situations.’

McGibbon echoes the thoughts of many of the women interviewed, who all stress there are qualities a female presence can bring to the working environment.

‘Women are much more open and more comfortable saying things that men will not,’ says Stopps. ‘They open up channels for a more empathetic conversation, putting themselves in another’s place and understanding what other people need.’

These qualities have often been seen as ‘softer’ skills, and potentially the reason women do so well in wider sustainability areas of CSR, as well as social enterprise and education. However, when it comes to climate change, many of the solutions for prevention and mitigation derive from the engineering, science and environment sectors. The need for women to be involved in such processes is illustrated by the World Health Organization’s 2014 report, Gender, Climate Change and Health, which outlines how global warming is more disadvantageous for women. In many developing countries, climate change will affect access to water, food, and fuel, which tend to be the responsibility of women and girls. During droughts or periods of erratic rainfall, they will have to walk farther and spend more of their time collecting water and fuel.

In the words of Mary Robinson, former Irish president and now climate change campaigner: ‘When you have a male world, you have male priorities.’

To what extent this is true of the environmental sector is arguable, but certainly in the realm of adaptation, resilience and vulnerability (ARV) research, there are few projects that tackle gender issues.

A research paper in 2015 from members of the Climate Change Adaptation group at McGill University in Montréal showed there were only 123 ARV studies that looked at gender in what was described as a large body of work over more than ten years.

Ruth Henderson, senior environmental consultant with Royal HaskoningDHV, says gender diversity is of great value to an industry on the frontline of climate change: ‘Women and men often act, react and interpret information in different ways, which is significant when it comes to problem-solving, finding innovative solutions and driving forward change.

‘As a result, having women central to the discussions on climate change can bring together a variety of perspectives which produces a more holistic analysis of the issues. Empowering women and young girls is a vital part of mitigating climate change and accelerating the transition to a more sustainable future, and women must occupy more roles in all kinds of industries to have an impact.’

The pay gap

Attracting women to the profession may not be easy when the pay differential between men and women appears to be widening. IEMA’s State of the Profession report this year (the environmentalist, March) showed that the gender pay gap had reached a five-year high, at 16.7%, although it had declined from 24.2% in 2007 when the professional body conducted its first salary survey. The most recent analysis revealed the gap started to appear between ages 25 and 29, after which it became increasingly pronounced. The oft-cited reason is that women leave to raise children, and if they return it is to part-time or non-management jobs. Indeed, the IEMA survey found that women respondents tended to be younger – more than 57% were younger than 35. This suggests that many leave the profession to have families and do not return to full-time positions.

Henderson, Stopps and McGibbon agree that the industry has to understand that society as a whole is changing, and women are not automatically the main carers. ‘Sometimes the potential barriers to women climbing the career ladder can be the result of an unconscious bias,’ says Henderson, who started working as an environmental scientist in 2007. ‘There is often an assumption that the mothers will only come back to work part-time, if at all, once they decide to have children. With the rise of the stay-at-home dad, and only one in ten women in the UK are full-time, stay-at-home mothers, there is a responsibility on individuals and businesses to realise that employees’ needs are changing.

‘Companies need to evolve from the concept of nine-to-five in the office, and have a more open mindset about flexibility and on how performance of women can be measured through results and value added.’

Tideway, the company behind the new sewer tunnel under London, has a programme to encourage practitioners to return to the profession after a career break. One in particular, Ines Faden, who works in the corporate finance function, was part of the team that developed the Equator Principles, the framework used by banks to manage environmental and social issues in project financing (see panel, below).

Breaking down barriers

Even if the sector heeded the calls for more flexibility and better understood the benefit of gender inclusiveness, it would do little to address the paucity of women in Stem subjects. The low number is surprising given girls tend to outperform boys in attaining A* and A GCSE grades in physics, maths and further maths, chemistry and biology. Stem graduates are far less likely to be women, however, with just 15% of engineering bachelor degrees awarded to females. Despite campaigning by groups such as WISE to tackle this, there is still much to do to attract women to Stem professions.

A potential solution is presented by Stopps: ‘As a sector, it’s important to be engaging with schools but also to acknowledge that we have many careers and think about what we can we do to attract women that are considering moving jobs. That’s not just in terms of providing information but also ensuring we are a modern sector, that we use technology to open it up to a variety of people.’

This could even include recruiting from the wider sustainability sector. Rebecca Clark, director of Cardiff-based Green City Events, worked in retail before launching the social enterprise that runs workshops in sustainable living. Clark wants to work with government departments and businesses on delivering environmental projects. She says: ‘I would like to work more with the Welsh government in particular, but I still have not found a way to break down the barrier between the policymakers being aware of us and working with us.’

Breaking down the barriers to women working in the sector is certainly a task that needs to be taken on so that the next face of science on Gap’s T-shirt range will be female. Surely evidence in itself that progress will have been made.

Promoting inclusion

Many firms involved with or taking action to be more sustainable are concerned with promoting gender inclusivity. The initiatives they have introduced could serve as blueprints for others.

Infrastructure firm Balfour Beatty has stated that by 2017 diversity and inclusion will be key components of its group talent management activities and leadership development programmes. The company has launched internal awareness campaigns to ensure people are engaging with its core values. And it regularly monitors and revises performance management and recruitment processes to support the progression of under-represented groups to leadership positions.

Jaguar Land Rover has made gender inclusivity a priority by offering a development programme for women. This sits alongside its Engineering Network for Women. The automobile company also operates its Women in Engineering Sponsorship scheme for female undergraduates interested in engineering careers.

At Tideway, which is delivering the Thames Tideway Tunnel, chief executive Andy Mitchell has pledged to have an equal gender balance by the end of construction. Head of human resources Julie Thornton says, for an industry already suffering huge skills shortages and a massive gender gap, the company acknowledges that this is a big challenge. ‘We knew that, in order to achieve this, we had to make Tideway one of the best companies around to work for and to tackle the barriers facing women in construction and engineering,’ she explains. ‘One way we started working towards this was to introduce a flexible working charter for staff, both male and female. This includes allowing our employees to work from home and part-time or flexible hours.’

Tideway also operates a ‘returners’ programme for professionals wanting to restart their careers after an extended career break. The scheme, available to those who have voluntarily been out of the workforce for two years or more, was piloted in 2015. Early this year a second programme was open for applications and the scheme was extended to involve Tideway’s delivery partners: Amey, Costain, Ferrovial Agroman and Laing O’Rourke. Opportunities were available in a number of fields, including construction and civil engineering, environment and quality. The scheme is supported by Women Returners, a coaching, consulting and network organisation specialising in enabling the return to work of professional women after an extended (longer than maternity) career break.


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