To mark Gender Day at COP26, IEMA's CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE discusses her own experience, both at COP and professionally in addressing climate action.

One of the most profound experiences I have had in my career was speaking recently with members of our People of Colour network, set up a couple of months ago for anyone working in the environment and sustainability sectors. There were about 16 of us in the group, comprised of men and women of different ages and different cultural backgrounds. We lived in different parts of the world and our jobs were in consultancy, local government, the water industry, membership organisations and academia.

In fact, the only thing that we had in common was that we are not white. And yet we had all had exactly the same experiences during our working lives - passed over for jobs we were amply qualified for, told we “didn’t shine” or our faces “didn’t fit”. Research from IEMA and Policy Exchange suggests that less than 4% of the workforce in environment and sustainability are people of colour. To be honest, from my own experience, I think that’s a rather flattering figure. As one industry leader said to me recently: “if you had asked me last year I would’ve said we just had a problem with unconscious bias; now I think it’s racism“.

Some commentators have remarked on how, given that this is a global conference, it appears very white, middle-aged and male. I have been delighted by every opportunity I’ve been given to present on skills, sustainability and the next steps forward towards a zero carbon future. But it is fair to say that the organisers of some events have seemed to struggle with diversity. When I pointed this out to one panel leader, when I was a member of the audience at an event on sustainable food at the UK Pavilion, he said he would “reflect“ on what I had said, with an expression that suggested he was going to do anything but.

Time and again, we have seen how a lack of diversity and “groupthink” has been the downfall of organisations and indeed some sectors, and yet still the doors to many jobs in the sector remain impossible to open, unless you complete endless unpaid internships or field work courtesy of the bank of Mum and Dad. Companies full of people who think in exactly the same way will find it increasingly difficult to navigate what is becoming a very complex, global and fast moving landscape. And yet, a sector that rightly demands urgent action from others on climate change can move with glacial slowness when it comes to addressing the barriers that working class people of any cultural heritage face when trying to get a job in the sustainability profession and wider environment sector.

Gender balance and diversity is not a 'nice to have', that can be addressed when other business imperatives have been completed. It is an immediate and first order risk to the sector. The skills shortage will not go away, and any sector that does not make itself as open as possible to all talent will be punished by the market, will be disrupted or will atrophy through irrelevance.

On COP gender day, we need to remember that climate change mitigation and adaptation needs to work for everyone - and needs everyone to work for it.

Photo of Sarah mukherjee
Sarah Mukherjee MBE

CEO of IEMA, IEMA

Sarah Mukherjee MBE is the CEO of IEMA. She was the BBC's Environment Correspondent for many years, presenting on national and international BBC radio and television news, working – and winning awards - across the world.