How should water and environmental-management firms tap, retain and promote female talent?

COVER STORY: Gender equality is rising up the political agenda. But we have some way to go to achieve equality in water and environmental management. So how should our industry tap, retain and promote female talent? The Environment asked nine of our industry's most senior women

What more should our industry be doing to improve its ability to recruit, retain and reward women with talent? Who better to ask than the experts...

Good Energy chief executive Juliet Davenport

An energy company dedicated to fighting climate change, Good Energy sits in a cross-section of energy and environment.

In energy, the lack of female representation is very clear — particularly at a senior level, where women represent just 13 per cent of board seats. Sustainable businesses generally have more women. So, there is reason to hope, as we transition to a cleaner energy system, and the companies driving this focus more on sustainability, that more women will enter energy.

We need to accelerate recruitment of women and the transition to clean energy in tandem. We cannot tackle climate change with only half of the population on board — the more women we involve sooner, at all levels, the better equipped we will be to solve the problem.

The first issue is at entry level; the subjects girls and boys choose at school and university. The percentage of women graduating in STEM subjects in the UK is just 24 per cent, according to STEM Women. This is why Good Energy works with STEMettes — a charity set up to encourage more girls to consider STEM subjects.

When recruiting, bringing on female talent includes not accepting single-gender shortlists for external roles. Retaining and supporting women requires greater work-based flexibility for men and women. This can help to stem the tide of female middle managers who leave jobs or move on, on becoming a parent.

Advocacy and networking is valuable, too. In energy we have networks to co-ordinate support for women, such as POWERful Women and Entrepreneurial Women in Renewable Energy (EWiRE).

Once you have a pipeline of talent, promoting women into leadership should come naturally. My personal tip from running an energy business for 20 years is to pay particular attention to this. So many businesses pay lip service to equality.

Having diversity at a senior level helps to avoid negative groupthink and shows the rest of the business and the outside world that you are walking the walk. This helps to combat the common imposter and shows women coming up through the ranks that their talent can – and will – be valued and recognised.

Environment Agency deputy director strategy and planning incident management and resilience Clare Dinnis

Asked what you do, how many times have you answered the question to find amazement that your job exists? People are unlikely to predict the different skills, specialisms and opportunities across our sector – let alone the routes into it.

Overlay that with the fact that men hold most our visible, senior positions. The Inspiring Girls initiative aims to connect young girls with real women doing real jobs, to provide a wide range of role models.

Our sector has fantastic women at every level, in every discipline. We need to be more visible, to show the next generation the great things we do for our nation and to take pride in our jobs.

Our intake of female graduates is increasing. But the barriers to keeping and promoting women are multiple and complex. Research shows women don’t put themselves forward for promotion, are less likely to ask for more money, are ostracised by all-male teams, and more.

But the barrier I hear most about through the Women in FCERM network is the ability – for everyone – to work flexibly and still progress. I started working flexibly when I had children. Now they need me – slightly – less, I find myself not ready to give it up.

My precious non-working day allows me to do things I can’t when I’m travelling for work, to give back to my community, and to be my best at work and at home. No two people use their time the same. But if you allow your staff to work whichever way aids their work-life balance, in my experience they repay you with trust, commitment and focus.

Helping people to be their best, encouraging diverse teams brings great outcomes, thanks to happy staff who are proud of their achievements.

That helps them grow the confidence to take on new challenges, to go for promotion. Maybe if we use our skills and technology to work smarter, we can change our working culture and even up the balance in those visible senior positions.

River Cycleway Consortium co-founder and chief executive Anna Hill

We are living through an unprecedented time, with human activity the leading cause of environmental degradation. These problems present practical challenges for scientists, engineers, designers and architects. Yet half our population – and therefore half our potential talent – is discouraged from entering these careers, even though women excel in these positions and even though female entrepreneurs are a better bet for investors.

We need education and opportunities for young women to understand and experience our sector. We must encourage citizen science and engagement within STEAM – A for Arts equals innovation and creative problem-solving – subjects throughout formal and informal education.

We must amplify the voices of, and recognise, women in our industry, close the gender pay gap and connect with the next generation as role models. These systemic changes are crucial to delivering the environmental change and recovery that our societies and planet require.

We are a solutions-focused, high-potential start-up, using innovation in systems engineering and design. Because nothing works in isolation, we embrace and instigate change across other disciplines and institutions for social and environmental benefit.

We require action in all areas within industry, politics, activism, education and engineering. Creative problem solving is key – women often excel at seeing the bigger picture, applying empathy and common sense.

Society admires and praises ambition in men’s careers but unconscious social and cultural stereotypes undermine ambitious women. To overcome this, we must encourage each other through mentorship, forming collective voices, highlighting positive role models and celebrating female success.

It works for women to join support networks to form strong bonds and build allies. Approach senior colleagues for advice. Our industry has some fantastic female leaders, excited to pass the baton to the next generation.

Getting a good work placement in an organisation that encourages you to develop and test your ideas is a good first move, allowing you to grow, collaborate with others, and follow your purpose. Avoid the glass cliff phenomenon, where companies hire a woman to deal with the mess a man has left behind.

Learn to confront people with a negative mindset towards diversity or towards women in the workforce. These attitudes may also come from peers or family or institutions: follow your heart and be confident in your life choice, in standing up for the environment and social justice.

There will always be people who question your legitimacy and right to move forward: keep your determination and creativity alive.

Northumbrian Water chief executive Heidi Mottram

We still need to change the mindset that holds female talent back from entering our sector. Every employer has an important role to play in this; working together as an industry to showcase the best that we have to offer is key to our success.

That is why we have joined the Energy and Utilities Skills Partnership of 32 employers that has signed a pledge to promote diversity and inclusion. We all need to create a culture to attract the talent to develop tomorrow’s workforce, in a sector that must fill 220,000 positions by 2027. We can only do this by showing it is a great place for everyone to work.

We need people from all parts of society to be truly diverse. To attract more female talent, we must make more visible some of the amazing women within our industry, from female apprentices, to those who have gone on to become managers and leaders.

There are fantastic examples of women thriving at every level, whose achievements speak for themselves and have the power to inspire others.

Having attracted any person into our organisations, we must look after them, giving them the best experience possible, reinforcing their decision to move into our sector, regardless of gender or any other characteristic.

We must treat every employee as an individual, to ensure they can work in a way that meets their needs, to flourish and perform best in their efforts to fulfil ours, so that we can retain the great people that help us deliver fantastic service to our customers.

Green Alliance head of the Greener UK unit Amy Mount

With seven years’ experience in the NGO sector, I interact with dozens of people across a range of organisations. Our sector is doing relatively well for female talent. It’s nothing new to see inspiring women take the lead – it was voteless Victorian women who founded the RSPB.

Green Alliance has 14 women out of 24 staff, and a management team split 50:50. Five of Greener UK’s ten board members are women. Five of our coalition’s 14 partner organisations have female chief executives, although FTSE100 firms have barely a handful.

The relative scarcity of women at the top is striking because environmental charities have a high proportion of female staff. This suggests the challenge is retention and promotion, not recruitment. Large numbers of women in these organisations contribute to cultures that are respectful and supportive, with fewer reports of classic gendered differences, regarding who speaks and who is listened to.

But beyond vital policies such as equal pay and shared parental leave are less formal elements that matter. The first is visibility. Seeing successful people who look like you helps you to believe that you can be successful too. But industry platforms can be circular; event organisers or news producers invite people they’ve heard before – who often happen to be men. More diverse panels can inspire new cohorts of would-be environmental professionals.

The second is creating time for reflection and support. This can be done through mentoring and training, or through less formal spaces. A few years ago a couple of friends and I put on a two-day She is Sustainable event, to allow women working in sustainability to take time out to talk about their lives and choices, and to learn from each other.

This was valuable for all involved, and has been reproduced and adapted around the UK. The ethos is all-inclusive, with no single version of success. Everyone found a sense of solidarity and strength in having a shared purpose that, fundamentally, is about making the world a better place.

Founder and chief executive of Plan For Earth and chair of Thames Estuary Partnership Anusha Shah

Industry bodies are making progress encouraging more women into STEM and some companies are launching campaigns to attract female talent to our industry. Both recognise that tapping female talent will bridge the skills gaps and improve diversity of thought in an industry in dire need of innovation to stay relevant and competitive.

Although companies try to attract female talent, the pipeline is leaky. We lose many women on their way to senior level, as we are too slow to promote and retain them, in fact treating them with the respect and recognition they deserve. This is a grave problem in engineering, with so many experienced people due to retire in the next decade or so, and Brexit will add to the skills shortage.

Female professionals’ ideas, insights and capabilities are seldom fully supported, endorsed and promoted, making them feel undervalued. Many step off the track, branching out into different careers, and companies lose these valuable assets.

Companies must invest urgently in promoting and looking after high-potential women to enable them to realise their leadership potential. They must design programmes to promote role models to spell out the rewards of leadership, to inspire women struggling through their mid-career years.

Women are known to be creative and intuitive, bringing emotional intelligence and empathetic leadership to the table, to support collaborative cultures. As we face global challenges such as climate change, these skills are invaluable.

Leadership in our industry has traditionally favoured people who think or act most like men. Today, Jacinda Ardern, Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are proving that women can create positive change just by being themselves. We must let women be themselves and let them shine.

I am happy that discussion has started to examine what is blocking women and hope we can soon change our industry's behaviour and culture so that women not only survive but thrive.

Climate Alliance and One Home founder Angela Terry

The desire to protect the planet is a great framework to engage and recruit women into the water industry. Women are consistent vocal supporters of environmental issues; environmental university and college courses attract a near 50:50 male-to-female ratio.

This is significantly more balanced than broader science, technology, engineering and maths degrees, where women are under-represented.

Water shortages and flooding are two major impacts of climate change. By tapping the desire to make a positive difference, the water industry can attract previously overlooked talent.

However, retaining talent requires awareness of unconscious bias, sadly still present in many industries. We need more work to iron out prejudice to ensure people are promoted on merit, not perception of value.

This requires a change of mindset about how and when employees work. Women juggling work and childcare is a significant barrier to retaining them.

Employers must think more creatively about part-time working, job shares and flexible hours. Dedication to a desk should never be a measure of success but is all too often perceived to be commitment.

Driving change requires schemes that support a shift in thinking and identify and monitor targets. The energy sector has launched the Switch List to help conference organisers to ensure that at least 30 per cent of event speakers are women. The water industry should aim for similar.

Mentoring is equally important. Female executives in the water industry remain the exception rather than the norm. The sector must do more to support women into senior roles. Several industries now have groups that mentor women against targets for senior and board level representation.

Change is happening. We are seeing more women enter the industry but more can be achieved through progressive employment practices and giving a platform to women already working in the sector who can inspire others, share experiences and ultimately attract the best talent into the sector.

British Water chief executive Lila Thompson

The water industry must be much more pro-active to achieve a workforce that represents the communities it serves. Energy and Utility Skills show that just 19 per cent of the sector’s workforce is female, against 47 per cent for all sectors nationally.

Companies have to be creative in seeking out the talent they require from across the population. Having flexible working hours, for example, may make jobs more attractive to female employees and could provide opportunities to women returning to work.

From our first Women in Water event last November, we learned that women value mentoring and career-progression advice. British Water has been talking to organisations such as the Women’s Utilities Network (WUN) and Women in Mining to find out how we can make it easier for women to access mentoring and coaching.

British Water has also been identifying best practice from the International Water Association’s Young Water Professionals Conference, which a high proportion of women attend.

Bringing the next generation of women and young people into the water industry requires outreach into schools and colleges. We must not underestimate the contribution women can make as role models to the next generation of engineers and water scientists.

The sector has salaries above the UK average and, as custodian of public health and the environment, it has an attractive public-service ethic. Many women working in the sector want to further their careers, others want job satisfaction in their existing roles. All should be supported.

Several Women in Water attendees tell me they successfully sought out senior colleagues afterwards to mentor them. Given the greater representation of men in the industry, it has been encouraging to hear of numerous instances of men supporting female colleagues’ career development. Clearly the relationship will be reciprocated as more women move into senior roles. I welcome male colleagues to join our Women in Water initiative.

Northern Ireland Water chief executive Sara Venning

The water sector provides a fantastic employee value proposition; it offers a range of rewarding industrial and professional jobs, the opportunity to work in a sector that underpins economic growth,protects the environment and safeguards lives.

It’s also a dynamic and exciting industry; the way the water industry does business today has been transformed by digitisation, innovation and artificial intelligence, making us leaders in using cutting-edge technology.

Northern Ireland Water is bringing that message to hundreds of students in our local schools, colleges and universities through outreach careers programmes under the banner Delivering what Matters.

Our industry is significantly male-dominated and we face the challenges of an ageing workforce and skills shortages. However there’s opportunity in every difficulty – to increase our diversity and the representation of women in our workforce.

As part of Northern Ireland Water’s commitment to gender diversity, we’ve recently been accredited with the NI Diversity Charter Mark, recognising our three-year diversity and inclusion programme that maps out strategies to tackle our gender gap.

Our programme sets out a positive, pro-active approach with clear objectives to attract, advance and retain women, setting metrics to track our progress and measure success.

We’ve accelerated our efforts to create a more gender-balanced workforce, launching a new programme of initiatives to encourage, develop and support our existing female employees.

We’ve committed to embed diversity into our culture, to ensure all employees feel valued, appreciated and respected. We have excellent family-friendly policies and support parents with flexible-working options, parenting classes and maternity-returner induction training.

We provide equality and diversity training for managers and employees, aiming to eliminate discrimination, harassment and sexism.

We also have a new Women and Ambition support network, connecting women at all levels across our work locations to partner with male colleagues to shape our future as a gender-diverse employer. We’re also promoting our employer brand as a great place to work and an employer of choice.

We recognise that our industry is starting from a low base regarding gender equality; we’ve a long way to go to achieve full gender integration in all job roles. However, we’ve made encouraging progress and are committed to building a diverse workforce for the future.

For information about the next Women in Water event this autumn, contact

Join the Women in Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (Women in FCERM) group on LinkedIn

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