The newly formed group Women in Waste (WinW) attracted huge interest at RWM. The panel session hosted by WinW in the Leaders Theatre was full to capacity, with people standing around the entrances to earwig on the debate.
But sadly there really was no debate - well, not the sort that the majority of listeners had turned up to hear and take part in.
Instead, there were some fairly lengthy introductions from the speakers, followed by a refusal to talk specifically about gender. Then came a hodge-podge of questions on industry topics that have been debated in other sessions - the only difference being that the answers happened to come from women.
The speakers came from an impressive array of companies and organisations - the sort that want to be seen as being progressive on minority issues - so it seemed strange that gender was off the agenda.
This was a missed opportunity after WinW founder Esther Kiddle put in the graft to get the group up and running. And if the waste and recycling industry really has no gender issues, then why are we not shouting about this? Why aren’t we passing on good working practices to other industries?
Thanks has to go to Kerstin McLachlan, business manager from energy firm SSE, who asked the gender question regardless. And what followed were the green shoots of an interesting debate around increasing the number of female engineers in the industry, whether women have the right skills set, the perception of the industry among women, and how to attract more women at operator level as well as into management.
What became clear as the women spoke was that they had experienced incidents of gender discrimination, although it was not rife. But this is not good enough, either morally or commercially, because countless studies have shown that gender diversity boosts productivity.
So why are women in our industry so afraid to talk about gender? Is this a hangover from the feminism of the 1970s when women were afraid to talk about gender issues in the workplace and tried to compete ‘as men’.
Or was it the case that the panel comprised representatives from some large organisations that perhaps did not want to be associated with this type of discussion? If so, then we need a few independent speakers to kick off the debate before the bigger companies will join in.
At the show, the group said they did not want to talk about gender because they did not want to come across as being ‘anti-male’. But a straw poll among the men in the MRW team found that they did not have a problem discussing gender - in fact they found it a little patronising to suggest they might.
Yes, Veolia Environmental Services recently appointed its first female chief executive. But just as you start to believe that the glass ceiling has been smashed, claims are made that prime minister David Cameron sacked Caroline Spelman as environment secretary because she was too old at 54 yet replaced her with 56- year-old Owen Paterson. And women in the UK still earn, on average, 15% less than men.
The waste and recycling sector is great at tackling complex environmental issues with creativity and flair, so surely it has got some great answers for collaborative ways of working, with the skills of men and women being equally valued.
The waste industry is not isolated from the rest of society. And we are always moaning about the lack of joined up thinking. So let’s talk, take some action, and show everyone just how forward-thinking and joined up the waste sector really is.