To mark International Women’s Day, four colleagues from across the RSK group came together to discuss this year’s theme of “Break the Bias” and what more they think needs to be done to further women’s inclusion and visibility in the workplace.
Let’s begin with some introductions from our speakers and hear what International Women’s Day means to them.
Eric Downey: I’m an associate director for Structural Soils, based in Bristol. My engineering geology career spans 31 years: 21 years as a contractor and 10 years as a consultant, but I have had 11 years with Structural Soils.
Michael Kerr: I’m a business development manager with RSK Ireland. I joined just two and a half years ago and am working on a very wide variety of projects but heavily pushing renewable energy. I am responsible for promoting our services and developing new areas of business in Ireland.
Kath Behrendt: I’m a principal environmental economist within the ADAS policy and economics team. I started my career in the agricultural economics space, having studied agricultural economics and accountancy at university. l grew up in a small rural area in New South Wales in Australia and in 2018, I moved over to the UK.
Meera Achan: I am the HR manager for the Middle East division and HR business partner for the Global division, which covers the Middle East and Africa. I come from Kerala, a South Indian state, where education was always top priority, and I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up among educated, working women. I’ve been working for the last 12 years in the Middle East.
What more needs to be done to further women’s inclusion and visibility within workplaces?
Meera Achan: I’m lucky to be part of one of the divisions (the UAE office) that’s got about 60% female employees, which is great, and a lot of them are in technical and management roles as well. Most of my African offices also have more than 40% [female employees] so we are making a lot of strides. In RSK, as an HR practitioner, I can see that we give the utmost importance to offering equal opportunities and standing by all our core values.
I have to say, some unconscious biases do creep in from time to time. But there is awareness and with whistle-blowing policies we’ve been able to challenge assumptions. But a lot more needs to be done and that needs to come more from the top. Now we have entered global markets, it is evident that the opportunities are not the same everywhere. I see that in Iraq and in Africa, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done to break the bias. As an employer, RSK can give rotational opportunities, secondment and international opportunities for experience and confidence building.
Eric Downey: Structural Soils attends STEM and careers events with representatives of different genders because we need to plant the seed early on that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, you can do it!
Michael Kerr: I agree with Eric. Here in Ireland, we’re creeping towards 50/50. And when I worked in the transport sector, I noticed it was almost like the women were working harder to prove themselves, but they were equally capable. There was nothing stopping them.
I think probably what COVID has taught us all in the last two years is the hybrid model. We’ve learned a lot about working remotely, working at a distance, and I know personally I’ve spent a lot more time with my kids in the last two years than in previous years and I’m scheduling my meetings around the school run. So COVID has taught us all how to be more flexible and that having parental responsibilities shouldn’t be an obstacle to having a successful career. And I think RSK has been very proactive on the hybrid options. Part-time work enables the business to evolve and capture very skilled persons.
Kath Behrendt: I agree with Michael around flexibility and how COVID taught us the benefits of that. You don’t need to be sitting at a desk to be proactive or productive. The soil, crops and water team at ADAS has taken a leading role in appointing an all-women management team and the managing director of that team is also a part-time worker. So there’s that recognition of how flexibility can work for different roles and different job types.
For example, with school children and even aged care – if you’re looking after young children or elderly parents, being able to have flexibility in your job is something that definitely needs to be considered. So yes, I agree that flexibility is a really key part of breaking the bias.
Meera Achan: In the Global division, RSK offers a lot of different opportunities for women to hone their leadership skills. While we are looking at what more can be done, perhaps there needs to be a focus on pairing up female staff with strong women mentors who can support their career progression to move up the ladder quicker.
Michael Kerr: Across the group, we’ve got some very good technical specialists, but if you try to take them outside that domain, they’re uneasy. So I think that job rotation is so important for giving everybody confidence to increase their potential.
Meera Achan: Speaking more from a cultural context, in some parts of the world, while trying to do their day-to-day jobs, if women were to start becoming a bit stricter and saying, “hey, that’s not the way”, they are deemed to be bossy and that’s not socially acceptable so can hold them back.
International women’s day for me is about taking time to reflect, acknowledge and celebrate what women (past and present) have accomplished in work, life, and community. – Kath Behrendt
How can we balance those issues to break the bias? What else needs to be done to achieve equality?
Michael Kerr: It comes back again to what we say about careers in education and experience. That’s what breaking the bias is all about: being confident in your own ability, being confident in your own education and your technical ability and standing your ground.
Eric Downey: In my division (Technical Services), there is a very strong leadership team, more than half of which is female. The professional services team, which is perceived to be a male-dominated section, at the senior management level is more than 50% lead by women.
It’s a fantastic division to work in – we just get the job done.
Michael Kerr: It’s important to support and encourage colleagues to progress.
To me, International Women’s Day is a day of celebrating women’s achievements and the great strides we have made in terms of gender parity in many parts of the world, as well as a poignant reminder that a lot more remains to be achieved and we need to work collectively to make that happen. – Meera Achan
Where do you see our role with regards to visibility and inclusion ten years from now?
Michael Kerr: I would hope that there doesn’t have to be a big emphasis on it in ten years and that most of the stereotypes have been broken by then, so we’re not talking about male and female – just people.
I’m hoping in ten years we’re not talking about divides or classes and instead talking about subdivisions of technical categories and experience.
I think there’s a lot of work with all the business units to say “let’s not pigeonhole them”. Rotate them around and give them the opportunities outside their normal field, so that we can respond to the market. In the next ten years, it’s about making sure everybody is adaptable, flexible and versatile. And it doesn’t matter where your location is, what your gender is, what your race is or what your language is.
Eric Downey: I’d love to say that it will be fixed in ten years’ time, but I think there’s still a lot that needs to be done, especially in the developing regions of the world such as Africa. Again, starting early would give an ideal opportunity to bring forward change.
Meera Achan: I really hope that number five of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” – is ticked off in the next ten years! We’ve been speaking about it for far too long. I hope that day comes soon, so we can all move ahead as people together.
We should actively try and seek out opportunities for everybody, based on their skills and competence. But sometimes we just need to lend that extra hand to young females who want to work here, particularly in STEM disciplines. We use female staff as our ambassadors and speak in schools and universities to show there are opportunities available to women in these areas.
We want to create a respectable environment for everybody and that message needs to come from the top to attract strong, diverse talent, both male and female.
Michael Kerr: We need to start investing more in talent – things like setting up your own little training academy and reaching out to people to give them new opportunities. And that’s an opportunity as well to close the skills gap. In the renewable energy sector where I work, there are not enough highly skilled people. But you know what? Let’s go and train people in the skills they need.
Kath Behrendt: I agree with all of you. I think one of the other key things is continuing to have support networks, whether they are around flexible working or talking about menopause, for example, it’s important there’s that strong support network within the entire working environment.
The other thing I think is key, and I can’t speak for other countries, but in Australia, there was always this culture of ‘jobs for the boys’ and ‘the boys club’, which was a strong culture for a long time. But I’ve seen a significant push to break that down in Australia, and since moving to the UK, it’s one of the changes I’ve also noticed.
Here at RSK, there are really strong female leaders and I know within our team, women are very much valued and it works really well. It just needs to keep going in that same direction.