Personal reflection on women in the environmental profession

Published 19 Dec 2016 by Jennifer Hulme MEIANZ

I was recently asked to give a presentation about women in the environmental profession. Admittedly, before being asked to present, gender in the workplace was not something that was frequently on my radar. Gender only became a topic of discussion at work when my colleagues announced they were having their second baby. And it was going to be a boy.

The invitation gave me an opportunity to reflect on what being female has meant during my professional career. And a chance to look at the environmental consultancy sector that I currently work in to see if gender makes a difference to the opportunities I’ve had. The reflection gave me some interesting results.

Firstly, for some context, a bit of background about me.

I started out studying parasites of larval coral reef fish, and 12 years later have ended up working in a Canberra office writing environmental impact assessment reports for large scale mine and port developments throughout Australia. The path I took to become an environmental consultant has taken many twists and turns. I’ve worked for an environmental NGO in Vanuatu, a research assistant in Kimbe Bay (PNG) for a coral bleaching project, a field officer for Sydney Water and an assessment officer for the Department of Environment. After being frustrated by the high administration content of my pubic service job, I decided to try consulting, and began working for a mid size firm about a year before I had my first daughter.

Now, the reason why gender had not been on my radar is that I felt that gender equality was a fairly progressed issue in Australia. I’d never felt that women were not given equal opportunities in the organisations I’d previously worked for. In fact I’d always felt very supported. Having experienced the very male dominated Pacific societies of Vanuatu and PNG, Australia seemed miles ahead. But it seems that that view was a little naïve.

Australia has gender equality sorted, right?

Gender equality in the workplace has improved over the last few decades in Australia. However, the statistics show that there is still a way to go:

What experiences have other consultants had?

While my experiences in Australia didn’t seem to align with the statistics above, I was interested to find out whether colleagues in my field had found gender to be a dividing factor in their workplaces. So I put together a short online survey to find out. The results were interesting.

The results provided a snapshot of 22 respondents’ views. They indicated that:

  • 40% had observed gender inequality in the workplace.
  • 70% thought that women were not well represented at all levels of positions.
  • The large majority thought that women were not well represented at the Director or Senior levels.
  • 75% thought that women were well represented in the different disciplines of environmental consulting (i.e planning and approvals, GIS, ecology etc.).

The result that stood out to me was that women were not well represented at the senior levels of consultancy companies. I wanted to see if this really was the case, so I quickly Googled some numbers and came up with the following graph.

While you can see that eight out of thirteen companies have women in Director (or board of director) roles, they only comprise 16% (11 out of 67) of the total number of Directors across the thirteen companies. It seems we have some work to do here.

I also asked respondents to provide comments on what they believed to be the challenges, or opportunities, for women working in environmental consultancy. Examples of comments included:

  • Being forceful on their (a woman’s) professional opinion is interpreted as 'a bossy female’”
  • Women, especially those with children, have to work so much harder to gain respect and maintain a solid grasp of their career. I have often felt that employers did not feel I was as worth some training etc. as the males
  • (Lack of) confidence in their abilities and work life balance
  • The challenges are the same as for women in any field I think. I have been surprised, however, at how many environmental consulting firms do poorly at properly remunerating women employees (taking workload and responsibilities into account). The bulk of my experience is in other fields that are now doing better than they once did. It is surprising as environmental work would not be considered a 'non-traditional' place for women to work and there are certainly many women who study and work in this field. Perhaps more women need to set up their own consultancies or perhaps the client base have issues.

A number of comments highlighted the challenges women with young families who work part-time face. These challenges mirrored my own experiences working as a part-time consultant with two young children in a service delivery environment. The challenges I’ve experienced have, for example, included:

  • Difficulty maintaining client relationship when on maternity leave or working only three days a week
  • Difficulty leading large, complex, long-term projects when working part-time.

Supporting women who have part-time roles is also another area which companies could focus on to ensure equal opportunities for women.

Some ideas for addressing these issues

It would be great to see more women at senior management levels in 5 to 10 years in the environmental consulting sector. But how do we achieve this? I think that gender equality in the workplace is a complex issue and not one that we can apply a single solution to. However, there are some ideas that we can try to reduce the barriers that women encounter. These could include:

  • Raising awareness of the challenges women can face in the workplace (i.e. pay inequality, promotion opportunities)
  • Creating workplace cultures that promote equal opportunities and implementing strategies to ensure those opportunities are achieved
  • Increasing support for women who want to advance to more senior levels through workplace mentors or business sector networks (i.e. EIANZ)
  • Increasing support for women working part-time (i.e. job-sharing opportunities).