A glass ceiling is still “looming over” women working across the water industry and despite some progress, the sector is being held back by exclusion, Ofwat chief executive Rachel Fletcher told a British Water conference.
Fletcher was keynote speaker at Women on Water, which gathered 80 industry professionals together virtually to share experiences and advice to support and empower women working in all areas of the industry. In a motivating address, she spoke about her personal story, acknowledged the efforts of previous generations in the battle for equality, but said the personal aspirations of many people today could be limited by a lack of visibility of diversity within the sector.
She said: “I feel a debt to all those women who fought for equal opportunities, so today it’s completely normal for women to have a career. As women in 2020, we’ve come a very long way and we have a huge amount to be grateful for. The glass ceiling has been smashed – or has it?
“I’ve been working in utilities for 25 years and it still feels more male dominated than many other sectors. While it’s great we will soon have six water company female chief executives, it is only in the last 12 months we have got the first female board chair.
“Female executives are still in the minority and mainly limited to customer-facing roles. It feels like we’ve punched some holes in that glass ceiling but it is still looming over us and this worries me because if we look up the ladder and we don’t see anyone like us, it can really limit our aspirations.”
Fletcher added the biggest barrier to career progression was a lack of self-belief, highlighting the importance of networking events such as Women on Water in building individuals’ confidence. However, the industry as a whole will only reach its full potential if it embraces the skills from a more diverse workforce, in particular people with disabilities and those from a Black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME) background.
“Female executives are still in the minority and mainly limited to customer-facing roles."
Fletcher said: “Gender equality is the first step on the road to a diverse workplace. Frankly, if we are not seeing full equality for women, we are surely a very long way from achieving equal opportunities for those from the BAME community, those with disabilities, or those who haven’t had the privilege I had of growing up in a middle class home and going to a Russell Group university.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is a huge reminder of how far we are from treating everyone as equals and it is something we should be taking seriously. While this discrimination and exclusion is a tragedy for the individuals concerned, it is also something that is holding the water sector back.
“The industry has amazing potential to make massive improvements to our natural world and to show to society what can be achieved through responsible companies providing life’s essentials - but it is going to achieve this potential, we need people who think differently.
“We need to be able to draw the very best talent, wherever it is, and not be limited to drawing from pools of people who look like us on paper or in the flesh. We also need to be able to show the communities we serve that we are just like them if we are to win their trust and really be able to serve them.
“This ambition to embrace and celebrate diversity and to stamp out discrimination in whatever form it takes is one we have given ourselves in Ofwat and it’s an ambition I hope I can encourage you all to support.”
In ending her talk, Fletcher spoke of her hope that the Covid-19 crisis would be a catalyst for change: “None of us would have wished a pandemic on our world and I grieve to see how it is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest but I also see it opening some exciting opportunities in the move to a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
“The past four months has given us much to build on and tools to allow each of us to have more fulfilled and successful working lives. But most importantly, we’re being offered a path to a more inclusive and diverse water industry, one that uses diversity to reach its full potential. Let’s not look back, let’s support each other and move forward and make all of our grandmothers proud.”
British Water’s Women on Water campaign aims to help women identify, focus on and harness their strengths and understand their value and worth, while providing them with tools and guidance to support career progression. Now in its third year, the conference was held in partnership with the Women’s Utilities Network (WUN) and the Institute of Water.
A presentation from WUN founder Hayley Monks focussed on personal development and the importance of allocating time to assess your own career.
She said: “As working women, we might put ourselves second, third or fourth on the list, so diary some time in your calendar to think about you, and what road you want to take. What is your destination, where are you today?
British Water’s Women on Water campaign aims to help women identify, focus on and harness their strengths and understand their value and worth, while providing them with tools and guidance to support career progression
“Maybe bring those thoughts together so you can plan. Have that focus time on yourself and that’s when you can start goal-setting. Focus on what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how you’re going to achieve it.”
Mental health and wellbeing was also a strong theme of the event, which welcomed Lisa Lloyd, a chartered psychologist, psychotherapist, trainer and consultant at It’s Time for Change. She said looking after mental health should not be perceived as a luxury.
“We’re all very good at planning our work and planning how to juggle [other responsibilities], but how often do we take that step back and really think about what’s going on for us? Looking after mental health is not a luxury, it is something we need to do. If we prioritise looking after ourselves, then we put ourselves into the best position for us to be able to thrive.”
In the final conversation of the event, Lynn Cooper, chief executive, Institute of Water, chaired a panel where Julie Florey, biodiversity delivery manager at South West Water, and Madeleine Crisp, project analyst at Anglian Water, gave insights into their careers and shared their personal experiences of the lockdown.
Thanking participants, speakers and event partners, British Water chief executive Lila Thompson said: “We were determined to host Women on Water during the Covid-19 pandemic as the crisis has highlighted now more than ever, there are women in the industry who need support, encouragement and a network.
“Our speakers gave fascinating insights into their own personal journeys, as well as guidance to help women evaluate and reshape careers in a sector with a weighty gender imbalance, while building resilient mental health and wellbeing – something that should be a priority for us all. We’ve had some great feedback and I’m delighted attendees found the event valuable.”