Operations Manager, Environment Agency
Civil Engineering BEng Hons
Hello everyone, I’m Kimberley. I’m so delighted to have won the Flood & Coast Women in FCERM award this year. As with all things over the last 18 months, the pandemic has robbed me of an awards ceremony (and an acceptance speech!), so I’m going to use this opportunity to tell you about why Equality, Diversity and Inclusion means so much to me.
I know it’s a cliché but from a very young age I have been fascinated by science and engineering. I was obsessed with crafting, creating, fixing and building things as a child and at aged 11 my school teacher suggested I enter the ‘Junior Engineers for Britain’ competition. It was being sponsored by “K’Nex”, a children’s building blocks product with which I was already very familiar at home, so I was very excited to be chosen. After getting through several rounds, I was the first female in history to make it to the final, and boy (pardon the pun), did I know it. Without exception everyone I spoke to on the day made a comment like “oh it’s fantastic to see a young girl here” and “great to see a female here at last”. And I agree it was fantastic, I still unashamedly publicise the event on my CV. However, had it not been for those people pointing out my difference to the rest of the candidates, I don’t think I would have noticed. It was the first time I had been aware of my gender defining my presence.
Time rolled on of course, and forever basking in my K’Nex glory, I went through school and then progressed to do a Civil Engineering degree in Liverpool. Shortly after I graduated, I joined the Environment Agency and have worked in both Environment and Flood Risk Management ever since, always with an operational and engineering element to my role. I recently achieved Chartered Membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers – a huge personal feat for me.
Throughout my life I have been reminded many many times that I am an unusual statistic, and it’s only with several more years of life under my belt that I have now started to understand why.
In my experience as a female in a male dominated sector, the discrimination is way more subtle than conventionally reported on. I have been mistaken for a cleaner, I’ve had my own words relayed to me prefixed with “yes love, but the boss said to…” (assuming I wasn’t the boss), given flowers after a professional dispute, ‘he-peated’ (regularly) and been described as emotional. And don’t get me started on site toilets and PPE.
For most of these things you would blink and miss them. They’re small, but they’re relentless so cumulatively they wear us all down. And it’s now me, not others, that has to point out my gender to expose an unacceptable situation or inappropriate behaviour.
I’m very lucky to have a lot of strong female role models in my life, and so I find myself mostly comfortable in this environment. By comfortable, I don’t mean accepting of these behaviours, but I mean I have the confidence to identify and challenge them (most of the time). And so I’ve managed to have a very fruitful career mainly without a hitch.
However, I know not everyone feels that way, and may not have had the same experience as me. And it is only over the last few years I’ve truly started to understand how this type of behaviour and culture deeply affects us. It is something I am still learning about, and recognising in my own experiences too.
And so that leads me to the work I have been doing in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) field alongside my day job. I have two objectives, of which I’m confident neither will be fully achieved in my lifetime, but got to aim high, hey?!
Firstly, I’m committed to a culture change so that people in our sector are respected, valued and enabled to do their jobs. We’re a long way from where we need to be in terms of gender equality, but this also clearly spans further to other protected characteristics such as race and disabilities too. Our diversity statistics are poor, and so we’re not getting the innovation, creativity and productivity that we need to get us through the many challenges we face, particularly around Climate Change and Net-Zero. That said, something doesn’t feel right about welcoming people in, when we haven’t got our house in order, which is why this objective is very much focussed on inclusion and equality, in the hope that if we change that, we’ll be more attractive to a wider group of the people that we absolutely need to reach our ambitions.
And secondly, I will always use my position to share my positive career stories and to boost the confidence of others. I have had some of the most fantastic life experiences with the most wonderful people, and it feels like my duty to open the door for others to be here alongside me. We hear a lot about the things that need to change, of which I don’t want to marginalise or lose sight of, but in parallel I want to show women of all ages the fantastic opportunities our sector has to offer. I often hear engineering and operations being referred to as dirty, ‘manly’ and dangerous, but it shouldn’t be that way because it’s exciting, creative and rewarding. I feel like I belong here, and I want to show others that they can feel that way too. My maths teacher always said to me “you have to see it to want to be it” and I truly believe that being visible for others has a big part to play. And for those already in our sector, I want to encourage them to be the best they can be. I’ve seen the impact low-confidence has and the huge difference it can make by giving a compliment or validating someone’s emotions. This is not just my responsibly as a woman, but everyone’s. And until we know that people can truly be themselves, we’re missing out on so much hidden talent.
Winning the Flood & Coast Excellence Award for Women in FCERM is a huge privilege. Leading on EDI change can be a lonely and daunting place sometimes, and immensely frustrating for me that things can’t happen quicker. Being recognised for my efforts, along with seeing the small changes happen around me and happier people, keeps me going. I’ll not stop doing what I can to create a level playing field and create an inclusive atmosphere until I can comfortably sit back and know that the people around me feel valued for who they are. And as I said before, I know that’s a life-long promise.