Terry Fuller: Gender Balance – Changing the Narrative

Terry Fuller

I have one fundamental belief about how we meet the immense challenges we face in managing water and our environment. It is simply this – we will only find the solutions by engaging with the most diverse collection of thinkers.

The Women in Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) is an initiative that seeks to address the imbalance of gender in the profession but also to take the opportunity that we have right now. Indicators in the water and environment sector show a significant move towards gender balance creating an opportunity that we must nurture.

Around 2,500 of CIWEM’s members work in the FCERM sector. Of those who have entered the profession within the last ten years, 52% are women. This is an amazing opportunity for the sector to thrive and lead the way.

Professional Institutions have a golden opportunity and an absolute responsibility to support gender balance in our profession. This is imperative because the changes we make to address gender balance will shape both the diversity of our profession and our ability to meet global challenges.

There are many ways in which CIWEM makes a big difference. Career breaks are central to the discussions that I have with people – too often our professions lose women at maternity leave. This is a period in which professional confidence can be lost, women feeling out of touch with industry and practice and bringing a perceived loss of professional capability.

We make a positive contribution to supporting our members during career breaks by offering continuing professional development (CPD), connecting people to mentors, providing industry updates, holding events at accessible times and places and online and offering on demand resources such as webinars.  Although maternity is a significant factor for many, it is not for all. I have heard concerns expressed by women feeling that they are being defined as child bearers, bringing all sorts of presumptions about them.

There are many other reasons for gender imbalance. Our professional environments can still be unappealing and discouraging, even hostile, to women. I witness some very discouraging behaviors in meetings to this day.

My institution, CIWEM, will continue to address gender imbalance – in our institution and in the professions we serve. But for all the organisational changes and support activities we can introduce, it is the narrative that must change.

We recently introduced simple measures to enable a CIWEM trustee to remain on the board during her first year of childcare. Our trustee is a fantastic contributor to board meetings and we did not want to lose that contribution for at least a year due to the physical constraints of meetings. This focus on an individual’s value motivated us to change our approach and in doing so we elevated thinking beyond just ‘doing a good thing’.

Addressing gender imbalance is imperative; it is unacceptable and embarrassing that this remains an issue. Gender imbalance is visible, easy to measure and its causes are easier to grasp than those of many other forms of under-representation. But tackling this empowers us to tackle all forms of inequality.

By supporting maternity leave we create a culture and practices that support a healthy work-life balance for all. That values all life experiences. In a healthy workplace, no one feels hostility; everyone feels able to be heard and to contribute.

Challenging gender stereotypes supports working environments in which everyone, no matter how traditionally masculine or feminine, can participate. It enshrines values that encourage participation regardless of age, race and sexual orientation.

I believe it takes the broadest possible range of perspectives and ideas to achieve sustainable management of water and our environment.

This must be our motive.

 

Terry Fuller
Chief Executive, The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management

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