Throughout my career in the private sector of the waste and recycling industry, it has been common if not standard to be the only woman in a group of men. From early morning safety meetings, to strategic planning sessions, to team building dinners, the gender diversity across the board has been, well…improvable.
This industry norm has been perpetuated throughout history for many reasons, many of which are completely out of control of the industry’s executive leadership. Garbage has historically been a “man’s job.” Just think of an average family household throughout history and consider which gender typically handles the “taking out the trash” chore. Growing up, it was my brother’s chore to take out the “trash” and it was my chore to sort and take out the recyclables (and just look at me now! Thanks mom and dad.)
But this cultural stereotype is changing, and quickly. In many Countries, the millennial generation cares about sustainability more than any generation before them. Also, millennials are more likely to see a blurry line when it comes to gender roles and definitions in the workplace and home. In addition, this generation tends to be purpose driven, they want to make a difference in the world and most are acutely aware of the enormous environmental and economic benefit of recycling. This combination of societal shifts have been and will entice more women to be interested in starting and building careers in this industry.
The question is, where are these women finding jobs that are fulfilling? In stark contrast to the private side of this industry (see previous blog post: Woman Up: Why We Desperately Need More Women in the Waste & Recycling Industry) there are many women in high level positions in Government sanitation and recycling departments. Let’s take 3 of the largest metropolitan centers in this Country. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York all share one thing in common: Women leading solid waste resources and recycling efforts at the highest level. Debbie Raphael is the Director of San Francisco Department of Environment which oversees the city’s zero waste efforts. Heather Repenning and Karen Coca at the Los Angeles Board of Public Works overseeing the city’s sanitation department which is in the process of rolling out the largest franchise in the Country. And Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of Sanitation for New York City which has announced aggressive zero waste goals and overhaul of their current collection and processing infrastructure. These are just three examples of women in leadership roles in Government.
If private industry won’t lead the charge of gender diversity, it looks like municipalities will. And this changing landscape is not exclusive to top level positions. A 2014 study of gender inclusion in municipal planning departments showed that 66% of respondents from municipalities were women. I can personally attest to the importance of developing good relationships with city planners, individuals that help private industry navigate the increasingly difficult process of facility expansion and development. At a time in this industry where municipal governments are becoming more involved in recycling and diversion programs, the need for collaboration with stakeholders across the board is at an all time high.
It is true that throughout my career I’ve had many experiences being the only woman among a table of men. However, there were also plenty of times I shared the table with one or several other women. Perhaps akin to my father’s wave to salute other Harley riders on the open roads, the women of this industry, often silently, acknowledge each other in camaraderie at these tables historically occupied by men. It has been my experience that when common ground is shared, mutually beneficial and innovate solutions can blossom from the collaboration.
My advice to women that have aspirations to lead within their organizations and communities in this industry? Network. Creating relationships with people from decision makers to drivers in this industry is a surefire way to watch your stock rise as an employee. The reality is, relationship building helps both parties involved, so one should never miss an opportunity to get to know someone that works in your space.
Are you a woman in the waste & recycling industry? Are you ready to grow your network and watch your career opportunities blossom? We’re here to support you! Contact WISR – Women in Solid Waste & Recycling at firstname.lastname@example.org