Opening up a hidden career

Kellie Burston (pictured), Caulmert’s senior environmental consultant, explains why being a woman knee-deep in waste shouldn’t be someone’s worst nightmare.

As a woman nearing 30 and working in waste, I often look back to the point before I started my first role in the industry and recall the varied responses – both supportive and negative – about my new career choice.

After university, I worked for a health club selling memberships, and I was soon offered a position working on an open-cast landfill site in South Wales.

While many co-workers were supportive and congratulated me on the new role, I received a lot of comedic feedback about how I would be knee-deep in rubbish or dubbed the ‘bin sifter’. The most prominent was from one of my female colleagues, who said: ‘That sounds like my absolute worst nightmare.’

The reason? Having worked in the industry, there are probably too few women, especially in operational waste management. Waste isn’t seen as an attractive sector for either men or women and, I believe, there is a shortfall of females because of our lack of exposure to this industry.

Typically, it is seen as a role for men, which is not surprising, seeing as it is usually men who collect the bins each week, work in landfill and waste-management sites, and operate mobile waste vehicles.

Women outside the sector often perceive a career in this sector as dirty and smelly, overlooking the professionalism gained in this line of employment.

Women outside the sector often perceive a career in this sector as dirty and smelly, overlooking the professionalism gained in this line of employment.

Luckily for me, my career direction was mapped out from an early age. David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series was my inspiration to choose the environment.

Perhaps recruiters will use his latest ratings success, and the light it shone on plastics in the oceans, to connect with future generations of professionals in our sector.

We need greater effort to encourage more females into waste management. Young girls and women should be shown that the industry is a viable career option that can lead to long-term job satisfaction, that is well-rewarded and can offer new challenges on local, regional and global scales.

To attract more women into the industry, we need to harness the younger generation through awareness and education in recycling, renewable energy, and energy to waste sectors, which can be introduced from early schooling through to university.

In waste consultancy, the balance between men and women is more equal and, with great support from my employer Caulmert, I am trying to do my part to encourage undergraduates, regardless of gender, to consider careers in waste.

I’ve kept in touch with a former lecturer at Portsmouth University who wants his students to understand the opportunities and rewards awaiting those who choose waste.

He sends me undergraduate CVs, and I comment on their attractiveness to employers. I also forward him some of my work presentations, so he can illustrate how classroom learning about waste can be applied in the world of work.

It’s true that waste management is a hidden career: how many teachers and families think only of telling children that you must be a doctor, dentist, lawyer or vet if you want to be a professional?

Women are certainly not cast out by the waste industry, and landfill and waste management today are supportive of our careers and the direction we can take. It is a lack of exposure to this type of industry that has steered women away from the fit of a stereotypical waste industry worker.

This feature first appeared in the July/August issue of Circular.

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