To celebrate International Women’s Day in the UK 2019, GRI talked to a number of women who we work with at our clients. We discussed their careers to date, the challenges they have overcome or opportunities they have taken and the advice they would share to help others succeed.
Their insight is invaluable and inspirational.
Wilhelmina Magness | UK CATEGORY MANAGER AT SUEZ
"Resilience is key"
I am the UK category manager for non-operational spend at Suez, the global waste, water and recycling company, which employs nearly 90,000 people across 5 continents.
It would be fair to say that I have spent the majority of my career in what others would probably perceive as male dominated environments: electronic engineering, manufacturing, the Police and now waste. Before I moved into purchasing I also worked in mechanical and design engineering departments as part of the technical team on engineering prototypes.
I suppose because I’ve never really worked in industries that are traditionally top of mind choices for women, I have always been completely at ease in these cultures. But I can see why there might be an external perception that could put women off from applying.
Take waste for example. Even just a couple of years ago, if I mentioned I worked in the industry everyone automatically thought ‘dirty’ and ‘boring’, which couldn’t be further from reality. Companies like Suez are at the very forefront of change. The technologies and innovations that are being deployed today make it such an exciting time to be in the industry. Fortunately the ‘Blue Planet’ effect is helping to not only change the waste and recycling habits of people in the UK, but also how men and women view the sector. Careers are becoming far more desirable as people realise that joining a waste and water company offers a unique chance to make a real difference to our planet’s health and the wellbeing of its entire population. Take our Energy from Waste plants, where we utilise the waste that cannot be recycled to make electricity to power homes and we also draw the gases from our landfills to use. When our CEO talks about his vision for a world where there is no more waste, he’s so passionate, you can’t help but get on board with the excitement of what’s ahead.
My advice for anyone (but women in particular) would be – don’t be put off by any previous perception you may have had about this sector. It’s an incredible time to be part of the industry.
I would also advise that to succeed in any given role, you need a willingness to give every project that comes your way a try. Don’t be afraid to give it a go. Whilst I would aim this advice equally at women as well as men, I do think women sometimes have more anxiety about the prospect of failure. But you can’t learn if you don’t grasp an experience. Resilience is key. Women tend to display their emotions more and may be more empathetic. This doesn’t make women less professional but I know from my own experience, it can hinder resilience. No one likes criticism but if you get knocked down you have to get up again with the same confidence as before, or ideally even more. My mother taught me that, when she went back to school when I myself hit school age. She’d had six children (I was number five) and hadn’t had the education she might have otherwise wanted. But she didn’t believe her time had passed or that circumstances should stand in her way. After she got her O Levels she went on to do two degrees in History and English. She was so driven and even back then I admired her determination. She was an incredible role model and I miss her every day.
In terms of the specific role I do, my advice to both men and women starting their purchasing career would be exactly the same. You must always operate to the highest ethical and professional standards and you need to be pragmatic in your stakeholder engagement. The contracts you are negotiating are not your contracts, and everything you do needs to be centred around your stakeholder’s needs, as well as ensuring company compliance. I would also whole-heartedly recommend being a generalist buyer. I could be biased, as that has been my experience for most of my career, but it makes for such a varied role and develops your agile thinking. One moment I might be procuring travel, the next HR services, and the next tackling issues on PPE kit (personal protective equipment).
Choosing the right place to progress your career is key regardless of gender. Life can throw a number of challenges your way, whether you are a man or a woman. Lifestyles have changed. It’s not just women juggling a job and family life or giving up work to manage the family. People are making different choices for their families. Financially, sometimes it can make more sense for men to stay at home, depending on who is the higher earner. Then there’s also the growing issue of elder care. Some of my colleagues need to have flexibility to look after their parents, as opposed to young children. Suez is incredibly supportive of the need for individual flexibility.
I also really value the Suez Women’s Network which regularly hosts inspirational speakers on useful topics including your ‘personal brand’ or how the top women in our organisation made it. Again areas that I feel we, as women, can benefit from. Dr Tracy Leghorn, our HR Director, is leading the way to ensure that Suez continues to grow in the consciousness of both men and women looking for a rewarding career, with an incredible company.
Lucy Jones | Regional Resourcing Manager at Asda
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the norm”
As part of Asda’s 2017 graduate programme, I am currently on my fourth rotation working as the Regional Resourcing Manager for Asda’s Yorkshire region. My job entails ensuring there is an Asda driver available for every required shift across three sites in Yorkshire, managing availability, driver pools and shift patterns.
It is an extremely busy job and one that I very much enjoy. For as long as I can remember I have always had an interest in logistics and supply. My previous Asda rotation was as a commercial analyst looking at how best to approach excess space in depots.
I think that there is still a perception about logistics careers from those looking outside/in that it’s all about depots and warehouses. It puts many women off before they explore any further. The reality is there are so many different types of roles, many of which will have a logistics focus but actually be field-based or within an HQ office environment. For example, at Asda we have a specialist training team that deliver training to our driver and warehousing colleagues. This could be anything from technical training and customer service to resilience training or people management skills. One of the advantages of the central graduate scheme at Asda is that it covers all sorts of departments and skills, so you can experience logistics first hand as a rotation and get a real sense of what it’s all about.
Getting that first step on the career ladder whether it’s in a graduate scheme, first job or apprenticeship is so crucial, but so is understanding what career path you are heading down. My number one piece of advice to anyone would be, don’t be afraid to reach out to people whose careers you find interesting to find out how they got there, what advice they can pass on and whether they can offer you work experience. When I was applying for the Asda graduate scheme, I contacted a small group of people already working there for their advice. Once I’d secured my place, I identified and messaged another small group of people whose roles sounded really interesting to gain an insight from them. Obviously, taking such a bold networking step was a bit nerve-wracking but I think most of the time people are very happy to offer guidance. Networking skills have traditionally been perceived as more of a male thing but I don’t see that being the case anymore.
I’m only at the start of my professional career myself but the advice that’s stood me in good stead as a women would be, firstly don’t be afraid to challenge the norm. That could either be through going ahead and presenting a counter-argument to the majority view or by looking at a career path that has traditionally been more male -dominated. You’re here to contribute thanks to your own unique skills. I’d also add a second piece of advice around resilience. If you believe in something go for it, wholeheartedly in all your thoughts and actions.
I feel extremely lucky to work at Asda. It’s an incredibly diverse organisation that strives to create a culture that supports everyone whatever their life stage or responsibilities. Recently, it was identified that working parents who were arriving at work after dropping their children off at school, were finding it difficult to park. Now there are designated areas for people who have to arrive a little later at work due to additional responsibilities. Steps like this are so positive to see when you are starting out somewhere as female employee. You can really envisage how your company could flex to ensure you can continue to be a success throughout your personal and professional life.
Kirsten Denton | Senior Buyer at Biffa
“We need to believe in ourselves”
I’m Kirsten Denton and I am a senior buyer at Biffa Waste Services. Biffa is a UK-leading integrated waste management company at the forefront of development and innovation within the waste management industry. We operate from over 200 locations across the UK and Northern Ireland, servicing over 2.3 million households and collecting 4.2 million bins per week – just within our municipal division. As a senior buyer at Biffa, it is my responsibility to acquire essential products and services for the business to operate, from the best suppliers at the best prices to managing our contracts and relationships with all national suppliers. My areas of specialism are IT and Temporary Labour. Procurement is a key central business function and is considered a core component of our company’s corporate strategy.
I began my career as a full-time administrator for an engineering and construction company whilst doing my degree in Business Management. On obtaining my BA, I successfully applied for the procurement graduate scheme and undertook a two-year programme which gave me practical insight into all areas of procurement including purchasing, logistics, expediting and systems. Subsequently, I was placed on projects as an electrical and mechanical equipment buyer. In 2014, oil prices crashed and the industry faced uncertainty - I decided to start looking at roles in other sectors and in 2016 I joined Biffa and the waste management industry.
The procurement profession has traditionally been a male-dominated field, while binman says it all about the perceptions surrounding the industry! At an operational level the work involved in the waste industry is perceived as physically demanding and sometimes unpleasant. This traditional stereotype has led to the perception that jobs in this area are 'male' – which has had a knock-on effect on the numbers of women joining the industry, regardless of the many opportunities for both genders.
I think we are seeing a shift in gender disparity as a whole across the waste management industry, but we still have a long way to go. As with many sectors, senior positions are commonly held by men who have been in the industry for thirty to forty year plus so changing perceptions and attitudes is a continuous process. But we're making great strides. Ultimately, there are many women making a strong contribution to this sector and their work and achievements should be recognised. My only observation from over the years is that we need to see more women in senior positions. I feel that women need other successful women at the top so we have a role model and mentor from whom we can take inspiration and confidence. Although the procurement team at Biffa is predominantly female, those in senior positions are mostly men. This was also the case at my previous employment. That being said, Biffa offers a wealth of development opportunities for all employees – my career aspirations and personal development has always been taken very seriously. It’s only a matter of time before that breakthrough happens.
My advice to anyone interested in the sector is that there is a lot more to the waste industry than meets the eye. It’s not just collecting bins! There are many exciting developments and innovative projects taking place within waste management that offers exciting career opportunities for everyone. We should all play a part in protecting the environment - a topic of increased importance to a growing number people - and working in this industry ensures you can do just that regardless of gender. And, as organisations increasingly recognise the value of managing their spend and the supply of their goods and services to gain competitive advantage, they are also recognising that skilled and capable procurement professionals are key to achieving their goals. So for anyone looking to start working either as a procurement professional or in the waste industry I would say jump at the chance, as there are lots of opportunities for all.
I'd emphasise this advice to everyone, but especially to women looking to build a career. The more strong female leaders we attract to the workplace the more, they in turn will inspire more women and a more diverse workforce.
The biggest skill I would say women need to demonstrate in today’s working world is confidence. I think a lot of women (including myself) build up feelings of self-doubt ,and a fear of getting things wrong in the workplace. We need to believe in ourselves. I would also say that interpersonal skills are crucial – the ability to communicate and interact with others is key to form strong business relationships with your internal and external stakeholders, especially in procurement.