Introducing our new "Talking with..." podcast series

After months of planning and preparation, we're thrilled to be able to invite you to listen to the very first instalment of our new "Talking with..." podcast series. We want to ensure we always have our finger on the pulse of what is going on within the industries we work with and what better what of accessing this knowledge and understanding than by talking directly to those in the know. 

For our podcast series, we'll be inviting passionate industry experts, from a range of roles and sectors, to have an open and honest conversation with us about the biggest challenges their industry is facing, their predictions for the future and their advice to people wanting to join their industry.

For our first episode, our Utilities Manager, Richard Archer has been talking to the Chief Executive of MOSL, Sarah McMath about diversity within the water sector. This preview blog provides a taster of the topics discussed during the session so even if you are unable to listen to the podcast itself, you can still learn and get involved. We've also created a list of key points from the podcast that you can skip forward to if you're short on time.

You can listen to the full interview with Sarah McMath here:

Key points

  • Protecting public health 3:00-3:19
  • Dealing with being treated differently 8:14-9:10
  • Lack of diversity within the utilities sector 10:28-11:30
  • Considering other forms of diversity 14:14- 15:18
  • Challenges as a woman working in the water sector 19:29-20:26
  • Inspiring women to progress in a career in utilities 26:13-28:46
  • Attracting people from other sectors to work in the water sector 33:40- 35:37
  • What does the water sector have to offer going forward 40:25-43:49

Hello Sarah, can you tell us a little about yourself? What attracted you to the Utilities sector?

I’m currently the Chief executive of MOSL who are the market operator for water. I’ve been there since June. Prior to that, I worked at Thames Water for 25 years. I did a degree in Micro-biology with a year in industry, in food microbiology. I wasn't sure what direction to go in with my degree, so I approached one of my lecturers who was working in the Centre for Environmental Health Engineering for help in finding some work experience and he agreed.

I very quickly got involved in a project that was looking at developing water treatment solutions for refugee situations in developing countries. It was here that I got hooked into water. Funnily enough, my first role was working at water treatment works for Thames Water, where me and another female colleague, who was a civil engineer, were tasked to build a small scale filtration plant that could be constructed in a third world situation by two women in their early 20s. We had received information from Oxfam that revealed that often in refugee situations, it’s the women who are in charge of finding a water supply.

We managed to construct the plant and I was really hooked. Without having known up until then what I was interested in, that year taught me that the single biggest factor to protect public health in any country, whether it’s in the developing world or somewhere like right here in London, is clean, safe drinking water and taking the sewage away. Without that, you don’t have a society and something to build an economy on. As for the rest of my career, what happened next was a series of opportunities and accidents.

What do you think are the challenges that Utilities organisations have in driving diversity in their workforce?

 That is something I’ve thought about more towards the latter part of my career. From a personal perspective, I don’t think there was any part of me as an individual that felt that I was less competent or capable than my male peers. For me going into Thames Water, which was and still is very male-dominated, I think my attitude from the outset was always one of I know I’m as good as you if not better.

However, as I’ve progressed through my career and I’ve mentored a lot of younger women, I can fully recognise that, actually, for a lot of women coming into a male-dominated environment, they can feel like an imposter. They have an opinion that I’m a girl so maybe I’m not going to be good in science and engineering- so I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working with these younger women to help change their minds.

When I think back to early on in my career, there were a lot of instances when I was treated differently because of my gender and in some cases inappropriately. For me, the real important thing to do in these instances is just to call them out. I tolerated things early on in my career such as people talking to me in a certain way that I shouldn’t have and what I would advise any young woman now is actually you don’t need to put up with that.

I think the challenges come from twofold. One, in a very male-dominated environment it’s hard to identify role models and the way you should behave. This lack of role models is definitely an issue. I also think the organisational tolerance of inappropriate behaviour is another challenge. To get around this, I think it’s about confidence, having role models and talking to other women by identifying them in your network and particularly in your organisation. Acknowledging that its ok to talk about the challenges you’re facing and it’s ok to challenge them back and speak up about them.

In my experience, the utilities sector is not very diverse and it's very traditional. It doesn’t always sound very exciting and it’s hard to sell as a prospective career to everyone. But bluntly, organisations with a more diverse population of people making decisions make more money and are more successful. So that to me shows that there is a moral reason for diversity but there’s also a very practical reason too- especially for a traditionally focused and not very innovative sector such as water. I don’t see the water sector taking the jump forward that it needs to for its customers without embracing a diverse workforce.

Are there practical steps that an organisation can take to broaden the diversity of their workforce?

 One really simple step, that I must admit I was sceptical of when someone suggested it to me, is to take the first names or any other identifying information off all CVs in your first round of the hiring. You can then just read their CV and question whether this is a human being that I think would be a good fit for this organisation. When I did this myself, it made a fundamental difference and revealed an unconscious bias in me that I didn’t realise I had.

Another is training everybody who is in a recruitment position or a leadership position on unconscious bias and having the honesty and openness to accept that everyone does. Whether you’re black, white, male, female, whatever your sexual orientation; every human being will have an unconscious bias on other human beings based on their upbringing and lots of other factors. Having those open conversations in communities of managers, leaders and recruiters is really healthy because starts to open up to a more positive conversation about the sort of diversity mix the organisation requires in order to make the best decisions.

There’s a lot of focus on diversity from an ethnicity and gender basis, but I think it’s really important to also consider the diversity of thinking. I mean this by having a mixture of introverts and extroverts within a team; people who think and challenge in different ways. I’ve done a lot of recruitment over the years and its human nature for people to recruit people who are like them. It’s a completely natural thing to do and I think it’s vital to have those open conversation to say, particularly in senior positions, actually we need people who think differently from myself and who are willing to challenge me.

What motivated and drove your success as one of the most influential people currently in the water sector?

I think for me it was twofold. Getting a very strong feeling about water and feeling it was something really important early on has certainly helped. I don’t think I recognised as a teenager or young woman that having a direct emotional connection to what I do at work was important to me.

The second thing for me has been the people I’ve worked with over the years, particularly at Thames Water and having a community of people with a similar passion for water. The interesting thing about the water sector is the number of people who sail, row, fish or who are interested in the environment and that passion for water and the environment that extends beyond your day job. This has been something that has continued to inspire me and willed me on.

There are only a few women occupying top jobs within the water sector. Why do you think that is?

 I think that’s a really interesting question. I have my own opinion on that but I don’t have a definitive answer. I don’t think the water sector deals very well with maternity leave and mothers in general. Times have definitely moved on but 17 years ago, I was told that it was inappropriate for me to return to a front-line operational role now that I had a young baby. I still kick myself now that I didn’t challenge it, but at the time I didn’t completely disagree with them; however, my reasoning was very different from theirs.

If you look across the water sector, they do very well in recruiting females at a graduate level. Thames Water, in particular, has more women graduates than males but this starts to drop off around mid-management level. I think there needs to be more support for flexible working and an understanding that, for most women, no matter how confident you are coming back to work after having a baby is tough. If you’re in an environment where the vast majority of your colleagues are male and you don’t have anyone to talk to about that, it becomes even tougher. I’ve seen a lot of talented women leaving the business in their early 30’s after having children because it was just too hard. I think there is a sector-wide challenge around flexibility for working parents generally, but particularly for women.

With what you know now, is there anything you think the leadership team could have done differently to support these challenges that you and other women have experienced?

 Since I’ve been in a senior position, I’ve done my best to give support to women going through this experience. I think it’s all about being open and honest about how challenging it is and giving people the opportunity to talk about what they need in order to come back to work. Women make up 50% of the population and if we can’t have an environment where women want to come back after having children, you end up with a senior management population that is very male-biased.

There are practical steps in place and I know recently of women who have gone on maternity leave or who have returned to work at Thames who, I’m pleased to say, have had a much more positive experience than I did. But there’s still a long way to go. I think there needs to be far more focus on job sharing and having open conversations about practical challenges and the support we can provide.

There’s continued talk about the gender imbalance in STEM careers. So, what are you doing to encourage more women to consider it as a career? 

 Personally, I’ve just come from presenting to 250 year 12 students at University Technical college of London who take children from 14-18years old and specialise in STEM subjects. They have fantastic facilities available, but still struggle with achieving a good gender balance. I was talking to them specifically about career paths and broadening their networks during the early stages of their careers.

We’re also setting up a panel with their year 13 girls, where we can get a number of inspirational female scientists and engineers to talk about their personal experiences. This should be a detail conversation where these young women can ask questions about how to succeed in a male-dominated industry.

I do think the most important thing is to get people to recognise that just because you’ve done a biology degree, doesn’t mean you’re limited to sitting in a lab doing biology-based tasks every day. Doing a STEM subject can open the doors to so many industries and encouraging people with a STEM perspective into leadership roles is something I’m really passionate about.

What advice would you give to all of the aspiring Sarah McMath’s out there about progressing in their careers in the Utilities sector?

 The first piece of advice would be that it's ok to have a career plan if you want one, but don’t feel like you have. It’s important to have some view of what you would like to do, but you have to be open to the opportunities as they come up. Otherwise, your career plan could constrain you.

Volunteer for things and challenge those stereotypes. If you want to be a leader, get involved in things that give you the opportunity to lead even if that’s not in your area.

Lastly, I would say be really open about what you don’t know as well as what you do know. Explore different areas and learn something new by talking to people-  particularly those who you find really interesting. Once you’ve learned all about their job, tell them about your own job and what it involves. It’s all about building relationships.

Where do you think the Utilities sector should be over the next five years in terms of its challenge to attract future talent? How does the Utilities sector counteract the learned stereotypes? 

 I think it’s really important to attract people to the sector as a whole from a water perspective and not just a water company. The statistics are the same across the water industry; people either join a water company and stay for a large proportion of their career or join for a short period of time and leave after a few years.

It’s important to understand why people leave after that two-year mark. I think a lot of it, is down to a level of frustration that things don’t move quickly enough and there’s no pace of change, particularly in a digital sense. How do we harness the digital knowledge of younger people without putting them off with outdated phones and computer systems? There needs to be a big focus on digitisation and learning from people coming into our organisations.

It’s also about accepting that, because of the ageing workforce, the water industry is losing a huge amount of knowledge and understanding of water processes and how they work. I think there’s a real place for reverse mentoring. Bringing people in who understand how well you can do things from a digital perspective and pairing them up with people who understand the science of how the processes work can provide smarter solutions. This has got to be a better option than just letting the water industry to continue down this traditional pathway.

Is there anything the Utilities sector can be doing to attract middle-management level employees who work in other sectors currently?

 That is a really interesting question. One of the things the water sector does very well is excluding more disruptive thinkers. These people come in, often for a short period of time and have a different approach that challenged all of the common thinking. I think water companies, in general, don’t embrace that and if you don’t work in a certain way this can become very frustrating very quickly. This can result in these disruptive thinkers either leaving or conform, which means they lose their ability to challenge.

One of the biggest challenges for the water industry is bringing in people who do think differently and challenge those status quos and norms that we all believe to be true. But how do we bring in these disruptive innovators, such as Google, that look at things from a different perspective? For me, attracting future talent needs has to involved disruptive innovation and getting people thinking differently and accepting that because we have more information and data now, we can do things better.

Water companies work in five-year cycles. So, do you think the regulatory environment is conducive for this way of thinking and able to drive innovation?

 It’s easy to blame regulation for constrained thinking and there is an ability to innovate within the regulatory construct as it is. Do I think the construct is perfect? No, I don’t and there are things we can do to improve it. But it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to innovate.

To drive the sector forward, I think there’s a real need to get full engagement with the wider supply change and there’s also a need to go outside of the UK. For a long time, the rest of the world has looked to the UK for wastewater treatments, but now, there are a lot of countries who are ahead of us- so we should be looking to see what they are doing.

The one thing I would say is whilst other countries provide a better service to customers in a number of areas, their water bills are higher. I think one of our biggest challenges in the UK is that our water is under-priced and therefore undervalued. It’s easy to look to Germany or Japan with their asset replacement rates which are exceptional compared to ours- but they are paying for that. I do think we need to question whether or not we put the appropriate value on water and whether you could ever get the level of infrastructure investment you need for long term security and resilience of supply if you ‘re continuing to decline customer bills.

How would you summarise the sector and what it has to offer?

I couldn’t imagine working on anything more exciting. It all goes back to understanding the value of water and basic sanitation- if it doesn’t work the way it should, it can have catastrophic effects on the economy and public health. For me, the thing that is most exciting and also scary about the future is that we are running out of water in the South East, so we’re now in a situation where the population is growing and we have less water available than we ever have done.

The combined challenge of climate change and population growth and therefore the impact on water scarcity for me is one of the most exciting challenges we’re facing in the UK today. For people considering moving into the water sector, I think there are going to be some really big challenges over the next few years and that’s all really exciting.

Going back to the point I made earlier, we can’t drive the sector forward and deal with the significant challenges we’re facing with the population working in the water sector today. We will only be able to meet those challenges if we have that diversity of thought, background, gender and ethnicity. All of that is what’s needed to tackle these big challenges head-on.

Keep an eye out for updates on our next podcast episode coming soon. If you'd like to be a guest on one of our upcoming podcast episodes, get in touch with a member of the Deltra team here.

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Richard Archer

12th November

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