Why training & tech are key to recruiting female leaders

Jenny Johnson is Director of Waste & Recycling, LaBella Associates

Few sectors of business are as male-dominated as Waste and Recycling (W&R). Perhaps the notion that the industry is “dirty” has overshadowed the many benefits of working in W&R, which has evolved to create value from waste for the good of the environment.

Fortunately, the industry has recognized the disparity between male and female leaders and several companies are making strides to diversify their organizations and leaders. As one of the few female W&R leaders, it’s particularly important to me that we accelerate this progress further. But how?

Recruiting young women into the waste industry is directly related to preparing the females already working in this field to move into leadership roles. If girls and young women do not see female leaders, it is more difficult to imagine becoming one, so the first step is to give women in the waste industry more support through networking and leadership training that will propel them into key leadership roles.

On a national level, the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) has led the way by establishing the Women’s Council in 2003. The Council’s mission is to foster the professional development of women in the waste industry, while striving to increase their business, financial, and leadership skills through education, workshops, mentoring, and networking.

More recently, Women in Solid Waste & Recycling (WISR) was created in 2017 with a similar mission: to diversify the decision makers in the waste and recycling industry by empowering women to take on leadership roles through networking, professional development, and training.

These associations have improved the opportunities for women who have actively participated, but more needs to be done, particularly for women who do not have physical access to these national groups. The accessibility of women’s chapters of national solid waste associations on a local level would increase women participation in networking and leadership training.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to establish women’s chapters of waste organizations at the local level because the number of women working in the waste industry in a particular region is not always sufficient enough to warrant the creation of a local women’s chapter. Considering that the number of women in the waste industry is growing faster in the public sector than in the private sector, developing women’s groups in the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) state chapters would logically have the greatest chance for success.

Waste industry companies and local government departments (i.e. public and private sectors) can support the recruitment and professional development of women by encouraging their female employees not only to become members of women waste association groups like the Women’s Council or WISR, but also to be actively involved in that membership. Successful active participation includes employer support for participating in committees and attending meetings and annual networking events, regardless of their geographic location. If the public and private sectors were to invest in their women in this manner at all levels of leadership, creating women-focused groups at the local level could become a wide-spread reality.

The second step in recruiting girls and young women into W&R is to encourage girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and science (STEM) to develop the talent needed to be successful in our industry. NWRA Women’s Council recognizes this need and offers scholarships to students in pursuit of careers in the environmental industry. To attract young women to our industry, we also need to work hard to demonstrate the desirability of the industry by changing the perception of solid waste work being dirty, stale, and not interesting.

As those of us in the industry know, solid waste management encompasses more than collecting and disposing of waste in a landfill, which in and of themselves have their own challenges. Our youth need to understand that solid waste management involves innovative thinking, development of new technology, and the willingness to apply that new technology to incorporate changes into the existing system.

Being a part of that kind of change can be very exciting. For example, some of the innovations and challenges for our industry that I have witnessed during the past decade include:

  • Converting methane to electricity and renewable natural gas
  • The use of GPS in grading equipment
  • Designing, manufacturing, and installing artificial closure turf
  • Drone surveying
  • Creating markets for recyclables
  • Understanding and mitigating elevated temperature landfills
  • Treating leachate on-site via wetlands, reverse osmosis, and biological means
  • Solving the plastics problem
  • Developing economical alternatives for waste management other than landfills
  • Addressing emerging contaminants, such as PFAS

One of my personal goals to help impact this initiative is to become involved in local STEM educational programs. I believe that through direct interaction with our nation’s girls and young women, we can have the most impact on changing the perception of working in the solid waste industry.

Of course, this kind of change always takes time, which is why we have no time to waste.