By Colin Marrs

01 Sep 2015

Keela Shackell-Smith describes how she helped break the Environment Agency’s glass ceiling and increase the percentage of women in senior roles 

In 2010, the Environment Agency realised it had a problem. Staffing figures showed that senior management only comprised 25% women – a proportion that had stubbornly stuck for a number of years. A top-level meeting was called to discuss the issue and the result was a two-pronged approach.

Miranda Kavanagh, the agency’s executive director of evidence, would work with senior staff to help break the glass ceiling, while Keela Shackell-Smith – at that time a principal health and safety auditor and head of the internal LGBT Network – would instigate work on forming a women’s network.

“It has been very much staff-led,” says Shackell-Smith, who is keen to emphasise the bottom-up approach used to set the network’s priorities.

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“There are generally around 12 work themes for the year – this year they include mentoring and maternity issues – and the work is divided up into groups of five or six people.”

Assisted by 76 committee members, Shackell-Smith, who is currently the evidence engagement adviser in the executive director’s office of the Environment Agency, explains much of the agenda is set by the results of the network’s annual survey.

This, she explains, is used to “evaluate the action plan from the previous year to see what could be improved, and what to tackle in the year ahead.”

As a result of the surveys, the network developed a “confidence” course to help more women seek promotion within the organisation. Delivered by an external supplier, the course “is based on building on the strengths of those involved, improving their self-esteem and looking at career planning,” she says, adding that so far, more than 300 members of staff have completed the course.

Themed web conferences – which use the agency’s existing web conferencing technology, and are presented by staff members – are also now held every quarter. With staff dispersed across the country, this method encourages high levels of participation as participants can ask questions and take part in real-time polls as the discussion progresses.

“Among the topics, we have done one on women’s health and one on interview skills. The themes are decided by what people are demanding of the network,” adds Shackell-Smith.

Other free technology such as enterprise social network Yammer comes in handy to help create public and confidential groups to discuss topics of interest. “Some members want to know how to deal with things like broaching sensitive conversations with their line manager, or dealing with fertility issues. You can read the HR policy, but many people want to run real-life situations past others who might have dealt with similar ones,” she says.

There are now 1,800 people on the intranet – either members or approved friends or members – and a number of male staff have been admitted to the network.

“We do a lot of work to engage men. You won’t improve equality by only focusing on women. Women work with and are often managed by men, so it is important for them to understand and also champion women. One joined because he is in charge of a group of 200 people, half of which are women. He wanted to know what barriers women might feel,” explains Shackell-Smith.

The latest staffing figures seem to indicate that the network is reaping positive results – the percentage of women in senior roles has risen in five years to 35%. “Every year there has been an increase,” says Shackell-Smith. “The pipeline is also going up at lower grades. More and more people are challenging themselves and helping to change things in the agency.”

The network is now putting out feelers to other departments although Shackell-Smith says networks in other government agencies and departments are at different stages of development. A cross-government initiative has produced a guide for setting up a women’s network in an attempt to spread the lessons learnt. “We are talking to each other and making sure we are not reinventing the wheel each time,” she says.

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