Empowering women at work | SUEZ Women's Network

Dr Tracey Leghorn
by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Business Services Officer | SUEZ recycling and recovery UK

More than ever before, HR professionals and business leaders are working to promote inclusion and diversity in the workplace. I’ve written before about the benefits that result for the organisation as well as employees – from enhanced morale, job satisfaction and team spirit to creativity and productivity.

Cultural and attitudinal change are hard. Organisations can learn from each other and best practice – adopting policies, procedures and initiatives that foster a culture of acceptance and understanding of other people’s differences.

But if we are to help our people achieve their full potential as individuals there is another enabler that is perhaps even harder to influence and inspire. I’m talking about self-acceptance, self-understanding and self-confidence. They matter because a person should be able to lead their life (including their working life) in a way that allows them to be their true authentic self – whatever their background, age, ethnicity, sexual identity or, indeed, gender.

We tackled this very real challenge for women head on at our 2022 annual SUEZ Women’s Network Conference, held earlier this month. Our #LivingYourLife event put the focus firmly on our personal values and how we must live them day to day if we are to have meaningful and fulfilling lives and careers.

The day was also a celebration of the contribution by women across the business. Building on last year’s conference (#BeYourBestSelf), we were aiming to motivate and energise our female colleagues. They are already actively engaged with our Women’s Network, which has grown over the last few years and convenes quarterly meetings. As well as its committed membership, the network has allies across the business including our OpCom (the Board here at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK).

Both the Network and the Conference are important parts of our wider effort to foster an inclusive SUEZ culture. So far this year, we have rolled out mandatory unconscious bias training for all employees while continuing to raise awareness of all aspects of inclusion and diversity through various campaigns and regular webinars.

The Board held a listening session with women across the business to improve our directors’ understanding of what it’s like being a woman working at SUEZ. In strict confidence, employees are encouraged to share their personal data so we have a more accurate profile of our workforce and can monitor how fair and equitable we are in recruiting, promoting and paying our people. Emulating the success of our Women’s Network, we launched new networks for disabilities, ethnicity, LGBTQIA+ and parents. In the coming weeks, we are also creating a Youth Network.

Several of our initiatives to enhance the wellbeing and engagement of employees have been recognised in the 2022 CIPD Awards and elsewhere. Women across the business have been at the forefront, not only in these efforts, but also in our internal Critical Success Factor (CSF) awards. Just under half (48.3%) of around 60 separate awards – covering diverse aspects of the business from continuous improvement, digitalisation and profitability to sustainability and social value – were won by women. Less than a fifth (around 16%) of our total workforce are women.

This was the backdrop to our gathering of 90 of those women in Birmingham. In facilitating the day, I was accompanied by two excellent female professionals, clinical psychologists Dr Lucy Shoolbred and Dr Rebecca Holt, co-founders of Working Mindset. Ahead of the conference they worked with us to develop a bespoke programme tailored specifically for our women at SUEZ.

The first session they led tackled ‘the happiness trap’. One of our society’s great myths (perhaps more pervasive among women) is that if you’re not happy, you’re somehow defective. To create a better life, we must confront these negative feelings, and learn to control what we think and feel.

I particularly liked a later session dealing with the ‘passengers on the bus’ – our inner voices, the critics that stop us leading our life the way we would want to. We explored how our ‘observing self’ can recognise this unhelpful mind chatter for what it is, and face it down.

Central to this, and the centrepiece of the day, was how we define our values. Previous blogs have explored the importance of corporate values and buy-in by employees. We have worked hard to ensure that SUEZ values resonate with our people by involving them closely in defining and updating those values.

But our focus at the conference was very much on the personal. Not what others think our values should be, but an honest reckoning with the values that stand out in our lives. It was insightful to learn how our values can work for or against us. To facilitate this session, we shared pack of cards illustrating the most common values, and delegates sorted them into three piles – according to their relative importance to them, not based on abstract notions of what’s right or wrong.

These cards had been developed previously by Dr Rebecca and Dr Lucy as a tool they use to help people define and explore their values. They kindly allowed us to recreate these in line with our conference and corporate branding so attendees could take their set away with them. On the day, they were a talking point as our people explored the difficult situations – or ‘choice points’ – when our values influence or guide our behaviours and actions. We also explored the skills and strengths that help us respond to that inner experience and those challenging situations.

In the afternoon we drew on this reflection and self-knowledge when considering committed actions. Again, personal values were the compass, as we plotted how close we are living to those values in four areas of our lives: work and education; relationships; personal growth and health; and leisure.

Based on these personal maps, the attendees set goals, motivated by their values, that are truly important to them, but also realistic. Part of the exercise involved recognising obstacles (both internal and external) and how one can prepare to overcome them as well as identifying what resources we already have to help us achieve our goals.

To conclude, everyone had the opportunity to ask questions of our presenters. Then and throughout the day, the level of engagement was staggering. I am always humbled by the courage of our women to share their experiences and by the level of support, encouragement and inspiration that creates in the room.

The feedback was summed up well by Clare, an Operations Administrator who attended with colleagues from SUEZ Cornwall who has kindly agreed for us to share it. She said: “I felt very lucky to be in a room with all the amazing, strong women within our business (and, of course, the Doctors) and it felt very powerful and supportive of one another. Thank you very much for such a successful, enjoyable, but equally, an important day.”

I feel it was truly valuable too. Like life, work is personal. Personal values should be the compass, for women across SUEZ – and everyone, whatever the organisation – as we navigate both our home and working lives with greater confidence.