Women in Waste Management : "We need true diversity. Not just in terms of gender."

Katie Mallinson Toon, Scriba, Untha
© Weka/Kellermayr

“Well, I’ve always been a bit of a nerd. I’ve grown up with an inquisitive mind on the one hand, and a real love for the English language and writing on the other”, says Katie Mallinson smiling, “blaming” her dad, a mechanical engineer, for her fascination for how things work and why. “I suppose as my career has taken shape those two worlds collided.” The 36-years-old not only is the founder and managing director of B2B communications agency Scriba PR, based in Yorkshire (UK), but also the marketing director for shredding specialist UNTHA UK.

Getting exited about rubbish

Not having a specific career plan Katie started with a broad business degree which saw her cover everything from organizational culture through to finance marketing. She went to work for a communications company in her placement year at university and decided that she wanted to major into the communications side of business. After graduating she returned to the agency in 2009 and was entrusted with the press work for baling and shredding company Riverside Waste Machinery. That’s when she fell in love with the waste management industry. “It had both a technical and a human-interest side to it. I was fascinated. When I talked about my work to friends at the pub they would ask incredously “Why do you get so excited about rubbish?” and I would say “Because it’s very important!”,” she remembers laughing. “I just really enjoyed all things waste recycling”, she adds with a twinkle in her eye. While working at the communications company she also helped out with a number of environmental clients that they worked for.

While some of her peers might find the waste industry “really boring or really complicated”, she enjoyed its complexity. “I loved getting my head around these topics and I also enjoyed, and this sounds quite cheesy, but I also enjoyed that it actually means something. The environmental sector has a huge part to play in the global economy. And I really enjoyed being a part of that.”

I always loved the complexity of the waste management sector. It has also a huge part to play in the global economy. And I love being part of that.
Katie Mallinson

Setting out on her own

She managed to successfully raise Riverside's profile in a very competitive market. The company was at that time the sole distributor for UNTHA’s shredding technology in the UK. The Austrian brand then bought Riversides shredding division to form UNTHA UK.

After four years at the agency, Katie decided to set up on her own planning to be a freelance copywriter. She had her first client within 48 hours of starting on her own and in addition to that UNTHA UK wanted to keep working with her. “I realized to do my job justice, to really get under the skin of the business I needed to be more flexible, which was also part of the reason I quit my old job”, the Yorkshire-based PR pro explains. But starting alone in this competitive and male-dominated industry was not easy. Also, in the aftermath of the credit crunch people were still not spending a lot of money on communications. Nevertheless, she persisted. And succeeded. Thanks to her unique approach Scriba PR is now a thriving PR agency with clients mainly in the environmental and waste management sector. “We start a conversation with a client before we even start to talk about communications and trying to understand where they want to go as a business. It might be that they've got a real recruitment need or want to expand overseas, whatever it might be,” Katie explains. “It would be easy to just churn out product brochures and product launch press releases. I see my job much more like using communications not just to sell a product, but to educate customers and prospects to offer advice.”

UNTHA UK agreed with her and made her its marketing director. “They are willing and really quite keen to do things that are a little bit different, that kind of go against the grain”, the 36-year-old says. “For example, we really changed our approach to social media about 18 months ago and started publishing quite bold loud videos that perhaps aren't what you would always expect, but still have some relevance behind it. As long as there is a rationale, they are very trusting. So it's great for me as a professional to be able to have that freedom.” The company trusted her enough to also adapt the marketing and communications model across different countries such as the US, Poland, and Spain.

Figthing for her place in the industry

Even though she now has found her place in the industry, there were times – probably still are – where it was hard for her to be taken seriously. “I remember one of the first events I went to when I was newly self-employed was a conference in Glasgow. I was the only woman there and a guy who I didn't know came over to me and said ‘That’s an interesting outfit.’” Since she was wearing a simple navy dress, this was, as she says, quite a ridiculous thing to say as well as generally inappropriate. “What he wanted to say was: ‘You are not wearing a grey suit because you are not a middle aged, white man.’” He continued to ask her about her role in the industry and hearing she worked in communications, made some disparaging comments almost implying that she was just in industry to smile at people. There have been more situations like this over the years. “I think it’s not only because I’m female, but also because I don’t have an engineering background. PR, marketing, communications, whatever you want to call it, I think a lot of people don't understand that and think that you're just there to colour in pictures or write some odd words. But you don't have to be from an engineering background or have an engineering qualification to understand and respect an engineering discipline.” Also being young, female and happy, as she says, for quite a few people translated to being naïve and a bit of an airhead. “I've always believed that you can succeed in business by being kind and a decent person. You don’t have to be ruthless and cutthroat and luckily this is also changing.”

There are so many ways you can get involved in the waste management industry. You could work in communications or be a product designer. You could be someone helping communities deal with their waste.

The industry is becoming more diverse

One of the things slowing women in climbing the senior ladder is taking time off for their children. “It’s still traditionally only the woman going on parental leave. Many don’t even know that in the UK at least shared parental is possible,” Katie says. She and her partner took shared parental leave for both their young daughters. “He’s in the construction sector and they really didn’t know what he was talking about. So, he did all the paperwork and told them it’s the law,” she explains.

Change is slow, but it is coming, Katie says. “I’m coming across more and more women in our industry, which I think is fantastic. But we need true diversity, not just in terms of gender but also in terms of age, cultural and educational background.” To attract young people, she sees a real need to talk at the school age about how exciting a career in this industry could be, whether you're male or female, however old you are, whatever educational background you've come from, whether you've got an interest in engineering or not: ”There are so many ways you could get involved in this environment. You could be an engineer, you could be a communications professional, you could be a product designer, you could be someone helping communities deal with their waste and probably thousand other things.”

What would she say to someone starting in the industry? “I think don't be afraid to ask questions because for as much as there are cynical people out there, there are those that are also very, very supportive and who want you to succeed and want to show the different routes you could go down to thrive.”