Tackle bias directly to create female-friendly culture

By Helen Gilbert

- Last updated on GMT

A change in culture could attract more women into the food industry
A change in culture could attract more women into the food industry
Tackling “unconscious bias” against female staff could help food firms attract more women, although an ageing workforce is potentially more of an issue, Kathryn Grant, people development manager at British Sugar, has claimed.

Grant cited the example of opening a challenging valve on a piece of equipment, a situation in which she had first-hand experience in her early days.

“Rather than let me go and do it myself and come and ask for help, the help was offered,”​ she told Food Manufacture​.  “It was quite an interesting discussion I had with someone. I asked them if they’d do​ [that] to a young male and they said no, they’d let him try first and if he couldn’t do it, they would help. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to challenge the way people are thinking and they’ve taken it on board.”

Grant added that there was still quite a lot of unconscious bias “where people think that you can’t necessarily do something because you are female, or they perceive that they have to behave in a different way because you are female”​.

90% men

The chemical engineering graduate, 31, joined British Sugar – whose workforce is made up of 90% men – from the University of Sheffield 11 years ago. She counts the managerial roles of shift production manager and beet processing among those she has held.

She was also on the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) young women’s board between 2016 and 2017.

However, she said that, in her experience, male bias was not the food industry’s largest problem.

“The biggest issue I’ve had is not really gender, it has been age,”​ she admitted.

Ageing workforce

“We’ve got quite an ageing workforce ... that has its own challenges. Trying to engage and relate to them is quite difficult at first. The way I get the best out of people is understanding them on a human level.”

Grant, who is passionate about encouraging female talent into the industry, works with Newark and Sherwood District Council and the local schools to promote awareness of engineering to pre-GCSE-age children. She explained that many of them and their parents wrongly think it’s similar to car mechanics.

To attract a more diverse workforce, she insisted, education was needed to raise the profile of engineering and make it more appealing by flagging up the benefits.

'Impacting lives'

“In food manufacture you are directly involved in impacting people’s lives, whether that’s producing food in a really economical way or stretching out the amount of food we have,” ​she added.​Everything that engineering touches has an impact on people’s lives.”

“Building awareness of what engineering is and the function and role it plays in society is critical.”

Last year, professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, chief executive and provost at NMiTE (new Model in Technology and Engineering) said a change in the culture of the UK manufacturing sector, including food and drink, could attract more women into the industry.


Related topics: People & Skills

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