Women at Work with the Rivers Trust

Logo: The Rivers Trust

By Rebecca Duncan – Media and Events Lead, The Rivers Trust

Woman in wading in a shallow river removing a plastic basket
Amy Wade, Engagement and Education Officer at Bristol Avon Rivers Trust, removing shopping baskets from a river (The Rivers Trust)

“It is literally impossible to be a woman” – Barbie, Greta Gerwig, 2023

This line from the phenomenon that was Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie was a lightbulb moment for audiences worldwide. It may seem trite or oversimplistic, but the impact that film – especially this monologue - has had is evidence that its message resonated with those watching, regardless of gender.

Although it is now 2024 and the world has made significant progress towards gender equality, moments like the Barbie film are a prompt to stop and consider what we could all do better. There is much more for us to do to overcome the barriers and prejudices faced by women in the workplace and, crucially for us, to ensure that they are not held back from contributing authentically to our work in the environment sector.

As we approach International Women’s Day, I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the experience of women working at The Rivers Trust, who are inspiring, inspired and powerful. Much of the content of this article is based on an anonymous survey of female colleagues, the results of which reflect how The Rivers Trust is a very positive woman friendly place to work, but also that we must not get complacent about gender equality.

According to colleagues, The Rivers Trust is a wonderful organisation to work for in general, but also as a woman. We have women working in every department from technical and operations to communications and project management. There are several women on our Senior Management Team including in prominent directorial roles, as well as younger women who are early on in their careers.

It is widely acknowledged that personal purpose is a key factor in people choosing to work in the environment sector. Our people are driven by a sense of wider moral purpose beyond generating profits for a company or income for themselves. The same can be said for the charity sector, and The Rivers Trust intersects both of these.

Across our entire team there is definitely a collective sense of purpose and a consistent desire to make the world a better place. Our women generally support each other and are always happy to listen or to give advice. They try to open doors rather than putting up walls to prevent others’ development and progression. We are all able to benefit from the Trust’s flexible working policy, which not only allows us to work from home full-time, but also gives the opportunity to work condensed hours, take back time in lieu, and take sabbaticals. It’s extremely welcome to have these policies in place which promote good health, wellbeing and work-life balance.

A woman standing behind a podium giving a talk
Tessa Wardley Event Speaking (Sam Hardwick and Hay Festival)

That doesn’t mean that the working world for women is perfect though. Our colleagues' career wide reflections pointed to practical, social and cultural examples of workplace challenges based on their gender.

In terms of practical challenges, those with experience of field work requiring PPE or other technical equipment had often had to use items which were designed for men, often very big or uncomfortable to wear/use. Comfort is one thing, but working in a world where things are designed for men as a default has an impact on women’s safety. It is also a constant reminder that women are still often treated as an exception in the workplace; having to work in ill-fitting equipment can draw unwanted attention to a person or make them feel infantilised.

There are also many societal issues that affect working women such as the gender pay gap. As of April 2023, the gender pay gap in the UK stands at 7.7%(i). It is worse in the charity sector, which reported a 9.1% gender pay gap in April 2022(ii). When referring to previous jobs, multiple women said that they had been paid less than men in the same position as them.

Another element of work which can be difficult for women to negotiate is parental leave. Although it is now possible for parents to share parental leave in the UK, women are still more likely to take the majority of it, and many women struggle to make ends meet with only statutory maternity pay. If they choose to return to work, early years childcare costs can be crippling. Other caring responsibilities such as for elderly or vulnerable relatives also disproportionately affect women (iii).

Another thing that we are increasingly conscious of at The Rivers Trust, thanks to a select few colleagues, is the effect of menopause symptoms on work. The physical symptoms of menopause maybe slightly more documented, but mental health symptoms such as mood swings or lack of concentration can be very debilitating. Increasing awareness around this can help us to implement measures and make allowances to ensure that menopause doesn’t hold anyone back.

While these issues are comparatively easy to identify, many of the negative experiences that women can have in the workplace are more intangible. Common anecdotes where women feel patronised, dismissed or talked down to are often due to unconscious bias, which we are only just beginning to unpack as an organisation and society. Feelings of impostor syndrome are very common and can result in people making a concerted effort to blend into a crowd, avoiding drawing attention to themselves.

Group of women standing in tall grass as they survey flood water
Surveying during a visit to a Natural Flood Management project site in Cumbria (The Rivers Trust)

At the junction of the environment and charity sectors, it’s especially vital for The Rivers Trust to be open about unconscious bias and all the other issues that might affect the women in our team. As a whole, the charity sector has a gender equality problem. A recent report from Pro Bono Economics (iv) states that women make up 68% of the charity sector overall, yet only 1 in 3 large charities has a female CEO, and men outnumber women 2:1 at board level. The environment sector does not fare any better, as it has been predicted that women will hold just a quarter of green jobs by 2030 (v).

In such an imbalanced setting, it can often seem like men always have the final say. It is great that The Rivers Trust currently has gender parity on its board and such positive feedback about working here, but we need to put in the effort to keep it that way, and to further diversify.

If we’re going to stand up to the scale of the problems facing our environment, we need to be creative, innovative, and open to risk. We are working at the heart of the drive to create a more sustainable future for water; we therefore need to make sure that we draw on the talents and perspectives of people from all walks of life. An organisation can only be truly equitable and inclusive when all team members feel they can bring their whole, authentic selves to work.


i) Office for National Statistics, “Gender pay gap in the UK: 2023”

ii) Civil Society, “Gender pay gaps at country’s larges charities increase”

iii) Guardian, “Caring roles block career advancement for three in five women”

iv) Pro Bono Economics, “'Gender imbalance at the top of UK charities is holding sector back,' report finds”

v) Raconteur, “In the race to net zero, green jobs struggle with the gender gap”


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Posted On: 05/02/2024

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