What role do women have in the pest control industry? How has it changed in recent years? Three female leaders within our industry share their insights.

Following on from the Diversity in Pest Management panel discussion at the recent AEPMA Conference, we recently asked a number of influential women leaders from our key suppliers, for their opinion on the perception of, and opportunities for, women in the industry and how this has changed over the years.

What’s changed?

There’s no doubt the pest industry has historically been a male dominated one, but things are changing. Joanne George, Sentricon business manager (main picture, left) joined Dow back in 1990. “When I joined, there wasn’t a single female in the eld, be it in a technical or sales role,” said Ms George. “And from my earlier years in the industry I can only remember one female technician, Vicky Lamond, who worked for Anteater Pest Control in Sydney.”

However, Ms George said she felt she was well accepted and respected from the start. “When participating on roadshows, especially in the early days, I was often the only woman in a group of ten or more sales reps. All company personal are very respectful and supportive of each other, whether male or female.” She recalls only one occasion when someone within the industry said, “Oh, you’re a woman, I wasn’t expecting that!”

Although there certainly have been effects of the industry being male dominated, such as the use of scantily clad females at industry conferences by the occasional exhibitor as recent as 2006, for most part, the ‘old school’ attitudes have disappeared and women entering the industry have been very well received.

Belinda Smith, CEO at Rapid Solutions (main picture, centre) joined the industry in early 2017 and felt accepted from the start. “Only six months after joining the business we held the bi-annual Rapids Pest Control conference. In meeting suppliers and customers, the response to my appointment was very positive. They were very keen to hear about the direction I wanted to take the business in, rather than questioning me on my background or technical capabilities. Good acknowledgement that I was being taken at face value rather than having to justify myself with my qualifications and experience,” said Ms Smith.

Female representation in the industry is definitely changing. Companies have had equal opportunity policies in place for a number of years. Much like Ms George, Stephanie Simmons, portfolio marketing manager at BASF (main picture, right) has seen significant changes in female representation over the last ten years.

“My first perceptions when I joined the industry in 2009, was that it was very male dominated, but there’s certainly more women entering the industry now. If you looked at the BASF stand at the AEPMA conference, you would have seen a pretty even split in the pest team,” said Ms Simmons.

The increasing female representation can be seen with the number of women attending conferences and industry events. This is probably largely due to the majority of businesses being small, family run businesses where women play a vital role.

The value of women employees

From the supplier side, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be even numbers of male and female employees. However, getting more female technicians is the challenge.

Much like construction and trade-based businesses, women tend to have the office-based roles — administration, business management and marketing — rather than the hands-on technical roles. “Such is the nature of the business,” said Ms Smith. “I am not sure you will ever get to the stage of equal numbers of male and female pest technicians. I’d love to be wrong, but it just doesn’t appear to be the type of work that appeals to a lot of women. Equality isn’t about achieving a 50:50 ratio in any industry, it’s about ensuring equal opportunity for men and women, so that there are no barriers in place should a woman want enter an industry.”

That said, there are often hands on opportunities in the pest industry for which female employees provide some advantages. “Not only is commercial pest control more appealing to female workers, many business owners often prefer a female technician coming into their business,” said Ms Smith.

There are also potential advantages in winning termite work, as Ms Simmons points out. “There can be real value in having female pest managers, especially in the termite sector. Women are typically the main decision makers when it comes to choices about the home and carrying out research on products and services.”

Ms George agreed, “Woman can be more empathetic. When their homes are being attacked by termites, owners are often very emotional, so a bit of empathy goes a long way.”

“Most businesses are small to medium businesses, often close-knit family businesses or husband and wife teams, so they have immediate respect and diversity,” observed Ms Smith. “It is so competitive, so owners have to be flexible and open minded in their thinking and find ways to attract and keep the best people.”

Maternity leave is an important part of supporting younger female workers. At the end of the day, companies that support their employees, are more likely to retain good staff for longer.

“Taking a year off to have my first child and coming back into the work force has certainly given me a different perspective on life,” said Ms Simmons. “It’s not easy coming back as a first-time mum, you have a lot of guilt. But BASF have been very flexible and made it very easy for me to transition back at my own pace. BASF pride themselves on their equality practices and employee support. As the market leader, it’s important we lead by example.”

What still needs to be done?

As an industry, respect for women and equal opportunity appears to be in a pretty good space, although this still needs to translate into more women in certain areas of the industry. However, there can still be some issues with customer behaviour in this regard. Although not common, Ms George said, “I can think of three cases in the last six years where male homeowners have used tactics of intimidation and belittling when trying to get their own way. As a society, there is still room for improvement.”

Although increasing female representation in the industry is an important focus, diversity with regard to race and religion should not be ignored. Ms Smith said, “As a society we still have a long way to go to eliminate bias with regard to indigenous and migrant populations. Apart from the obvious need for equality, as with increasing female representation in the industry, inclusion of employees from different races and religions provides pest management businesses with an opportunity to better connect with customers from diverse backgrounds.”