Women in Sustainability Leadership – where do they go?

My main reason for doing this course was to expose myself to new perspectives, and avoid the risk of group-think that could come from a career focused only on one sector. Diversity is, I feel convinced, a key part of the sustainability response – different people have different perspectives and the blend, rather than one or the other, innovates and find ways to take good new ideas to scale. That’s why the core of my professional and academic interests are not in organisations per se but in partnerships and networks and in the definition of shared objectives between apparently disparate groups. I visualise the partnership approach as the equivalent of that machine in the opticians where they put a frame over your face and click different lenses into place, then say ‘better with this one? Or with this one? Better with? Or Without? With? Or without?’ When you and the optician have fine-tuned it you get that giddy sense that the world is brighter and sharper than before. That’s what good partnership and co-design means for me. Embracing diversity can bring challenges and that’s why we need to talk about it. If it was easy, people would be doing it anyway.  A bit like moving to a more sustainable economy.

I have worked in mostly quite female-dominated environments, so coming to a course where of the 40 participants, 30 are men, was quite a novelty. I did not feel intimidated, or that my contribution was valued less because I was a woman. I felt more concerned that my NGO professional background would be a barrier. Language and cultural barriers may be more of an issue in our course than gender, and being an English speaker from a very young age I have easy access to all the course material. However I did look out a bit to see who was talking more in the room, I always do. It’s not a formal ‘air-time’ audit, but there were definitely some brilliant women in those rooms keeping quiet in the Sidgwick campus in September who I hope will speak up more in March. And some very thoughtful and reflective men and women who spoke little, but made an impact when they did, became role models for the week for me (I have a tendency to over-talk and lose impact as a result).

The experience did make me wonder about the career prospects for women in sustainability.  It may be that women will equalise professionally in sustainability, but there is some way to go, see this article from 2014 where a specialist recruiter reviewed 600 sustainabilty leadership roles and identified that at the Director level, only 19% were held by women, just slightly lower than the FTSE 100 average.  Essentially,  the figures suggest that the same social and economic patterns which mean that few women hold top corporate jobs are reproduced in the sustainability sector, despite its sunny uplands of sharing  and circular economies.  There is a longer discussion of the visibility of women in sustainability leadership here: http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/12/18/why-weinreb-report-sustainability-pioneers-left-women-out.

That leaves me personally with the sense that I have to have my lines ready – when speaking to clients or potential employers, how do I take their perception that I appear to be a maternity-leave risk off the table and get them to focus on the fact that I am a damn good, very hard-working and creative professional? I’ve stripped my Twitter profile of anything about motherhood. But using emotion wisely and well is also part of the resilience we were exhorted to cultivate on this course. In my last months at my last employer (I set up my own company in December) I used my own experience for the energy to work with an older, male, Somali colleague on geting the broader issue of diversity in our leadership into some forums where it might make a difference.

Part of the problem is probably my own conditioning.  I noticed that on Twitter, I seem to mostly retweet things from men. Again, I haven’t audited who I follow but I suspect there is a majority of men. So this afternoon I looked at the Guardian’s list of top 20 women tweeting on sustainability and started following all those who looked relevant to my interests. I was delighted to see that Cristiana Figueres Twitter profile proudly declares three things : ‘Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Passionate about fighting climate change. Mother of two wonderful young ladies.’ One day I will be professionally secure enough to own up in public to being a mother.

I also noticed (and bearing in mind that this probably wasn’t the most thorough research the Guardian had ever done) that most of their list of women tweeting on sustainability are independent consultants.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the path I’ve chosen as the one that makes sense of my choices now, and in my first month I’ve picked up three clients, and I have not even done a stroke of marketing yet. I’ve also been approached by good professionals who hope I can bring them work as well – all women as it happens – and if we, and any men who wish to join in, can find a way to support each other to lead good and interesting professional lives then hurrah.   It’s partly now an unplanned experiment in work-pooling.  Consultants who have been doing that work for a while need (I imagine) a large degree of resilience, self-confidence, impeccable organsiational and presentational skills, and great networks.  Joining an established consultancy and building relationships with client after client, is not exactly easy, and starting your own enterprise, even as a one-woman band, is hardly easier.  But that snapshot of women in consultant roles does suggest a certain type of leadership approach, that of the expert or perhaps the communicator, the person fertilising ideas rather than the person making the hard decisions, taking the flak and perhaps changing the paradigms from the top of a large business.

And out of that thinking about different perspectives, and the ways we find to deploy our skills,  the idea of partnerships, of defining shared objectives and identifying ways to overcome differences of incentives and constraints, keeps coming back as a core theme. I’m just not sure yet how to incorporate that academically into my work.