A Look at Women’s Leadership in Sustainability

by Erica Frye

In the book Women In Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, authors Kira Gould and Lance Hosey demonstrate that women have a strong presence in the sustainability world as environmentally aware consumers and as change agents. A slew of studies have examined reasons for this, and a frequent conclusion is that women are more likely to embrace traits that serve sustainability, such as social sensitivity, holistic thinking, and empathy. (These are not traits solely held by women, of course, and they might even be more accurately classified as “right-brain” rather than “feminine.”)

It should therefore come as no surprise that there was a panel discussion at West Coast Green titled Women’s Ways of Leadership in Sustainability, led by Gould and including several high profile women in sustainability, to explore the idea of feminine leadership and its implications for sustainability.

Synthesizing this session has been a challenge, because each panelist brought a very different point of view — perhaps this reflects the fractured nature of the discussion itself. A significant factor contributing to this may be discomfort with the topic. Discussing “feminine” leadership often provokes ambivalence, which was reflected in the panel as well as comments from conference attendees. Hunter Lovins, a last-minute addition to the panel and one of the best-known women in sustainability, was resistant to the conversation, asserting she becomes nervous when male/female tags are applied, and that she doesn’t think gender should be relevant.

Valerie Casey addressed the ambivalence this way: First, she asserts, we have an initial reaction of dread about participating in a “Women and X” panel. We distance ourselves from it, not wanting to be defined (and marginalized) by gender. She questions if there is inherent self-loathing motivating us to become defensive or deny that gender issues exist at all. And while we might consider re-casting behaviors as gender neutral, Casey argues this would be a mistake, that there is value in confronting what is uncomfortable. We should instead utilize the tension as a toe-hold to have this discussion and think critically.

Judging by the attendance in the room — this was the only session I witnessed where the seats were not only completely full, but a dozen extra chairs had to be brought in — clearly this is a topic women do want to talk about. I say women, since, notably, there were only a few men present, and at least one of them was the husband of a panelist.

The panel skirted around any debate over the root causes of male/female differences and if those differences are real or perceived, and moved on to how women who are interested in sustainability can find success.

Their suggestions backed up the validity of a gender discussion. Lynn Simon indicated that motherhood influenced the decision to start her own architecture firm, not finding the flexibility she needed in traditional employment. Carrie Meinberg Burke spoke to the need to cultivate courage as a woman, and how “gendered” perceptions — she cited assumptions made about her after becoming a mother — often outweigh actual gender issues. Lovins and Simon encouraged women to show initiative and become involved in their professional communities, volunteering if necessary to gain confidence and knowledge. (Regarding this last point, I highly recommend this HBR podcast on how women are over-mentored but under-sponsored.)

If feminine (or right-brain) leadership has significant benefits for sustainability, then we must become invested in continuing this conversation — no matter how comfortable — in order to identify and cultivate those advantages.

Erica Frye is a strategist dedicated to building brands driven by culture, mission, and sustainability, and a recent graduate of the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts. You can read more from her at www.ericafrye.com.

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