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A Look at Women’s Leadership in Sustainability

3p Contributor | Thursday October 14th, 2010 | 5 Comments

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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  • http://learnedon.com Andrea Learned

    Thanks for this post covering the wise discussion of the WCG panelists. (I wish I could have been there!) Kira and Lance’s book is a great primer on the topic, and keeping up with each of the panelist’s individual work will also help those who might want to engage with the topic more. And, it is definitely worth lingering on the fact Erica mentions, that the session was standing room only… but mainly included women. The question continues to be: how do we identify and discuss the issues in ways that feel safe/inclusive for everyone – as in, what would get more men to enter into that room and listen to/learn from what sounds like incredibly compelling conversation? How do we celebrate what women tend to come to more naturally in their sustainable thinking process (rt-brain guided), but at the same time celebrate/encourage men to get better at it.. for the good of ALL our organizations and businesses. This is something I continue to study in my own writing/academic pursuits – and will talk with a lot more men about.

  • http://www.mjlilly.com Maria Lilly

    I couldn’t agree more with the comments on how women are clearly playing a leadership role in driving Sustainability/Corporate Responsibility in business today. Regardless of whether or not it’s left or right brain functioning, women are increasingly working together to develop the strategies that will make businesses (and yes, male-dominated C-Suites) adapt a sustainability mindset. I’m looking forward to the day when companies compete on the most creative and meaningful sustainability efforts because the economic and societal advantages will be abundantly clear!

    In terms of women gathering together on this very issue, the Women’s Network for a Sustainabile Future (WNSF) just hosted their annual NY Leadership Summit and the room was filled to capacity. WNSF is also hosting a West Coast Annual Summit on Nov 12. Women interested in attending should check out wnsf.org for details and registration information.

  • http://www.miratelinc.com Tim Merrick

    I hope it’s not a gender related issue as the principle transcends that of course. Nevertheless advocating all people who choose to follow a more sustainable path should be encouraged, it’s a path of unity and common sense after all.

    Really interesting article. Thanks~

  • http://www.wnsf.org ann goodman

    I was so sorry to miss the event–and Kira Gould’s kind invitation to participate in what sounds like a fantastic session at the conference. Kira is a true leader, and I can’t thank her enough for profiling me and the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future (WNSF) in her landmark book with Lance. Women, those in business, in particular, are in an increasingly strategic position to help advance sustainability, and it sounds like the recent session was a reminder of our collective enthusiasm and expertise for ensuring a sustainable tomorrow! Of course, WNSF welcomes all — including men — to join in exploring this potential at our leadership summits and year-long programs. Kudos to Kira and Erica!

  • http://www.maiamaia.org Sam Nelson

    One of my frustrations in founding an environmental NGO has been women being silent and passive. As soon as our male members start banging on about things (which I don’t want to inhibit), it seems that the women just disappear from the conversation. This is exactly what I don’t want but as a male myself, I don’t know how to correct it. It seems that women often do the heavy lifting when it comes to the day to day running of things, but their perspectives are also critically needed – and in my experience are often more perceptive than what the guys throw around. I would love to get any feedback as to how to encourage this in our group. How can we make women feel more comfortable “mixing it up” with the guys?