Amanda Steele

4 November 2013 — Despite a disproportionate number of women in the field, our sustainability industry severely lacks female leaders, says CBRE head of sustainability Amanda Steele.

When asked to present recently at a conference on sustainability and gender my interest was piqued. After 14 years of working in sustainability I relish the opportunity not to talk about human induced climate change (yes it is real, no I don’t care if you think it’s a beat up, no we are not doing enough), energy efficiency (yes it will save you money, the returns are better than expected, no we are not doing enough) or community development (yes it is our responsibility too, yes of course the government should lead it, no we’re not doing enough). But gender diversity and sustainable business value is a little out of kilter with our standard focus in sustainability circles. And yet, is it?

The issue of gender balance is certainly familiar to me. After all, you don’t work in the Australian corporate sector as a woman without quickly seeing the imbalance of gender. I’ve worked in utilities, banking, finance and property – apparently the only sector more “blokey” would be motor-racing and I may give that a crack next!

As well, with sustainability’s role in non-financial reporting you quickly reflect on the data that demonstrates the current imbalance in corporate Australia. Not the data around “women in management roles” as most support staff have “manager” in their title now. It means nothing and it is not addressing sexual discrimination.

When you consider only 11.8 per cent of CEOs in Australia are women and the level of representation on boards is a humiliating 16 per cent we’ve got a long way to go. The fact remains that “women do two thirds of the work, receive 10 per cent of the world’s income and own one per cent of the means of production”, according to the United Nations Development Programme. All round, they’re depressing statistics.

What interests me, particularly with gender balance and sustainability, is how this industry is actually made up of a lot of women. In fact, it’s mainly women. I could base this on my experience, but if you look at research from the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility 60 per cent of people who worked in sustainability in 2009 were women. I suspect that figure is now higher. Of course there are also many men. However, it’s interesting to note a recent statement in the Guardian by Elle Carbury, managing director of the China Greentech Initiative: “From all my 20 years in business, I have met more women in this area than in others.”

So is sustainability “women’s business”? Ugh, what an abhorrent term, implying as it does a Victorian era image of women cross-stitching together. Hardly, it is globally important work that challenges pre-existing structures and takes on persistent problems and operating systems for the greater benefit. It is “essential business” – business that looks at doing more with less. But it does seem that women are pre-disposed to this type of work. So is it psychology? Is it female leadership styles that lend themselves to sustainability?

Understanding that women have different leadership styles is, in my opinion, key to why we see more women in positions of sustainability.

I could blithely suggest that women are better multi-taskers and so can cope with the multi-faceted work of sustainability. And in part that’s true. Women do multi-task better than men according to some academics.

It may also be, as some commentators contend, that sustainability is about caring and nurturing, and this is why women enjoy this work. But, after 14 years, I’ve never felt that my caring and nurturing side was much use in corporate sustainability. I’ve never found approval for projects or strategies based on the “good” it would do for the world. Rather I have always argued the benefits for the business first, and the community and environment second. As I’m usually arguing to male executives or boards, this has definitely held me in good stead.

In my opinion women are essential for the successful incorporation of sustainability into business strategy and planning because of their ability to deal with complex problems in a calm and logical way and to approach problems with a long term view for resolution.

I’m not basing that on research or science, purely on my experience of women in sustainability leadership. Women are expert in dealing with multiple stakeholder needs, and this also is essential in sustainability.

In saying all of that, men can (and do) of course have these traits in leadership and make excellent sustainability leaders.

I recall many men I have had the pleasure of working with in sustainability who are consummate professionals in the field.

What bothers me is that, with the disproportionate number of women in the field, we still see sustainability conferences with only male keynote speakers (I don’t attend them).

Almost all business books and business commentators on sustainability are men and more worryingly still, we are seeing more senior roles for sustainability (executive or equivalent) being offered to men instead of women. I wonder if we analysed the most senior sustainability roles in Australian corporations would we would find that the higher up you go in sustainability the more men are in these positions. I hope not.

Sustainability allows analyses of systems that don’t work and then provides solutions to amend them. That may include climate change adaptation, local employment strategies, indoor air quality, wellness and others. What I hope is that sustainability practitioners also focus on the inadequacies of a corporate system that excludes 50 per cent of our population from making business decisions at senior levels and provide solutions to fix that.

Amanda Steele is head of sustainability, Pacific at CBRE

This article was originally published in the Banksia Sustainability Awards 25th Anniversary Publication.

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  1. Hi Amanda,

    I really enjoyed your article and its relevance for me as I commence my role in sustainability at Navitas.

    Glad I’m adding to the number of females in the field but hope I can produce outcomes that make a significant difference to all three, the business, the environment and community.