Beck Dawson Sydney’s chief resilience officer
Beck Dawson

Women need to be brave and step out of their comfort zones as well as be assertive in pursuing flexibility, if they want to progress into senior roles, says sustainability leader Beck Dawson.

Dawson took on the role of Sydney’s chief resilience officer with global organisation 100 Resilient Cities two years ago after several years with Investa Property Group.

100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, and in Sydney hosted by the City of Sydney, helps cities to become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges of the 21st century.

“The idea is to really understand what are the short-term disruptions and long slow-burning issues that will potentially cause disasters in the city,” Dawson says. “And really try to put in a mass collaboration process across the city to help circumvent those disasters – obviously saving money in terms of economic disruption but saving lives and, particularly, disruptions to the environment and to people’s everyday activities.”

Breaking the glass ceiling

Dawson says it’s easy to get pigeon-holed in sustainability so it’s important to constantly develop new skills.

“It can be perceived as not a particularly operational role,” she said. “But I have seen men, in particular, move between operational and sustainability type roles with a relative level of freedom, which I haven’t seen so much with the women that I know.”

“To see women in the sustainability role to then transition into other more operationally significant roles doesn’t happen very much, is what I’ve noticed, and that can cause a glass ceiling to happen.

“Amanda [Steele] is an excellent exception. And I’m deeply proud of her and she needs to keep going. We need more of her!”

One of the ways Dawson has smashed the glass ceiling was moving into a different sector.

“I’m interested, I’m learning, I’m engaged in getting my head around that new sector, which is exciting me,” she said. “But it’s also building a set of skills, which will then be more broadly useful in a range of other roles perhaps in the future. Whereas if I just stayed where I was in the same place, I wasn’t then going to expand and extend what I was doing.

“I think there comes a point where you do have to step out of your comfort zone … and I think there’s a bit of bravery there.

“That’s a difficult transition whether you are a man or a woman, you break out of a silo and into a broader-based business role. It’s a tricky transition and I think it can go not quite as well if we’re not brave and have a crack.”

More could be done to support women as they move into management roles.

“I think the key thing is what’s the intervention at that transition stage that helps both the employer and the employee understand how they can get the best possible outcome at the next level,” Dawson said.

Motivations and drivers

Dawson grew up in Sydney at Hornsby, but her family has a farming background and she has always been interested in the outdoors.

Her family valued innovation, self-sufficiency and making changes to benefit people and the environment. Her father was one of the first to import solar panels to sell in Australia and rigged up a solar hot water system for Dick Smith’s pool in the late 70s/early 80s.

“Yes, we need to embrace new technology, we need to always think about what the next opportunities will be both from the economic point of view but also from a technology and innovation point of view has been something I’ve always been really interested in,” Dawson said.

“But the thing that goes with it, is that pragmatic reality – needing to bring people with us and make it something that people can use and it’s useful to them.

“So those two tensions have been big drivers in some of the decision making I have made in my career.”

Dawson studied science and spent her early career in communication roles such as interpretation/education ranger at Kakadu National Park and travelling Australia with the Science Circus.

She credits her time at London’s Science Museum as a career turning point. She moved up through the ranks from developing content for an exhibition on energy security and climate change into a change-based role where she was managing sustainability for the organisation at an operational management level.

What the mentor said

A mentor gave her this piece of advice: “You can be awesome when you’re 30 but when you’re 30 you have the potential of making lots of mistakes. You have plenty of time. You can do awesome things when you’re 50; you don’t have to do it all in the first decade of your career.”

Dawson said it gave her confidence about choices in her personal life as well as focusing on her direction. “Really turning me and shifting me to start to think more strategically about what is it that I want to do. What did I want to change and when? And instilling a bit of patience in thinking about how to be more clear about that over time.”

The motherhood juggling act – ask and you will receive

Dawson has two children and has worked through since they were born – sometimes very part time – and has tried a range of childcare solutions.

“Flexible working is really important and really useful especially in the early years and I made good use of that,” she said. “And I also had a really supportive partner – he took a year off on paternity leave after I took a year off, so we’ve really shared the responsibilities equally and that has made a massive difference.”

She says women need to be better at asking for what they need. “If we don’t ask for it, we don’t get it,” she said. “I’ve always found that the businesses I’ve worked for, if I was prepared to be flexible in order to meet the business needs when it was required, then also the business was able to be flexible to meet requirements that I had.

“I think that negotiated position is increasingly happening in organisations and it’s a really fantastic thing that we’re all getting a little bit more sophisticated in the way that we acknowledge the give and take in both directions.”

Mentoring others is important

Mentoring is hugely important to Dawson – it’s one of her personal policies.

“I always have at least two women in younger positions than me in their career, who I am mentoring personally,” she said.

“That has made an enormous difference to me – when people gave me some time and attention that really helped me through my career.”

She has occasionally mentored men but she prioritises women. “If they can leap-frog some of the hurdles that I’ve had, and it’s easier for them by them thinking more strategically about it earlier, then that’s great.”

Involvement in industry associations is also important.

“It’s a really fantastic way of learning more about the sector that you work in but also contributing something back by being involved in committees and events and really trying to sponsor broader thinking in the industry,” she said.

Advice for young women and sustainability – learn about economics and make the CFO your best friend

“The piece of advice I give everyone who ever asks me about sustainability is to go and learn about economics,” Dawson says.

“It took me a little while to get there. That is probably my one thing that I wished I had learnt earlier in my career. Because in the end, making change isn’t free.”

To be effective in any role, it’s important to understand that decision making is driven by our economic paradigm. “And if you don’t understand that, it’s very hard to change it,” Dawson said.

Resilience and sustainability require making interventions at scale.

“That only happens when you make a really good business case but you also understand the fundamental drivers of the way in which the economics of those situations you are managing, work,” she said.

“So, absolutely go and learn the maths. The chief financial officer should be your best friend!”

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