Romilly Madew

14 January 2014 – Late last year Amanda Steele, head of sustainability for CBRE, opened up major discussion with her article on women in the industry. Here is more on the topic from Romilly Madew, chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia.

Is sustainability “women’s business”?  Research from the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2009, which found that 60 per cent of sustainability specialists are women, suggests this may be the case.

Are women good at sustainability because of a natural default position to nurture, to conserve resources, to simplify complex ideas and to multi-task? Have they moved into sustainability from other female-centric professions such as human resources or marketing? Or is it something else?

Certainly, sustainability and corporate social responsibility are fairly new and emerging fields. This undoubtedly provides women with opportunities to gain career footholds that are less likely in traditional business streams where male hierarchies are well established.

But perhaps women do possess some innate qualities that make them a natural fit for roles in sustainability.  All those centuries of re-heeling socks, managing ration books and living by the philosophy of ‘make do and mend’ may have hardwired women to think ‘sustainable’ long before the term was fashionable.

Interestingly, the Organisation for Economic Development has found that women tend to have more sustainable consumption patterns, and as a result leave a smaller ecological footprint.

In its Gender and Sustainable Development report (2008), the OECD argues that “men’s lifestyles and consumer patterns, whether they are rich or poor, tend to be more resource-intensive and less sustainable than women’s.”

Women’s consumption certainly reflects the fact that they generally earn less money and have less money at their disposal, but women also make more ethical consumer choices.

They are more likely to recycle, buy organic food and eco-labelled products, consider issues such as child labour and fair trade, and place a higher value on energy-efficient transport.  In fact, even in households with cars, women are more likely to use public transport than men.

Doing more with less is certainly the hallmark of sustainability, and even Forbes Magazine has pointed out that women are better at ‘thinking like immigrants’ – in seeing the opportunities in common but menial tasks, in simple transactions and everyday conversations.

Despite women’s success in this field, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development warns that there is a real possibility that women may be shut out of many areas of the new green economy.

The UN predicted that 50 million green jobs will be created globally over the next 20 years, as we look to reduce our impact on the environment. But many of these jobs will be in sectors in which women have long been marginalised, or in professions that attract few women.

In the energy sector, for instance, women make up less than six per cent of technical staff and below one per cent of senior managers. Globally, the construction sector’s female workforce is just nine per cent.

Economist Candice Stevens has argued that “if women were in more productive and decision-making roles, we could be moving faster and more assuredly towards sustainability in the economic, social and environmental sense. Sustainable development is a political concept because it is about good governance, which will be hard to achieve until we get closer to gender parity.”

Despite the challenges ahead, I remain an optimist. To my mind, CBRE’s head of sustainability Amanda Steele hit the nail on the head in her article The Fifth Estate last year, when she pointed out that sustainability specialists are carrying out “globally important work that challenges pre-existing structures and takes on persistent problems and operating systems for the greater benefit.”

Whether it’s as suffragettes or sustainability specialists, women have become adept at challenging the status quo, accepting that lasting change requires a long-term view, and finding new, better ways for people to live.

Romilly Madew will join Carolyn Viney, Grocon’s deputy chief executive officer, Siobhan Toohill, Westpac’s head of sustainability, Megan Motto, Consult Australia’s chief executive and Sam Mostyn, non-executive director of Citibank Australia, Transurban and Virgin Australia, to explore whether sustainability is women’s business at a special “Leading Green Women” event in Sydney on Tuesday 11 February. Details

8 replies on “Romilly Madew: Is sustainability "women’s business"?”

  1. Great article! I love working in sustainability because it is just as Chris said, a blend of the physical and social science. Our engineering courses still don’t sufficiently address sustainability – I was speaking to a young undergrad the other day who was reeling at this amazing unit he had done on LCA and asked why aren’t all the units like this? Instead, he said, they focus on how to make the most profit.

    Perhaps socially it is a bit tougher for men to openly have the empathy and compassion that this field really needs.

    Our Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute is femme dominated. I hope that we can continue to move into key management roles in organisations to influence sustainability until it becomes BAU.

    And thanks to Romilly and all the leading ladies for blazing the trail!

  2. Great article! I love working in sustainability because it is just as Chris said, a blend of the physical and social science. Our engineering courses still don’t sufficiently address sustainability – I was speaking to a young undergrad the other day who was reeling at this amazing unit he had done on LCA and asked why aren’t all the units like this? Instead, he said, they focus on how to make the most profit.

    Perhaps socially it is a bit tougher for men to openly have the empathy and compassion that this field really needs.

    Our Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute is femme dominated. I hope that we can continue to move into key management roles in organisations to influence sustainability until it becomes BAU.

    And thanks to Romilly and all the leading ladies for blazing the trail!

  3. Some of my favourite challenging moments is as a woman who can’t believe that anyone would not understand that sustainability is at the core of our existence:

    Senior, well respected and highly successful male property professional to me circa 2002: “I feel sorry for you. I can see how passionate you are about this stuff but no one is ever really going to take it seriously.”

    My fellow executive team at a well regarded international Architecture firm circa 2003: “We can see how the odd, small project might want to think about this stuff but there will never be enough of these projects that it warrants us making a real commitment to this type of work.”

    Major tenant in response to a proposal for a sustainable workplace circa 2008: “We don’t need to be bleeding edge. We just need a place for people to work.”

    The great thing is that I know that none of them had a vision for what we can do to make our lives better and I do. Not sure if it is women’s intuition or just good old fashioned common sense!!

  4. Some of my favourite challenging moments is as a woman who can’t believe that anyone would not understand that sustainability is at the core of our existence:

    Senior, well respected and highly successful male property professional to me circa 2002: “I feel sorry for you. I can see how passionate you are about this stuff but no one is ever really going to take it seriously.”

    My fellow executive team at a well regarded international Architecture firm circa 2003: “We can see how the odd, small project might want to think about this stuff but there will never be enough of these projects that it warrants us making a real commitment to this type of work.”

    Major tenant in response to a proposal for a sustainable workplace circa 2008: “We don’t need to be bleeding edge. We just need a place for people to work.”

    The great thing is that I know that none of them had a vision for what we can do to make our lives better and I do. Not sure if it is women’s intuition or just good old fashioned common sense!!

  5. Right on the mark Rom. Something that I’ve been arguing for at EA for years, but engineering is “men’s business”, and “it can’t be changed”, so let’s increase our advertising budget and flog the current model of engineering even harder at girls and young women. Your point is, but, reflected in the over 50% of women in environmental engineering courses within engineering faculties. Problem is that very few break through to C suite positions unless they adopt the testosterone driven virtuosity model of engineering and business. Keep trying to change, but resistance is strong.

  6. Right on the mark Rom. Something that I’ve been arguing for at EA for years, but engineering is “men’s business”, and “it can’t be changed”, so let’s increase our advertising budget and flog the current model of engineering even harder at girls and young women. Your point is, but, reflected in the over 50% of women in environmental engineering courses within engineering faculties. Problem is that very few break through to C suite positions unless they adopt the testosterone driven virtuosity model of engineering and business. Keep trying to change, but resistance is strong.

  7. Great article Romilly and entirely consistent with my observations during 40+ years of sustainability advocacy. Women (IMHO) are the hope of future generations – for all the reasons you allude to and a few more.
    With the exception of Rachel Carson, Anne Ehrlich and Brenda Vale, all my heroes and role models in the 1970s were male. Now it’s almost the gender reverse. The majority of capable, passionate, committed leaders driving innovative sustainable change agendas that I observe or participate in these days are women.
    One partial explanation may be that sustainability has gradually transitioned from the physical sciences to a blend of physical and social sciences during the last few decades. Women have traditionally been excluded from (or not attracted to) the physical sciences for all those well documented reasons. Now they excel in both.

    Whatever the reason, vive la difference and go sisters! Sustainability is indeed women’s business. Future generations need you more now than ever before. So does ‘mother all’ (there’s a clue) and burnt out old males like me. Keep up the great work and take it to the next level.

  8. Great article Romilly and entirely consistent with my observations during 40+ years of sustainability advocacy. Women (IMHO) are the hope of future generations – for all the reasons you allude to and a few more.
    With the exception of Rachel Carson, Anne Ehrlich and Brenda Vale, all my heroes and role models in the 1970s were male. Now it’s almost the gender reverse. The majority of capable, passionate, committed leaders driving innovative sustainable change agendas that I observe or participate in these days are women.
    One partial explanation may be that sustainability has gradually transitioned from the physical sciences to a blend of physical and social sciences during the last few decades. Women have traditionally been excluded from (or not attracted to) the physical sciences for all those well documented reasons. Now they excel in both.

    Whatever the reason, vive la difference and go sisters! Sustainability is indeed women’s business. Future generations need you more now than ever before. So does ‘mother all’ (there’s a clue) and burnt out old males like me. Keep up the great work and take it to the next level.

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