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