Where are the Women in Sustainability?

Last October I visited New Orleans for the USGBC’s Greenbuild Conference. I had signed up to attend the Third Annual Women in Green Power Breakfast on that Thursday morning, eager to connect with fellow women in sustainability.

Those two hours were by far the most influential and important part of my trip. Organized by Kimberly Lewis, the USGBC’s Vice President of Community Advancement, Conferences & Events, the breakfast included several hundred women (and one man!) sharing a feast, having tabletop discussions based on preset questions, and hearing from an incredibly curated panel of inspiring women from the sustainability industry.

I ended up sitting with seven other incredible women. Each of us worked in a different capacity within sustainability, and had traveled from widely different states and cities. Our tabletop discussion became a fascinating conversation as we each drew upon our own experiences and backgrounds.

Women in Sustainability – Gender Disparity

As a female working in the construction industry, I will drop everything for the opportunity to meet, have conversation with, learn from, be inspired by, and give advice to other women in similar roles.  Community, networking, hope, and inspiration are needed in an industry where men still far outnumber the women.

Statistics show that women still only represent 26% of the workforce in STEM fields – this was exactly true of my own undergraduate civil engineering program – and 30% of “green” jobs. Once you start breaking out individual sectors you see that women are 13% of engineers, and as little as 3% of construction professionals.

There are many studies showing that females face immense bias, stereotyping, and discouragement from a very young age as it relates to math and science. If women do eventually make it to that workplace, keeping them there proves to be another hurdle. Women are leaving STEM jobs – and not returning – not because of the difficulty, but because the male-dominated culture is, at worst, hostile, or at best, disappointing and inflexible. The average tenure is seven years for these women.

There are many discussions as to what prevents women from entering (or staying in) STEM and green jobs as well as how to encourage, support, and mentor those who persevere and stay. Fortunately there are programs and organizations are actively making great strides in engaging young girls and women.

We need female representation in sustainability fields. Women are crucial to be in the conversation and at the table. Young girls need role models in sustainability. Our unique perspectives on key tenets of sustainable development, such as community building and big-picture thinking, help provide a balanced method for moving forward with sustainable solutions for the future.

Woman in Sustainability

Women in the professional world. Image via Ingimage.com.

The Ongoing Conversation

The questions for discussion posed during the Women in Green Power breakfast are as follows:

  1. What is the role of sustainability in economic empowerment of women around the world?
  2. How are we using sustainability to move economies, push large challenges, and create pathways to global scale?
    1. Economically?
    2. Socially?
    3. Sustainably?
  3. How resilient are our systems if we aren’t pushing for opportunity for all? How can we work to achieve this?

These are incredibly important questions to be asking ourselves. Some of the key topics from our own discussion included collective identity. We, as women, need to be confident in who we are and have a clear sense of our contribution. We need to take hold of our own unique role and voice, or it will continue to be a male-dominated world.

Women need to support other women also, through encouragement and mentorship. Women need to speak up, ask for help, ask for projects, and communicate what we need. As well, we need men who will listen, support, and advocate for us.

If sustainability is making sure the needs of the present are met, without preventing the ability of the future to meet their own needs, then all stakeholders need to be present. Women need to be included equally in sustainability policy and projects. Why? Because we represent 51% of the population! Effective decisions cannot be made if half of the people that will be affected have no say in the process.

This is only the beginning.

Sustainable PowerHouse Women

Below are some prime examples of women in our very own community who have published content for PowerHouse Growers. By day, these women lead their own trades and organizations in the world of sustainability.

Sustainable PowerHouse Women

Featured Image: Women in the Construction Industry. Image via Ingimage. 

About The Author

I currently work for a General Contractor in Los Angeles as an Assistant Project Manager and member of our strategic planning committee for sustainable construction. I have a degree in Civil Engineering and am a LEED AP BD+C. I am member of my local USGBC chapter as well as Living Building Challenge Collaborative. I believe that sustainability is key to changing the world into a better place for all people.