Andrea Learned

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Where Are the Women Leaders In Sustainable Business?


The following article first published October 23, 2013 in The Guardian. (The response was so positive that I plan to write more on this topic.)


When the Weinreb Group’s “Pioneers of Sustainability” report came out last month, it highlighted the top trailblazers that sustainability professionals had nominated and selected in a vote. All six chosen for the honor were men. The reaction was immediate:

Emily Miggins, longtime leader in food industry supply chain sustainability, commented on Marc Gunther’s original post about this research:

“I was there when this party got started as mentioned above, and there is a collective women’s voice missing in media coverage of women in sustainability and it’s disappointing.”

And, as Weinreb Group founder Ellen Weinreb noted:

“Throughout the process of gathering nominations, counting votes and then interviewing our sustainability heroes, I had lamented that no women luminaries made it to our list. I felt other women were joining me in chorus when the comments and feedback was so strongly about the gender divide.”

In my reading, the all-male results weren’t some continuing conspiracy or intentional slight on women. Big cultural shifts always take longer than we’d hope. There is no denying that many incredible women could be named as early sustainability change leaders, including environmental scientist and author of The Limits to Growth Donella Meadows, ecologist and author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, and Janine Benyus, biologist and author of Biomimicry (see also Women in Green by Kira Gould and Lance Hosey for more great examples).

The problem is that it seems to be taking so long for those names to become as common, by way of media coverage or general business conversation, as Paul Hawken or Ray Anderson.

We can’t see the greater evolution in business culture because we are in the middle of it. But, the footprints of women are already there.
Of pioneers and shifters:

The frustration starts with the tradition of business leadership and embedded cultural views on how men and women think (or are supposed to think). The research (see Warren Bennis, Michael Porter and Sally Helgesen, to name just a few experts) reflects that leadership has long been characterized with more typically masculine traits and qualities.

But as a Zenger Folkman study on top leadership traits, such as taking initiative, practicing self-development, displaying high integrity and honesty, building relationships, and collaboration and teamwork, noted:

“The irony is that these are fundamental behaviors that drive the success of every leader, whether woman or man. … [W]hen we measure only men and women in top management on strategic perspective, their relative scores are the same.”

In sustainability especially, leaders of both genders agree that attributes such as whole systems thinking, future orientation, human-centeredness, and collaboration – traditionally seen as “soft” or feminine skills – are crucial.

And women business leaders are now becoming a noticeable norm. Certainly, future generations will have no trouble recalling the names of women like: Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsi; Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard; or Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo.

As Shauna Sadowski of Annie’s put it in an email to Ellen Weinreb:

“I’ve been working on sustainability issues for more than a decade, and when I attend conferences, there are many women in the room. … The reality is that women are at the table as well, if not more so, in the sustainability space.”

Still, the slow pace is frustrating! But, as with so many cultural shifts before, the sustainability leadership evolution is occurring in stages. Here’s how I’d define them:

  • Pioneers: These people are seen as the originators or earliest to help open up explorations of the topic. Women were most definitely in and among this group, but the general media coverage and business discussions had not yet gotten used to (or the practice in) seeing them. “Leader” still equaled “man” at this point, as evidenced by the Weinreb/Epstein-Reeves study.
  • Next Shifters: These are the leaders that came right along with or just after the pioneers, and include many, many women doing incredible work. The difference is that we’ve been looking for them and rewarding the value of their thinking a bit more lately. This is where we find ourselves today.
    Though their names may not come as easily within the most traditional industries, many people with an eye on sustainability or corporate social responsibility quickly recognize names like Bea Perez, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Coca Cola Company; Suzanne Fallender, Director of CSR Strategy and Communications at Intel; and Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike. (See the Guardian’s list here)
  • Future Shifters: This is where we are headed, and where a balance of men and women in sustainability leadership positions become the new norm. A leader’s gender will not be an issue by this point.

Instead, the traits and qualities that have traditionally been seen as “women’s ways” – like empathy, communications skills, holistic thinking – will be more frequently taught, nurtured, celebrated and rewarded in everyone. At this stage, what women have to offer is emphasized enough that the “leader” equals “man” days are long gone.

Next steps:

Now’s the time in the shifting process to stop gendering leadership. The future of sustainable business demands that these ways and traits be nurtured and elevated in non-gendered, universal leadership terms.

As we emerge from a business culture characterized by the male leadership tradition, how can we effectively further the “shifting” toward sustainability leadership that elevates women and the men who have learned to think more like them?

First, be patient. Remember, “change is happening,” as the Weinreb/Epstein-Reeves study concludes.

Second, momentum is building. If the conversations around the Weinreb/Epstein-Reeves’ Pioneers of Sustainability report are any indication, there are more women more visibly guiding corporate sustainability. So, in future surveys of sustainability professionals, the balance of participants will likely help female names emerge on any “leader” list.

Finally, keep calling out the problem through blog post comments or social networks like many of you have been. Future studies, conferences and Boards of Directors will continue to benefit from seeing the online sustainable business masses celebrate men and women at all stages of leadership and in all industry sectors. Be as loud as you need to be to make the full presence and influence of women known.