Vertically, horizontally or circularly ambitious? Mothering or child-free, by choice or randomness? Urban or rural? Partnered for life or a free agent? Gay or straight or something else? Employed, entrepreneur or freelance?
Women who work in sustainability are all these things and more.
Every woman makes decisions about her career, her ambitions and her family. As five women who have shared their learnings, successes and failures, we know one thing for sure – there’s a lot we can learn from each other.
We want to take time out to talk about women and changing the world. Not about politics, but about personal lives and choices.
That’s why we organised She Is Sustainable: London in February 2016, a two-day gathering for women working in sustainability, allowing women to share their stories and take part in discussion sessions on all aspects of women’s work and life.
She is Sustainable spawns sprogs
Becky and the rest of the gang weren't intending or expecting that SiS would become a thing, but it has. There have been SiSs in Cambridge and Lancaster, organised on the same shoe-string lines, for love, to give younger women at the start of their sustainability careers a chance to hear from older women who've journeyed ahead of them and have a few of the battle scars to prove it.
I was lucky enough to get involved with SiS Lancaster, offering some facilitation support while I mulled on my own life and my idea for a SiS for older women. I can see links with coaching, with peer learning and with the kind of support that sustainability change agents are crying out for, in my experience.
The Lancaster event was beautifully organised by Becky Willis and Jess Phoenix, with support from the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, part of the Lancaster University. Being run at the university meant that we got to hear from some brilliant women who could bring us rigorous academic insight into gender and sustainability leadership.
Prof. Judi Marshall, whose work on the lived experience of being a sustainability change agent I've admired for years, shared insights on 'insider outsiders' and the role of gender in this. The cultural assumption and unconscious bias about the credibility and prestige of men means that there are difficult choices to be made about guest speakers at events: in the short term, is it better for our cause to have male contributors, because people will listen to them more?
We also heard from Prof. Gail Whiteman about the uncomfortable experiences early in her career which were "precious" because "they tell you what's important to you". Gail set up the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and is bringing arctic ice to the attention of global boardrooms. Literally. She's got plans to establish an arctic base camp at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Now that I'd like to see.
To complete the trio of professors, Prof. Caroline Gatrell shared stats on the place of women in leadership including the glass cliff: women are more likely to access top positions during periods of crisis or risk. Maybe it's because they are seen as more creative or more safe. Maybe it's because they are seen as expendable. Theresa May springs to mind, as do Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman who have both 'held the fort' for Labour between 'proper' leaders.
what was it like?
As well as these insights from academic research (and the academic life), She is Sustainable made room for more personal life stories from older women, and lots of sharing among participants. The atmosphere was so warm and supportive, as well as being inspirational. Younger women heard from older women and from each other about their careers in sustainability and how these interwove with life choices and unchosen circumstances.
We spoke together about following your heart and using your head, about finding your place and moving on. We shared experiences about balancing career with caring responsbilities, and about the different kinds of women we can be and want (or don't want) to be.
We used random everyday objects to open up about how we see ourselves as women who work in sustainability.
Speaking about the unspoken
I was lucky enough to facilitate two open space sessions, where topics were proposed which perhaps might not have been if the group had not been women-only. Yes, there really was a session on periods and yes, there really was quite a lot to be shared and discussed about the impact of menstruation on work.
There was everyday sexism in the stories: the woman whose junior male colleague was addressed as the boss all the way through a business meeting; the casual assumptions about who will take the notes and make the tea.
And there was conversation about racism, ethnicity and being a woman of colour in the sustainability field.
She is (still) sustainable
I went along partly to test out my guess that SiS could be tweaked a bit to provide a brilliant way for older women to discuss their choices: if you're mid-career, would it be useful to consider what's next? Perhaps it's an "after children" conversation, or perhaps one about daring to take the next step upwards or sideways. Perhaps it's about being ready to change direction, to slow down or branch out. or to take on your biggest challenge yet. Perhaps its about how you keep credible and energetic when your body is starting to let you down.
I don't know what the conversations are that sustainability women at this later stage will want to have, but I do know that there was enthusiasm for the idea when I tested it, and I am brimming with ideas about how to adjust the SiS approach for this group of women.
Let me know what you think!