This blog is by Alys Penfold, communications assistant at Green Alliance.
When my colleague Amy announced that she had helped to put together an event for women just starting out their careers in the sustainability sector, I was hesitant to apply. Despite fitting the bill as an applicant, I didn’t feel like I qualified, as I had only just started out in the sector and thought I wouldn’t have enough experience or knowledge to participate. By the end of the two days at ‘She is Sustainable’, I had completely changed my mind.
She is Sustainable, organised by Becky Willis and Amy Mount (Green Alliance), Solitaire Townsend (Futerra), Hannah Hislop and Melissa Miners (Unilever) brought women together to discuss the opportunities and issues that come with being a woman trying to save the world.
Over the course of the two days, women from across the sector shared their life stories – warts and all – which spurred discussions on all aspects of women’s work and lives, and, for us newbies, the chance to get a glimpse of what we may encounter on our own paths.
I walked away from the event inspired and empowered by the strong females that not only spoke, but also those who attended alongside me. Here are the four main lessons it taught me.
1. Who cares about the glass ceiling when you’re tackling climate change?
The terms ‘change maker’ and ‘change junkie’ became buzz words by the end of the event, as many women spoke of how they constantly use their passion for their cause to be the driving force behind what they do. When I left university, my top priority wasn’t how much I would earn, or the size of the company I would work for; it was to be in a job where I was making a positive difference in the world. Other issues seem miniscule in relation to this massive thing called climate change that we’re tackling, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves and the people around us that we’re all working for the same movement. You can achieve things you never dreamed of by focusing on your cause and you might even smash a few glass ceilings along the way without noticing.
2. Take your place at the table
It can be intimidating to walk into an environment where people really know their stuff, especially when you’re new to the sector. It’s not surprising if you question why or how you got there, or feel that people are judging you. One piece of advice that really spoke to me was ‘don’t confuse intelligence with experience’. Just because you haven’t achieved the same things as another person, or don’t have the specialist knowledge they have gained with ten years’ more experience, doesn’t make you any less intelligent. We should be confident in what we have achieved, what we have to say and what impact we can make. We often spend too much of our lives worrying what others think and, by letting that get to us, we are depriving others and our cause of the skills we can contribute.
3. Embrace the adventure
What we forget is that everyone has their own definition of success, and has taken their own route to get where they are today. I think everyone at the event was inspired by Kate Rawles, a rather spectacular woman who in the summer of 2006 cycled from Texas to Alaska, having conversations about climate change with the people she encountered along the way. This was a great example of pushing yourself to great limits, and it was an adventure on a grand scale. But you don’t have to cycle 4,500 miles to tick that box. Many speakers at the event remarked on having carved what seemed at the time an atypical path on their way to sustainability, but on reflection it turned out to make a lot of sense. By doing so, it may have gained them skills that they wouldn’t have otherwise, or meant they crossed paths with someone who would become instrumental in their working lives and, perhaps, even led them on to their next job. So say ‘yes’ to every opportunity, trust your initiative and embrace the adventure, as you never know where it might lead.
4. Build yourself a support network
One theme that ran through the story telling and discussions was the considerable influence other people can have on our lives. It was heart-warming to hear about how difficult personal backgrounds had encouraged women to rise up against the odds, or how a loved one had made a sacrifice to allow another to succeed. At the end of the event, when we each reflected on the lessons we had learnt from our own life stories, I too realised how family, teachers or a mentor had been a major driving force in mine. Not to say that we can’t carry ourselves through. But there is a lot to be gained from those around us, so we should never be afraid to confide in someone, ask for advice or put ourselves out on a limb to make a connection. She is Sustainable was the ultimate illustration of this: as a result of the relationships between the five women who organised the event, they brought us together as a group, and we all took so much away from it.