How well is the environment sector doing for women?

IWD smallWe’ve asked three women working in the environment sector about how it fares on gender balance and diversity, and which women inspire them.

While today is International Women’s Day, these issues are relevant every day, for everyone, everywhere. We’d love to hear what you think too.

We spoke to our chair Dame Fiona Reynolds CBE; Rosie Watson of the 2050 Climate Group; and Helen Browning OBE of the Soil Association.

Q. Gender balance in the environment sector: What’s going well and what needs to change?

Fiona Reynolds: There are more women at the top of green NGOs than ever before which is great: for example, the National Trust has its third female leader. But there’s still a challenge across senior leadership groups and in some trustee boards, so we need to keep focused on progress.

Rosie Watson: It’s great to have strong, high profile role models who are unapologetically ‘acing it’, for example Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Christiana Figueres. But diversity in the environmental sector is poor. Sustainability is implied to be a ‘white, female, middle class’ issue. This is reflected in the sector: there are more women than men working in this area – particularly in third sector organisations – with very little ethnic diversity (for example). In the ‘top spots’/higher powered roles, I think this balance has shifted back (as it traditionally has been) in favour of men (specifically white men).

Helen Browning: I feel that women are providing great leadership in the environmental arena. Many of our green NGOs are now run by inspiring women and, at the Soil Association, this continues through the whole organisation; some 70 per cent of our staff are female. Indeed, I’m starting to worry “where are the men?”

Q. What advice would you give to ensure better diversity in the sector?

Helen Browning: My heartland is farming, and that’s where women are still under-represented. In the organic movement this is less of a problem; women seem drawn to farming with health, nature and animal welfare as core values. But we need to see more women in farm management, and give them the confidence and opportunities to develop their careers. This starts in school, a life in farming doesn’t often get promoted for men or women.

Fiona Reynolds: Look harder at succession planning and flexible working: it can still be tough to be a mum in the voluntary sector, and to balance work and home life.

Rosie Watson: One of least diverse areas are often boards of trustees, and these have a lot of power in guiding organisations. If efforts are made to ensure that boards are not dominated by one particular demographic (gender, age, ethnicity, background etc) then this will be one step in the right direction. In addition, better flexibility and conditions to facilitate work-life balance, especially in high powered roles and in the private sector: for example, greater support for shared parental leave, or flexitime to support those with caring responsibilities. Career progression made more possible for part-time workers.

Q. Which women inspire you and why?

Fiona Reynolds: I love seeing the commitment of young women (including my own students) to the environment. They can see all kinds of ways of working in the sector today, and we need ‘green’ people in jobs right across society and everywhere in the world of work. It should be a great time to work in our sector, and we need to ensure it’s open to everyone.

Rosie Watson: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: for her consistent and unapologetic truth-telling on climate change, and not trying to fit into anyone else’s ‘box’. Kate Rawles: for living by her own advice “you have to tackle climate change in the way that makes you feel most alive” (she cycled the length of South America researching biodiversity). Sophie Eastwood: for being a relentless advocate for young people’s voices across the sustainability sector, and because there’s potentially no better person who could head up the 2050 Climate Group, one of the most hopeful and exciting organisations working in this sector. (I may be biased…)

Helen Browning: The Soil Association was founded by Lady Eve Balfour, and much of our development has been shaped by strong, independent and far sighted women; Mary Langman, Dinah and Rachel Rowlands, Charlotte Mitchell to name just a few. My current heroines include Caroline Lucas, Fiona Reynolds, Beccy Speight and Kath Dalmeny, all of whom combine a fierce intelligence with eloquence, clear values and dedicated, hardworking commitment.

[Image: women attend a talk on ‘women and climate change’ on International Women’s Day 2009 in Austria. Courtesy of IAEA imagebank via Flickr] 

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