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Women in Sustainability

Here you will find the latest episode of Green Talking, all about women in sustainability.

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There is a lot of fascinating research on this topic, here are some of the resources we found most interesting:

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Jennifer: Hello and welcome to this episode of Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for good. My name is Jennifer, and I am the founder of Green Talk, and I am here today with Kay Watson.

Kay: Hi, yes, I’m Kay and I am the founder of Ameliore providing coaching & training for international teams with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

Jennifer: It’s been a while since the last episode of the Green Talking podcast, and today’s subject is a little different. Sustainability of course incorporates social and environmental issues and so today, we wanted to consider the question ‘what does it mean to be a woman in sustainability?’. This links to the Sustainable Development Goal 5 – Gender Equality.

Kay: It’s such an interesting topic, and so important to consider inclusion when we are talking about some of those environmental issues, climate change, biodiversity etc., we so often focus on the scientific or political aspects and forget about the social element, which is of course the key to creating any kind of change.

So to start us off, let’s maybe think about women in the world of work generally and where we are today in 2023?

Jennifer: Yeah! I think it is important to consider how much the workplace has changed for women over the past 40, 50 years or so. And I’d maybe like to start by sharing my mum’s story, she was a lawyer in the 1970s, and her view of the workplace was very much that you had to fight for your place, particularly as a woman, you had to show up every day with an immaculate facade. And I don’t know if we do need to have that image of ASSERTION and CONFIDENCE in every domain, just in order to be taken seriously as a woman? Um, obviously having that role model helped me a lot in building my own confidence and my resilience, but I do hope that the world has changed and is changing, and that we are maybe a little bit more tolerant today, and there is a bit more space for us to just be ourselves?

Kay: Yes, things are definitely changing but unfortunately we still have a long way to go. For example, if a CV has gender on it, men have 30% more chance of getting an interview than women, but that situation reverses when we have a blind CV, so there is clearly a bias at play there, and that of course feeds into that idea that women have to ‘fight for their place’ as you say, unfortunately that still tends to be the case.

Jennifer: And it’s so interesting I think, that that confidence, which is such a positive and important thing, confidence is often considered quite negatively. And the language we use around that can be so loaded, you know we have the concept of being ‘bossy’ that is seen as such a negative trait.

Kay: Yeah, yeah absolutely. In fact did you know that the first ever usage of ‘bossy’ was in the sentence ‘* »a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy” back in 1882!* So the word itself is really quite gendered and quite loaded!

Jennifer: Yeah, I think those semantics are so important. We often see studies that show that women are viewed as too ‘aggressive’ and men are too ‘soft’. Look for example at the concept of ‘taking charge’ – studies show that it is valued much more for men than for women. And yet taking charge is something important to do in the workplace. And so of course that has impacts on performance reviews and promotions etc…And these unconscious biases and the language that we use, so hard to even be aware of it, let alone change it! I think women are so scared of being seen as being bossy or taking charge that we sometimes try to downplay our own statements – the most obvious example of that being how we use exclamation marks in emails. Can you believe a study found that 73% of all exclamation marks in professional emails are made by females, and just 27% by males. And similarly, so 70% of “friendly” statements made by women, and 30% made by men. And you know, that doesn’t surprise me in a sense, I am so guilty of that, I definitely try to ‘soften’ my emails sometimes, I’m worried about how it might be interpreted. And yeah, it’s really hard to change your mindset around that. What about you Kay, are you bossy, do you ‘take charge’?

Image showing the vocabulary used by managers to describe male and female employees. Men have 10 positive and 2 negative words while women have 4 positive and 12 negative.

Kay: …. I think so! As you say those unconscious biases are so present – in fact a Harvard Business School study found that although people generally expect women to be more generous and ‘equality-minded’ than men, in reality there isn’t much difference around those values. So we create these situations where women are expected to be nice and men are expected to be ruthless and ultimately, it isn’t necessarily true and it doesn’t help anyone. We find that women sometimes struggle to be recruited for particularly competitive jobs because they can be considered too nice.

Jennifer: They can be considered too nice! Isn’t that an incredible concept that our society would actually penalise someone for being too nice! I mean if we unpack that a little bit…Too nice for what? Too nice to push their company’s priorities? Too nice to get more sales for their company? I do wonder if the business model that we favour which is perhaps more competitive, more ruthless, more sales focused, that maybe doesn’t fit with those more supposedly feminine traits, but actually, perhaps that same business model, sales focused, profit focused, perhaps that is exactly what has led us to the environmental exploitation that is threatening our ecosystem.

So, let’s talk about environmental sustainability a little bit more.

As a little reminder, sustainable development is defined as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, that was defined back in 1988 in the Brundtland report. [note – it was 1987, not 1988! Sorry!]

So, I’ve talked about my mum, tell me about yours Kay!

Part 2 – Sustainability over the generations?

Kay: Yeah so my mum. She was born in 1943, so during WW2 and she was brought up with the mindset to reuse, not to waste and make rather than buy. It influenced my childhood and I remember being dressed in ‘Clothkit’ clothes, which were packs that you sent away for, and she made clothes from scratch (so my sister and I looked identical for a few years!). Obviously this is the mindset that we’re trying to move back to, so I find that she was a really good example – is a good example – of a woman with a sustainable mindset.

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s a little bit different from fast fashion, sending away for a kit to make your own clothes!

Kay: Yeah, we looked good!

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, when you look at our relationship with the environment over those 50 – 60 years, we have lost so much of that understanding, that relationship, that connection with the environment I think, and it has somehow become politicised, we are just talking about trying to ensure we are able to live on our planet and yet it has become a real political tool, a real political talking point. And so just looking at the sustainability context thinking about our resource use – if we take for example the ‘Earth Overshoot Day’, the point in the year at which we have ‘used up’ a year’s worth of resources, that was at the end of December in 1970, so that meant that we used pretty much a year’s resources in…a year. And now, in 2023 that date is in July! So that means we are using a year’s resources in just over 6 months. So we had sustainability being defined in the late 80s and yet consumption increasing at that time and since then.

Of course, the oil and gas industry knew about climate change and the links with fossil fuels in the 70s, if not before, but we have spent that time pushing for more exploitation, more resource use, more sales, more profit…and in amongst it all, this concept of our own individual responsibility for the environment. Do you feel responsible for climate change?

Kay: Yeah and yeah, what you say really makes me think because in fact when I was a teenager in the early 1990s, (so we’re talking a while ago now) I was really concerned about the environment already. We had the problem of the ozone layer and I personally also witnessed my town changing, green spaces were being removed to make way for lots of office blocks. And so at 14 I acted, and I wrote to my local council to ask why they didn’t value green spaces more, which I considered really important for the people living in those towns. Um, and I see this urge for the younger generation to change things today too and know that it’s these collective individual actions which will make a difference.

Jennifer: And did your local council respond to your letter?

Kay: Ugh, they did, and it was a very generic letter. Condescending with a very economic focus on why the office blocks were so important, so yeah it wasn’t a very positive response for that action-oriented 14 year old.

Jennifer: Yeah and that’s hard I think for a 14 year old to kind of manage that responsibility and trying to think about what your role is in society. Obviously, we do all have a responsibility to act, but that emotional responsibility and that eco-anxiety that is becoming so common is, is really exhausting, but it’s also important to remember that it is partly a deliberate construct. The oil and gas industry again (boo!) actually created the term ‘carbon footprint to try and get individuals to think about their impact on an individual scale, to prevent them pushing for systemic change. And it worked, you know we talk so much about our carbon footprint today! And of course gender comes in to play here again!

Kay: Mm, yeah! Well, guilt is such a damaging emotion to carry that it works really well as a marketing tool, in fact! Incredibly, a number of studies have found that women actually feel more guilt than men, whether in the workplace or at home. When you add in to that the message that we are being given, that sustainability is OUR problem, climate change is OUR fault, it is exhausting! And I know from my own personal experience when my children were really small that I was really aware of my consumption habits and the environmental impact of those habits. You know, like buying nappies, I was really concerned – I spent ages searching for biodegradable options… yeah it is a really difficult thing to live with.

Jennifer: Yeah, I totally agree! And we actually find that overall, men’s consumption habits contribute 16% more to climate change than women’s, and repeatedly, zero-waste retailers find that their customers are predominantly women, despite a real effort on their part to use gender-neutral marketing. And, 71% of women say that they try to live more ethically, compared to 59% of men. I mean, what’s going on here? I don’t think that men care any less?

I don’t know if we actually know, I think we can guess that maybe this is the outcome of those biases, those expectations that we have for men and women? Women are expected to ‘take care’ of others, of themselves, and that translates to those kind of feminine spending habits such as buying clothing and that kind of thing, and men are expected to ‘take charge’, which then translates to those more masculine traits that are very environmentally intensive like driving cars and eating meat. And so ultimately nobody wins, because we are all being pushed into these boxes, whether we like it or not, with these really clear, heavy societal expectations.

Kay: Mm, yeah, it is possible, although I do think we have to be careful about the difference between statistics and reality – obviously the statistics are based on facts, but in in my experience, I have been working with numerous different charities and groups that are working around sustainability, climate issues and I’ve not seen any difference between the engagement of men and women and they are really bridging the gap and working together to create change, positively. I’m really wary of putting people in boxes as well.

Jennifer: Yes, we keep coming back to this idea of you know, these female traits that might be linked to stewardship and caring and being ‘nice’, but that big question around how true that actually is, where that comes from and then, what the impact of these stereotypes could be…

And so it feel like, here we are now with this pressure of being sustainable which is felt much more strongly by women, whether that’s because of innate or socially created differences… and the sustainability that we have is this hyper-commercialised version of sustainability, telling us it is our fault, telling us that we need to consume differently, spend our money differently, just creating more choices and ultimately just tiring us all out even more!

And yeah I totally hear what you are saying about the nappies and those choices, I had a similar experience recently, I wanted to replace my electric toothbrush head, and I spent ages researching it, and it became an issue for me, and I eventually managed to find one that was recyclable and it arrived…made in China, same plastic as usual, just a different colour… you know, It’s exhausting!

Kay: Oh yeah, oh I feel the pain! So, what’s next then? And for women working in sustainability or who want to work in the sector? Bearing in mind that inclusion is so key in the fight against climate change. We need diversity if we are to stand any chance of changing things and reducing the resource overshoot! Whether it is gender, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, you know, diverse perspectives lead to greater innovation and problem-solving, both of which are really critical for the system transformations needed I think to address climate change.

Jennifer: Absolutely, and there is particular importance for women being involved in the climate crisis, in cultures across the world. We need to strengthen women’s rights and give women increased access to resources in order to reduce our vulnerability and create more resilience. That’s actually one of the words I like to use quite a lot in place of sustainability, because for me, that’s what it’s all about – creating resilience for our society, creating resilience for our planet. And involving women in decision-making has been shown to help drive the adoption of climate change policies, to strengthen mitigation, adaptation and resilience efforts, so we need more women in decision making!

Kay: Absolutely! Maybe then, the question we need to ask then is, what skills, what traits do we need for sustainability?

Jennifer: Mm. Firstly, I think let’s embrace being assertive leaders! Let’s, you know, change the discourse on that and let’s see assertion and confidence as something positive. And we need to move towards sustainable leadership, it’s going to be so important for the coming years, and the research around sustainable leadership shows we need four key traits. The first is multilevel systems thinking, which is kind of that stereotype of multitasking, our second trait is stakeholder inclusion, so those concepts of fairness and niceness. The third trait is long term activation, so thinking about the long term impacts of our choices, and the fourth trait is disruptive innovation, not being afraid to do things differently….

It sounds like those traits fits quite closely with what we consider to be more ‘feminine’. And so, whether or not your biological sex determines your personality, and determines those traits, well, I think the jury is still out on that, but really I think the most important thing is that now what we need to do is support women and indeed men to embrace these traits, not be afraid to be nice, not be afraid to be confident, and not be afraid to disrupt and innovate…for good.

Kay: Yes, absolutely, I totally agree, leveraging those traits which have up to now been considered a second priority or even worse, a weakness, they’re essential in bringing positive change.

Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely, yep. So yeah, let’s go forth and assert ourselves and innovate!

So that brings us to the end of our episode today. Thank you so much Kay for joining me for this conversation, it’s a topic that is so important to both of us and really essential in the sustainability sector. Thank you to you for joining this episode of Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for Good. We’ll link to all of the topics discussed today in the podcast notes but we’re really keen to hear from you! Have you changed your mind after today’s podcast? What have you learned? What would you like us to talk about next? You can join the conversation on social media, @greentalkfr . And we look forward to you joining us next time!

Thanks for Green Talking! Bye!


bias ==> noun an unconscious preference that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation

biological ==> adj. of parents and children; related by blood; pertaining to biology or to life and living things

boo ==> noun a cry or noise made to express displeasure or contempt; 

bossy ==> adj. self==>assured or given to exercising usually unwarranted power

bridgingadj making a link between two points

competitive ==> adj. showing a fighting disposition; subscribing to capitalistic competition; involving competition or competitiveness

compromising ==> adj. making or willing to make concessions; vulnerable to danger especially of discredit or suspicion

condescending ==> adj. (used of behavior or attitude) characteristic of those who treat others with a lack of respect, treat others as if they are not intelligent
exhausting ==> adj. very very tiring

disrupt ==> verb throw into disorder; interfere in someone else’s activity; make a break in

disruptive ==> adj. characterized by unrest or disorder or insubordination

downplay ==> verb understate the importance or quality of; represent as less significant or important

dreadfully ==> adv. of a very bad kind or manner

exclamation ==> noun an abrupt excited utterance; a loud complaint or protest or reproach; an exclamatory rhetorical device

facade ==> noun a misrepresentation intended to conceal something unpleasant

fairness ==> noun conformity with rules or standards; ability to make judgments free from discrimination or dishonesty; the quality of being good looking and attractive; the property of having a naturally light complexion

footprint ==> noun the area taken up by a foot or shoe on a surface; 

gap ==> noun a narrow difference as between two points, opinions, views or situations; 

generic ==> adj. vague, applicable to any situation

hear what you are sayingexp I agree with you

innate ==> adj. present at birth

jury ==> noun a body of citizens sworn to give a true verdict according to the evidence presented in a court of law; a committee appointed to judge a competition

keen ==> adj. motivated

leveraging ==> noun using existing power to amplify potential gains

mindset ==> noun a mental attitude that determines how you will interpret and respond to situations

outcome ==> noun result$

overshootverb to surpass, to go past

putting people in boxes exp trying to judge people by certain characteristics and expecting them to act according to a given stereotype or societal expectation

reuse ==> verb use again after processing

ruthless ==> adj. without mercy or pity, no sympathy or emotion

semantics ==> noun language meaning

stakeholder ==> noun someone with an interest or who is impacted by a company, a project or a subject

stewardship ==> noun the position of someone who takes care

struggle ==> noun a big effort; an energetic attempt to achieve something; 

teenager ==> noun a young person between 13 and 19

the jury is still outexp a collective decision has not been made yet

threatening ==> adj. having a hostile or menacing quality or manner

trait ==> noun a distinguishing feature of your personal nature

unpack ==> verb remove from its packing; to dissect a complex subject

urge ==> noun a strong restless desire; an instinctive motive;

wary ==> adj. caution and prudence; 

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