Women in leadership has been a topic of much discussion over the past several years, and it’s no different in the sustainability sector. Often, the question is around how to better include and engage women in corporate social responsibility, leadership and sustainability.

But at a recent panel discussion I attended presented by the Pacific Northwest chapter of Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future in Seattle, the question was not about how to bring more women to the table – it was whether the table was right! More about that discussion later in this post, but first some context about women and green.

The Conversation to Date

I felt privileged to attend the Women in Green Power Breakfast at Greenbuild in Philadelphia last fall. A common thread throughout the discussion was how women are uniquely contributing to the sustainability movement.

Panelist Alexandra Liftman, Global Environmental Executive of Bank of America, cited a study that found women were more than 20% more likely to prefer investments that are aligned with socially responsible companies, theorizing that women lead more interconnected lifestyles between work, family and community, and were more able to make a connection between purchasing and investment decisions and day to day impacts.

Later that evening, keynote speaker Secretary Hillary Clinton echoed the same idea in a Q&A with USGBC’s Rick Fedrizzi, stating that internationally, women often have a more practical, hands-on view of sustainability because of their roles as farmers and caretakers, and there is an opportunity to engage them around this unique perspective.


Hillary Clinton addresses women at Greenbuild
Hillary Clinton addresses women at Greenbuild


In addition, there is a business opportunity in developed nations to engage women in the boardroom, as a growing body of evidence demonstrates a positive correlation between the number of women on the board and a company’s sustainability performance.

A New Angle on the Topic

At the Seattle event, I participated in a guided discussion with KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, CEO and Founder of Sustainable Brands. The event began with an audience brainstorm on the distinct gifts women bring to sustainability leadership compared to men. After some discussion, many in the audience observed that categorizing what men and women are good or not good at doesn’t really move the needle.

KoAnn made her point: the conversation about creating more female leaders has been focused on their unique contributions to the existing paradigm, ‘leaning in’ and making incremental steps towards change.

Instead of asking how women can be more successful in today’s business model, perhaps we should be asking if the model itself is outdated and how we can change the entire game.

Getting the Frame Right

This is what KoAnn means by “getting the frame right.” She is not arguing that we don’t need to work to elevate women into leadership positions — overwhelming evidence shows that female leaders are good for business and our communities — but that this should be an interim step as we work together to reframe the definition of success.

Major global shifts have changed the framing for sustainability in business over the past decade. Climate change has moved from abstract idea to real risk as major weather events disrupt business. Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency in an age where they have tremendous amounts of information (and disruptive power) through digital channels. Increased wealth around the globe is putting strain on the world’s resources. As a result, sustainability has moved from a “nice to do” activity meant to garner some feel good PR, to a business imperative to be leveraged to avoid risk, cut costs and answer to customer demands.

KoAnn shared that the Sustainable Brands community, which counts some of the world’s largest consumer brands such as Coca Cola, Nestle, L’Oreal, and Unilever as corporate members, is talking about eliminating the word “consumer.” Even the big consumer brands understand the model is shifting, and the concept of being able to endlessly “consume” is unsustainable.

They are looking to how they can respond to new needs and create a different value paradigm – value creation instead of value extraction.

With business changing so rapidly, why wouldn’t the conversation about women and sustainability leadership shift as well? Does it do women and business a disservice to talk about how to get more women to the table simply in terms of equality?

Instead, women should be working alongside men to define what the new table looks like and creating a sustainable environment within the new paradigm of value creation.

Greenbuild Nation 2013

Maggie Santolla is Marketing Communications Manager at Paladino and Company

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  1. Fantastic piece, Maggie! Decades after the Equal Rights Amendment (which I did not support as I believe my rights are already protected as a citizen), it’s still about how “different” we are. Nothing in this industry (or this world) is static, and just because “it always was such-and-such” doesn’t mean it should remain that way forever.

  2. Excellent article. We need a paradigm shift in how we fundamentally think about our problems today. While I don’t usually like to divide along gender lines, this especially resonates with me this morning. Last night I just saw our town council divide along gender over the topic of improving natural infrastructure. The guys thought it was just “eco-gardening” Frustrating to say the least.

    1. Thanks for your comment, JC. I agree — sometimes changing the way we frame the problem helps us come up with a more creative solution!



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