How (and why) women are leading sustainability efforts — Darcy Winslow

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Darcy Winslow

When it comes to sustainability, women are leading what was once an underground movement. They are enacting change from anywhere and everywhere within organizations whether it’s from the top down, bottom up or middle out.

Sustainability is no longer relegated to the “green team” or people with specific job titles. At women’s networking meetings, one of the most common introductions is: “This isn’t my formal role at the company, but it is my responsibility to influence.”

This is a powerful trend, as women have been playing a significant role in sustainability efforts within organizations for decades. In the early days of the Society for Organizational Learning’s Sustainability Consortium, an inordinate number of women were representing their company, signaling the opportunity to create a space of our own to provide mentorship and support.So we launched Women Leading Sustainability in 2002, which remains active today. Unbeknownst to us, the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future (WNSF) was founded (co-founded by Joyce Lavalle of Interface) in 1993 in New York City, which has since expanded chapters to Atlanta, Seattle, and most recently in Portland. Now it’s time to connect all of these networks to reach a scale that can make a significant and positive difference.

Why are women drawn to leading these efforts? This space requires unprecedented collaboration and knowledge sharing. Sustainability isn’t a competitive field, but rather a complex and urgent challenge affecting the world, our lives, our children’s lives, and our collective futures. This fits with women’s leadership styles, as we tend to lead by networking ideas rather than dictating ideas. We understand that it’s important to educate and support each other so we can tackle challenges together.

This leadership strategy developed organically and personally, as there was no clear roadmap for organizations to follow to be more in line with the finite natural resources we rely upon. Organizations had to find their own way, but much of our success has been due to constant dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work.

Those of us leading this work realized that sustainability can be a lonely and complex space. You have to be a master navigator and connector to get people involved and engaged in this type of work. This is where mentorship and support from other women – and men – outside and within your organization has been critical.

Our networking meetings provide that opportunity to tap into other women’s wisdom as well as to show vulnerability and admit: “I’m stuck – I need help.” Through sharing, we are bolstered to go back into our organizations and tackle this very challenging work.

In addition, women’s networking helps us see the bigger picture. Sustainability is bigger than any individual or organization. If we are to accomplish significant progress, we must collaborate and find new ways to partner at an unprecedented level.

We’ve come a long way in the past two decades in sustainability, and women’s mentoring and networking have contributed significantly to our success. If this strategy works in this area, where else might it work?

Darcy Winslow, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the MIT Leadership Center, has been a pioneer and active practitioner of sustainability frameworks and principles. She cofounded Women Leading Sustainability, the Portland chapter of WNSF and the Academy for Systemic Change.

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