As I walked into my freshman Chemical Engineering 210 class, I was one of a handful of young women; in fact, our numbers were in the single digits in a class of hundreds. But that was to be expected in the early 1990s, where, according to the US Census Bureau in 1990, only 12% of the engineering workforce was female. Out of that graduating class, our aspirations went in a lot of different directions—oil and gas, materials, the environment, pulp and paper, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage (Yes, brewing beer is a ChemE thing). My intended destination was to improve our planet. What I did not know in those early years was in how many directions my career could have gone in order to accomplish this singular goal.
After 25 years, both the world and the possible ways to help it have changed and expanded to create a framework from which our current pool of “sustainability-related careers” has emerged. My journey included working for an energy company; consulting, including owning my own firm; a corporate foundation; a Fortune 500 multinational; and, most recently, a regional nonprofit, of which I am so very proud.
This Friday marks another International Women’s Day, and the opportunities for women to work and, more importantly, to lead in sustainability are greater than ever. No matter where you are on your career path, this day provides a platform to give some examples of the different and important roles that someone who wants to make a positive impact can aspire to have.
- Nonprofits – These come in all shapes and sizes, including conservation-focused organizations, those that bring microfinance and community development programs to developing nations and organizations like Southface, with a mission and vision for systemic, science-driven, sustainable change and a regenerative economy. Any role in these organizations is going to be mission-focused and align with making the world a better place. The goal is to find an organization whose mission, size and work align with your personal mission. There is a lot of need out there for smart, purpose-driven individuals, so I would encourage you to look to your community and, if not work for a nonprofit, at least volunteer.
- NGO and Semi-Governmental Organizations – Think tanks, economic development authorities, housing authorities or transit authorities. All of these organizations are examples of NGOs that can impact quality of life, livability, policy, health and the environment at a city, regional or national scale.
- Public Service & Governmental Organizations – Cities and counties are leading the way to positive change, and it's a good thing, since cities make up 80% of the global GDP and 86% of jobs, as well as contributing over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. If not in the office of sustainability or resiliency, there are so many roles that can be impactful, including those in the areas of energy and water management, housing, planning and zoning, parks and asset management and the office of buildings.
- For-Profit Companies – No matter your role in a for-profit organization, you can impact the Environmental, Social and Governance (ES&G) of that company to help expand its environmentally responsible and socially conscious scope. Remember to tie your efforts to the company’s goals, and back them up with a solid business case. If you are wondering where your company stands, look to the top and read your organization’s annual and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)/Sustainability reports. Get involved! Over and above the obvious benefits of being a member of the Sustainability or Corporate Responsibility team, participating in the areas of supply chain, HR, asset management, brand operations, engineering, development and the corporate foundation (if one exists) is a great way to not only impact corporate policy and operations but have the opportunity to positively tell your story to consumers.
- Builder / Developer / Owners – With the built environment creating the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, opportunities to make a positive impact are plenty. Whether it's building attainable housing (quality housing that is efficient and healthy for long-term affordability), commercial or office space, governmental buildings or manufacturing facilities, how that site and its buildings are designed, constructed and operated can make a significant impact to the planet and the financial profitability of the project and long-term operations of the asset. A few examples of roles that you can pursue include architects, planners, engineers, interior designers, facility managers, asset managers and operations positions.
No matter your pathway, whether it's a straight line or, like mine, a curvy road, I have learned a few things along the way that I believe are worth sharing. They have helped me stay grounded and moving in the right direction, no matter what role I was in:
- Stay true to your personal values and belief system.
- Listen, learn and be curious.
- Don’t be afraid to try.
- Keep the triple bottom line in focus—people, planet, prosperity.
- Think about and plan for the “and next.”
In every role, there is opportunity to make a positive impact in sustainability, regardless of whether or not it's in your title. I wish every woman (and man) a very happy and inspired International Women’s Day!