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Apr 04, 2011 Cynthia Figge

A Sustainability Mystique for Women

By Cynthia Figge

In a recent study by the White House on the status of women, its first since 1963, women now make up 57% of college enrollment. Yet in 2009, at all levels of education, they earned only 75 percent as much as their male counterparts. How far have we come, and where are we going?

1963 was the auspicious year of Betty Friedan’s publication of feminism’s cornerstone text, The Feminine Mystique. Revisiting the book, I was surprised to discover new meaning in Friedan’s message—one with a decidedly progressive bent, even for 2011.

Stephanie Coontz’s book A Strange Stirring provides a compelling critique of the impact of The Feminine Mystique as an impetus for the profound changes brought by the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s. In the event you think women are not doing well enough, she outlines that we have come a long way since 1963. Clearly Friedan encouraged women to embrace, rather than repudiate, their aspirations for a life beyond the home.

What I did not know was that Friedan urged both women and men to use their education and talents in meaningful work that served a higher purpose. It is this call to integrate our work with a higher purpose that may be one of the most critical drivers of the sustainability movement.

Considering the vast transformation required to evolve our global economic system towards sustainability, the yearning for social utility in work is motivating many young people today to be a part of the solution. At both Harvard and Columbia Universities’ business schools, about 25% of all students are members of their environmental and sustainability clubs. Demand for work in this area is intense and many MBA graduates say they would sacrifice pay for work where they can solve social problems and make a difference in the world.

Although all are welcome, women may be particularly called upon to lead the sustainability movement. I recently joined with other sustainability leaders in the Northwest to launch the Seattle chapter of the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future (WNSF). Last fall, Jean Brittingham kicked off the inaugural gathering of over 70 women by saying that female memes have been absent for the past five to seven thousand years, and now is the time to bring our feminine traits – passion, curiosity, a solutions-first focus, intuition, relationship-based action and multitasking—to the sustainability movement.

Costco’s head of sustainability, Sheri Flies, added that we must understand the balance of women’s and men’s traits, and that she has seen some 30-something year old men embracing their own feminine attributes in their work styles.

Gifford Pinchot, co-founder of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, spoke about the risk facing our civilization, pointing out that as we move from knowledge work to creative work, women are the drivers of sustainable organizations, enterprises, and culture.

In her article Gender and the Sustainable Brain, Andrea Learned argues that encouraging the relational and empathetic aspects of human thinking [those aspects which are more typical of women] – and “better balancing that which has been perceived as masculine and feminine – will lead us to a more sustainable, enduring and productive global economy.”

So is this the time for women to “dominate” and “take over” to lead corporations and the world to sustainability? The recent article, The End of Men, in The Atlantic, indicates that this may be “our time.” Women’s growth in leadership has been barred by the dearth of women in the pipeline for the C suite, and too few female mentors. However, this is finally changing.

Joanna Barsh (a classmate at Harvard Business School) raises provocative issues in her book, How Remarkable Women Lead, such as whether feminine leadership traits (for women and men) are better suited for our fast-changing, hyper-competitive, and increasingly complex world. The good news is that women are tracking into sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) roles, and bringing a rich reservoir of strength, optimism for the future, and grounded ways to change the world. After five to seven thousand years, it’s about time.   

Cynthia Figge, Cofounder and COO of CSRHUB is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Cynthia has worked with major organizations including BNSF, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow Jones, and REI to help craft sustainability strategy integrated with business. She was an Officer of LIN Broadcasting/McCaw Cellular leading new services development, and started a new “Greenfield” mill with Weyerhaeuser. She serves as Advisor to media and technology companies, and served as President of the Board of Sustainable Seattle. Cynthia has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Cynthia is based in the Seattle area.

Published by Cynthia Figge April 4, 2011