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Getting the Frame Right

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a pre-SB'13 program dialogue session organized by some of the leading women in sustainability: Annie Longsworth, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S; Kellie McElhaney, Whitehead Faculty Fellow in Corporate Sustainability at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business; Jen Boynton, Editor-in-Chief of Triple Pundit; and Aman Singh, Editorial Director of CSR Wire. The topic: The Role of Women in Sustainability. Nearly 100 participants (five of them men) from companies such as AT&T, Visa, Safeway, North Face and many others contributed to a very lively discussion about "women and sustainability," which is gaining a significant amount of traction these days.

Pre-SB'13 "Women in Sustainability" Event

Saatchi & Saatchi S's Annie Longsworth leads discussion at the Women in Sustainability event in San Francisco | Image credit: Saatchi & Saatchi S

Despite the fact that through the years we have repeatedly been asked to feature this topic on our agenda, we have declined up to now — and I have to personally take responsibility for this. I understand the choice may seem counterintuitive given my personal history, having both scrambled from the bottom to the top of a multinational at one time in my career and given the past decade to helping drive the sustainable business movement forward. After all, the data is becoming increasingly clear, as Ms. McElhaney's research and others point out: Placing more women in positions of leadership is demonstrated to result in healthier, more sustainable businesses and communities. 

I neither doubt nor underestimate the value of this, and I'm now feeling responsible for carrying this fact forward to our community  in a more pronounced way as I do agree supporting more women into leadership is one of the highest leverage, concrete things we can do to help shift our systems toward those that support a healthy and flourishing future. My reticence to date, though, is worth explaining: It stems from my passion for creating frames that can serve to help generate the kind of unifying traction that can propel our movement forward as fast as possible.

The sad fact, as Ms. McElhaney shared in the kick-off to our discussion last week, is that 71% of women in the US avoid associating themselves with the term 'feminism'  just one indication that the women's movement through the years has gained a bad rap. My concern has been that framing the conversation around the need to move more women into sustainability, or to shout out that women are the solution to our future, may be misheard as a continuation of a 20th century "me vs. we" debate  that would actually obscure the very strengths that we want to call out that women have to bring to bear as we move forward.

I'm afraid a conversation about "women in sustainability" can too easily be reduced to a feel-good cry for equality, to a call for women to 'lean in' in order to achieve success as it has been defined by men over the past several hundred years. And I fear this frame may cause us all  men and women  to miss at least one bigger point: that the notion of "success" as we currently think of it may in fact be outmoded, and that what we really need to be doing here is changing the game. 

During our discussion last week it was suggested that women are particularly adept at things like seeing, understanding, appreciating and even manipulating (I can hear the negative connotations of this last gift rattling male readers already!) complex systems more readily. We see women as more inclined to listen to empathize with others who are different than we are, and to see the value of those differences. We see women as being more inclined to see the forest for the trees, but at the same time, as being able to 'chop wood and carry water'  often at the same time. We see ourselves (I think the men in the group agreed?) as tending to be more naturally equipped to effectively balance both short term and long term  a gift that equips us to deliver better return on invested capital. And, in my own case and the case of many others I know, it means we may be inclined to choose to temporarily put work aside in order to nurture our kids, knowing that while doing so may put us a step behind our male counterparts in our career, it will likely optimize both the satisfaction we feel at end of life.

It dismays me, therefore, to see women who've managed through a combination of their own good fortune and hard work to create a powerful podium for themselves, use it to urge other women to 'lean in' in order to win at the game designed by men  and I want to guard against that missed step. There is no question that business and society would both benefit from elevating more women to places of leadership. But is the bigger point that healthy systems benefit by nurturing a diverse set of strengths and talents? And if so, would we be more likely to create broader alignment if we avoid focus on a single gender (or race or religion or socioeconomic background, all of which have been taken up as independent battles to various degrees of success in the past). More importantly, I see the opportunity to frame our fight as a fight to redefine the meaning and measure of success for all rather than as a fight for more women in the boardroom. I understand the interim step may be to acknowledge more broadly women's ability to understand the importance of this, but my hope is that ultimately we can frame a call that can be heard and taken up by all of us. 

The 21st century must be about a renewed awakening to the true sources of a healthy, happy life and an awareness of those things that truly sustain us over time. Certainly we need to continue to fight for equality, as well as freedom from oppression, slavery, abuse and exploitation for all. But not all of us need to be in the boardroom to be happy or 'successful.' My hope is that as women, we work together toward a future which offers permission for all of us  women and men of all countries and colors, gifts and talents, to define success for themselves, and in which we respect equally the value and importance of the gifts, talents and aspirations of all. It takes arms and legs and hands and feet and heads and heart to make a body  no one without the other is more or less important, and without them all working together, any part is disabled. Women understand this in a visceral way. As we apply our passions and carry our conversation forward, let's take care with the choices we make about the way we frame the work.

Koann is the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media and Sustainable Brands whose involvement with the intersection of environmental and human issues in business dates back to the mid-1980s when she launched international conferences on improving log utilization, reducing… [Read more about KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz]

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