Snapshot on Sustainability: Women in the Green Workforce

This week I’m at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, watching and learning as over 3,000 teens from about 82 countries share research and innovative ideas that could change our world – inspiring stuff. There are so many young women at this event. I’m thinking about the opportunities that await those who want to work in green industries… in our 30s, 40s and beyond? Are we creating a foundation that welcomes what each woman in our midst can contribute?

It’s more than asking whether there really are green jobs. The U.S. currently has the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s and there are job postings every day. But if you look closer at the numbers, you’ll see that many are working part time and often in lower wage positions than in the past. What if we aspire to more?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases information on top growth in hiring industries, high income earning careers, and even sorts these by whether they are currently held by women or men. Occupations like carpenters, HVAC installation, truck drivers, and cost estimators are all listed as high need, high paying, and 90% or more male-dominated.

I recall a conversation I had in the Chicago-O’Hare Airport last fall, heading home from an environmental leadership training (which, by the way, was all women), where I ran into a plane full of women returning to Los Angeles from an electrical trade conference. I asked them what they found most inspiring and most difficult about their work. Their response was the same – that there are so few women in their line of work. Many try it out, but very few stay beyond a season or a year. “They just can’t hack it,” they said.

This year has been noteworthy, hearing in the news about women’s dissatisfaction with treatment in the workplace. Business and political moguls are being called to task for their personal behavior and companies are being called out for their unequitable policies and practices. Women who speak up are finally being heard – and believed.

Task Forces have been looking at the glass ceiling for years, confirming that in recent decades women enter the workforce in relatively equal numbers to men, energetic about both their work and possibilities, and have overall higher levels of education than their male counterparts. Yet, they are less represented in leadership positions, even when they are routinely rated higher in workplace performance by their bosses and those they supervise.

New research shows the longer a woman is employed, even if she changes position or employers, the more dissatisfied she is with her job and her feeling about future prospects for advancement. These data are disturbing.

In Los Angeles, we are looking at a boom in construction that this county hasn’t seen in a few lifetimes. I look for opportunity in being a part of transforming this city into its future self. Data shows that in construction, representation by women is even less than in other industries and even fewer by percent remain in the industry over time. Surveys say that not only are women given fewer hours and less-desirable assignments, but are promoted more slowly with pay increases postponed, creating a life-long legacy of diminished earnings. To make matters worse, sexual and racial harassment are rated as frequent and considered normal in the industry.

Yet, look at those who mentor and volunteer in order to create opportunities for women to thrive. Most of these are women. On average, women are the most active participants in professional organizations. In an industry that desperately needs to hire smart and capable people and is offering higher wages to do so, women are not finding their way into such positions. Even with help from other women. We need to look for ways to address such inequities within our organizations, getting involved in ways that affect a change within our current circle of influence and widen it.

There may not be a quick fix to this situation, but we must look at it head-on and use the agency we have. That is what the May 22nd Women in Green Breakfast is undertaking. The focus will be how professionals in green building are breaking down barriers within, between and beyond our own organizations to advance the potential of women. What should new policies look like and who will bring them forward? Where is litigation needed? What kinds of advocacy and education should be developed? What does a truly sustainable development include and how does a commitment to inclusion and diversity from visioning through operations matter?

I hope you will join the conversation by registering for the event here. Thank you to Annie Argento, and recent reports from The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, The Center for Creative Leadership, and WTS.

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