Carnegie Mellon University professor Vivian Loftness acknowledges that the role of women in the green building movement is a tough topic.

Speaking at Green Cities Women’s Leadership Breakfast, Loftness offered advice and anecdotes for women keen to play a significant role in greening their businesses, cities and buildings. In her discussion, she leaned on the stories of key women responsible for transforming her home town of Pittsburgh from an industrial city into the most liveable city in the United States.

Loftness referenced a book by authors Kira Gold and Lance Hosey, Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, as a starting point for women keen to make a mark in the industry.

Having spoken with many female professionals in green building across the US, Loftness has observed one similarity – each acknowledging a supportive partner.

“In some respects, having an outstanding partner and being an outstanding partner, which is true for everyone in this room, is critical to the success of both halves of the partnership,” she said, adding that her own husband champions her efforts.

Of the Pittsburgh transformation, Loftness recalled a time when the city was the “seat of the steel industry, devastatingly covered with smoke and soot.”

A combination of leadership from both genders saw it turned into a city with an influential and engaging city centre.

Loftness cited  Carol Brown’s Cultural Trust, a project which saw downtown Pittsburgh transformed to an arts community, inviting people back into the area.

She also spoke of Rebecca Flora of the Green Building Alliance, who used door-to-door strategies to encourage businesses that green building is a good  move, as well as Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife, a non-profit organisation that works to reclaim the Pittsburgh riverfronts.

“All three of these women had very singular visions, they didn’t try to do everything,” Loftness said. “They picked a critical factor in which they had expertise in passion and they were all driven by the quality of life for the end user.

“Step by step it was consensus building where they put people before profit.”

Michael Cameron, CEO and managing director of the GPT Group spoke of his own company’s push toward gender equality.

“In 1975, 46 per cent of women were working. Today that’s 66 per cent and by 2055 it’s projected to be 70 per cent,” he said. “It sounds like good progress but I think it’s average.”

Cameron rolled off more gender stats in Australia:

  • Only 10 per cent of women are executives
  • Only seven per cent are CEO’s
  •  Women are paid 17 per cent less than their male counterparts at the end of their careers

He noted these current statistics are socially unacceptable.

Cameron said GPT saw a seven per cent increase in women in leadership roles last year. The company’s leadership is now 34 per cent female, a number GPT hopes to raise to 40 per cent. A further 50 per cent of the GPT’s key roles are held by women.

He also highlighted US research that suggested that gender bias has been traced back to primary school, and lead to a disparity in university applications in maths and sciences.

“It’s very interesting to see how far back the gender bias goes,” he said.

Anna Skarbek, executive director of ClimateWorks Australia, faces the challenge of running her organisation part-time and devoting copious hours to her roles as a partner and mother.

Skarbek garnered a nodding reaction to her opening question on gender equality:

“What percentage of men are doing the kinder pick up? And that’s what would change the organisation when everyone thinks like that.”

She reminded the audience that work-life balance is more about managing oneself and not just a challenge of gender diversity or race but all forms of identity.

Referencing the “connected, disruptive, technology and fast changing” professional world, she projects teamwork is the answer.

“Connecting with others will be essential,” Skarbek said. “As our careers move into the field, things we won’t be able to outsource to a computer is empathy and understanding…so being less narrow and less specialised and being more diverse and connected to the community will be a key career criteria for the next generation.”

The panel then closed with their top pieces of advice for women in the green building movement.

Anna Skarbek: “As an employer, understand what people love and encourage it. As an employee, find what you love and just do it. The barriers move when you focus on pushing through.”

Michael Cameron: “Speak up at all levels, we need people talking about what’s important…if people remain quite and withdrawn, we cannot address these issues. Conversation and ongoing dialogue is critical.”

Vivian Loftness: “Make sure you have a vision, your elevator speech, champion teams and collaborate. It’s what women do well.”