In News

womeninleadershipby Paige Miller

I initially started this post with a statistic about how women lag behind in leadership positions in the workforce, but then I realized I didn’t need a statistic to prove my point. Women know this. That’s why nearly 100 attendees came from across the Bay Area to attend our June leadership panel to learn what we can do to increase the number of women leaders in the upper ranks of the environmental field. It is clear to us that we are underrepresented, and we’re ready to advance.

The Women’s Environmental Network, Impact Hub Bay Area, and the Bad Ass Women’s Impact Hub Club were grateful to have panelists Savanna Ferguson of California Environmental Associates, Francesca Vietor of The San Francisco Foundation, and Lisa Feldman of UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources join us for the evening. Moderator and WEN Board Vice President Nikole Reaksecker opened the panel by reminding us how our career paths can be uncomfortable yet exciting. “The path to leadership isn’t always a straight line,” she said. “Sometimes we have to take risks and be open to opportunities that arise.”This theme resonated in conversations throughout the evening. While women are changing the environmental sector, it is also changing us. As we work to create our own definitions of leadership, we will need to adapt and challenge ourselves, remember that we bring important skills to the table, and boldly ask for new opportunities, raises, and promotions.

Lessons learned from the panel:

On building soft skills and hard skills… 

While hard skills – skills that can be learned in school, like chemistry, accounting, or programming – are generally most valued in today’s workforce, panelists noted that soft skills – skills that are learned through life, such as people management, communication, and perceptiveness – are equally important.

To be strong leaders in the environmental sector, women need both sets of skills.“The hard skills are required,” Feldman affirmed. “That is good because that means [the environmental movement] has gone mainstream.”

Vietor said that today’s workforce is much more focused on the hard skills. For example, “How can you run a business? Do you have experience in hiring or management?” she said. These skills can help women move ahead. “When you are the face of an organization, you need to be a good visionary and strategic thinker,” added Ferguson. “You need to have ideas for what the organization should do for the future. You need to be articulate. You’re going to be the one who talks to the media and potential donors. You need to be comfortable and passionate about fundraising. You need to have good management skills.” Vietor noted that soft skills are just as important. One is active listening, which she said many women are already good at. “Learn by listening – listen to your staff and to your community.”

Ferguson notes that while women are not strongly represented in top leadership positions in the environmental sector, many of them are strongly represented at the next-highest levels, such as vice presidents and directors of development. “Gender biases play out in the environmental sector just as they do elsewhere,” she added, concluding that women may lead differently. “We need to step back when we ask what we want in a leader and consider what it means to be feminine and masculine in a position.” “I am all for the idea of being yourself, and not compromising,” said Feldman. “And when you have the power, hire the person who is also being herself.”

On looking forward… 

“There are the skills that it takes to get the job, skills that are in demand, and skills it takes to succeed,” said Feldman. “Especially in the Bay Area, we need to be able to analyze where value can be found, because people will go where the value is. We need to be able to show and quantify it.”

Vietor agreed, noting that we also need to pay attention to the new models that are emerging within the economy that often have the environment embedded. “We need to pay attention to the shared economy and impact investing. Whether you’re doing more composting or fossil fuel divestment… I think we are at the tip of the iceberg of this whole field.”“Fundraising is an important skill, especially in nonprofit jobs,” said Ferguson. “For director of development positions, you’ll see just a few candidates. If you want to guarantee you will be employed, get into fundraising and be good at it.”

“The definition of the environment is evolving,” Vietor added. “People are beginning to understand that we need the environment to survive. We’re in a drought and we need water. We need healthy food to address obesity. Fossil fuels are killing us. People are at the center of this. And where is equity in this? Now we are making the movement more people-centric, especially for those who are most vulnerable.”

On defining leadership…

“Define what leadership means to you,” said Feldman. “Do you want a big title? I can tell you, big titles aren’t always fun. Do you want to lead people? Promote causes? Even without a title or lots of people to lead, you can be a leader and your career will advance. Don’t go for just the title. Go for what you want to do. Go for the impact.”

“You need perseverance… don’t give up,” said Vietor. “Put yourself on a citizens advisory committee or commission. Start networking. Get yourself out into new situations. If you aren’t networking in unfamiliar situations, you aren’t going to meet people there. For me, it’s been about my work, and sticking to what I love and care about. That has allowed me to continue developing leadership skills and building staff.”

On asking for raises and promotions...

Feldman said that one of women’s greatest pitfalls in the workforce is simply not asking. “Research has shown we don’t negotiate as much as we could,” she said. “Often we are afraid if we negotiate too far, they’re not going to like us. Maybe some of us are more sensitive to that. Yet there is an importance of asking for your value, because how much you are paid is part of who you are as a leader. And at the end of an interview – ask for the job!”

“Promotions are also something you have to ask for,” added Ferguson. “Women are expecting their supervisors to see that they are doing a good job and that they should get a raise. But they won’t. You need to tell them you have what you need to get to the next level, and highlight why you deserve it. Not because of what’s going on in your personal life (like if you just moved and have a mortgage). Let them know that other jobs are paying well and will recognize your value. Good organizations at least always give you a cost of living adjustment every year. Seek out who will support and champion you in your workplace.”

On navigating the work-life balance…

“Work-life balance is a pitfall,” said Vietor. “It’s really hard for me to be a leader in my field and raise my daughter in the way I’d like to raise her. I’m a single mom,” she said. “As women, we carry a lot. Our careers, our friendships, our social networks. If you want to be a leader in your field, sometimes there will be sacrifices. And for me, it’s not going to be my daughter. You need to find your core passion and purpose and stick with it.”

As for those who make the assumption that a woman doesn’t want more responsibility because she is a working mother, Vietor said, “If you aren’t taking on new responsibilities, it doesn’t mean you aren’t getting good at your job and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be getting raises. Society needs caretakers and people who are caring for their kids, but that shouldn’t mean women aren’t advancing their careers.” “If you’re good, they’re going to figure out how to make it work for you,” added Feldman. “Ask for what you want. Tell them ‘I want this raise and I need to leave everyday at 4pm.’ Go for things!”On whether grad school is worth the debt…“Grad school is worth it if you know what you want,” said Feldman. “Credentials are not how you are going to get a job, especially in this area. It’s about who you know and what you know, but it’s not about credentials. Do it for the skills, not the certification. Business schools are begging for women to apply. We’re dying for women in the sciences. Yet MBAs are not for everyone, and grad school is not for everyone. But it may be for you if you need to make a change, if you need more exposure, if you have ideas and want to practice them. It’s a great way to build out your skills and you get the network and support. You can still do it without it, but it will take longer.”

On when (and whether) to leave your job…

“Employers see frequency of job changes as a red flag,” said Ferguson. “Early in your career, this is more of the norm. But if you have eight years of experience or more, changing jobs every year or year and a half is not good. Make sure you’re going to an organization that you want to be in for an extended period of time. Keep in mind whether you are being given opportunities for advancement in your position. If you’ve been there for three or more years and haven’t gotten a raise, it may be time to get out.” “I have learned that you should always be thinking about your next job,” said Feldman. “Not necessarily actively pursuing it, but always thinking about it. Try to set some goals – come to events like these, have conversations with people who you would have otherwise not talked to. When you get to the point where you want a new job, know you can find your way out. Spend a little bit of time each month exploring what’s outside your job that interests you.”

Learn more about leadership skill building

Thanks to all who came out for the panel on women and leadership in June. Learn about upcoming WEN events on women and leadership through subscribing to our newsletter, checking our website and following us on Facebook and Twitter.