Yes, that glass ceiling still exists in the environmental movement

SIERRA CLUB? LED BY A MAN. Environmental Defense Fund? Male president. World Wildlife Fund? Yup, another man in the top leadership position. NRDC? A woman! Finally!

This was more or less my internal dialogue as I spent an afternoon scanning through the websites of some 25 big green groups, bypassing mission statements and campaign pages for executive team rosters and board lists. Sure, I already knew that men were overrepresented when it came to top leadership roles in environmental nonprofits. But somehow, seeing the picture of one White man after another crop up on my computer screen made the disparity more tangible: The environmental movement has an equity problem. Women — and even more notably, women of color — are hitting a thick glass ceiling as they attempt to move up the ranks at big environmental nonprofits.

“Although women are on the frontlines of every environmental issue that we face today as a global community, women are cut off from access to leadership, the training, the mobility, the visibility that they need to bring their optimal offering in terms of long-term environmental impact,” says Melinda Kramer, founder and executive director of Women’s Earth Alliance, an Earth Island Institute project that is tackling the gender disparity in the environmental space by supporting women who are grassroots environmental activists to assume greater leadership roles.

When it comes to gender diversity at green groups, the leadership gap is perhaps all the more glaring because women make up more than half of the workforce in the environmental nonprofit field. According to a 2014 report by Green 2.0 — an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity across mainstream environmental nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies — women comprise roughly 56 percent of the staff at nonprofit conservation groups, and an even higher percentage of recent hires and interns. A 2018 report by researcher Dorceta Taylor at University of Michigan — looking at both environmental nonprofits and environmental grant making organizations — found that 63 percent of fulltime staff were women.

Women aren’t being promoted or hired into the most senior positions in green groups at anywhere near a proportional rate to men.

Women have made significant gains over the past few decades when it comes to leadership in the mainstream green movement. Both reports found women in more than half of senior staff positions at these same groups. By comparison, a 1992 study found women held just 21 percent of leadership positions at green groups. But despite these gains, they still aren’t being promoted or hired into the most senior — and typically most visible — positions at anywhere near a proportional rate.

According to Green 2.0, women hold less than a quarter of president positions at conservation organizations. They chair just 29 percent of boards and make up only 37 percent of board membership. My own back-of-the-envelope research indicated the same — of the 28 environmental nonprofits I looked at, only two had boards composed of more women than men.

(Earth Island Institute, the environmental nonprofit that publishes Earth Island Journal, fits these trends. About 80 percent of its management team is female, but its executive director is a White man. However, though the current board president is male, three of the seven board presidents in the institute’s 36-year history have been women. “When I started at Earth Island 20 years ago, women were in the minority at all levels of the organization,” says Susan Kamprath, Earth Island’s director of operations. “Now 80 percent of our management team are women, and 40 percent of Earth Island’s board of directors are women. This move towards greater gender diversity within the organization is something we are proud of and committed to.”)

What’s more, those leadership inroads that have been made by women have generally not extended to women of color. As the Green 2.0 report puts it: “Analyzing both race and gender shows that the closure of the gender gap in leadership positions in conservation and preservation organizations is really a reflection of the ability of White women to secure and hold on to those positions. Women of color are still on the outside looking in when it comes to occupying leadership positions in these organizations.”

Of course, the environmental movement isn’t alone in facing these gender and racial gaps — women and people of color are vastly underrepresented in top positions across most fields. But in the generally progressive field of environmental preservation — which is tackling issues that disproportionately impact women — shouldn’t we be breaking through the glass ceiling?

Whitney Tome, executive director of Green 2.0, thinks a lot of it has to do with boards.

“One [factor] you have to look at when it comes to those top jobs is who’s actually making the [hiring] decision,” she says. “It’s the board, right? And I’d say there’s still a challenge around the diversity of boards.” Tome also points to executive search firms, which don’t always present a diverse slate of candidates to client organizations, and to the role that personal networks play in candidate selection and hiring, networks that are likely to lack diversity.

There’s also the issue of retention. When organizations do make gains in internal equity, can they keep their diverse talent?

“It’s really hard to both recruit and retain diverse candidates or individuals in an organization that doesn’t necessarily embody the values of embracing diversity, that doesn’t embody a culture of inclusivity,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me in a 2016 interview, remarking also that she continues to be “somewhat amazed” that she’s the only person of color and one of the few women running a big mainstream environmental organization. “I will say that I’ve spent my whole career focused on environmental issues and environmental policy work, and much of that career I’ve often been either the only person of color in the room or one of a handful. And that does, I think, take a toll. I think it’s hard to be singular in that way for that long a period of time.”

“How many times does a woman have to say something in a meeting before it is heard?”

Nellis Kennedy-Howard, director of equity, inclusion, and justice at the Sierra Club, points to the challenge of retaining diverse candidates as well, noting that women of color are taxed more than anyone else in the workplace because of their identity. “Folks of color in any organization are asked to bear a disproportionate burden of the workload because of their identity, because there is a disrespect or a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own credibility. So there’s a need to validate their skill sets in different ways than those around them. Combine on top of that the gender dynamic of being a woman, in terms of really being heard — how many times does a woman have to say something in a meeting before it is heard, or before a man repeats her and it’s really heard?”

Those who still wonder about the need for diversity and gender parity should take a look at the payoffs. As Kennedy-Howard mentions, women’s leadership leads to better environmental outcomes. For example, Fortune 500 companies with women on their boards are more likely to see improved sustainability practices (along with growth in their profits), and legislatures with more women are more likely to pass climate- and environment-friendly laws. Research also indicates that inclusive decision-making teams make better choices and enjoy better results.

“There’s a great business case around why diversity, inclusion, and equity are so important,” Tome says. “It’s everything from the moral case — you know, it’s the right thing to do — to the political case … Because people of color often poll higher than Whites when it comes to environmental issues, it’s an incredible constituency that can apply political power if engaged. But aside from that, there’s also a case around innovation, creativity, problem-solving — a lot of institutions have done a lot of research on the fact that if you actually have a diverse leadership team, [and] diverse staff … you’ll just get better outcomes.”

Others point to more intangible benefits. “We’re good at bridging diversity,” says Jennifer Morgan, who was appointed co-director of Greenpeace International with Bunny McDiarmid in 2016. The two are the first women to lead the green group. “And while there are plenty of men who could share the helm of Greenpeace, there is something that Bunny and I can do through our leadership to empower young women to dream about their futures — that they can do anything and rise to anything, be it the head of Greenpeace or a head of state.”

Some organizations, like the Sierra Club, are taking the goal of inclusion to heart by creating specific staff positions — and even entire departments — dedicated to fostering and supporting equity.

In 2015, Sierra Club’s board of directors adopted the organization’s first-ever multi-year equity plan. About a year later, they created a department dedicated to transforming the nonprofit into an organization that “welcomes and values people from all walks of life,” and hired its first director, Kennedy-Howard. “The core of what myself and my team do is help Sierra Club become a more equitable and just organization,” she says. “Ninety-eight percent of our effort probably falls within the internal side of Sierra Club, about what are we doing to address the inequities that exist within our organizational culture.”

Kennedy-Howard has kept busy over the past two years. Her department conducted a retention analysis, learning “not-so-shockingly” that the retention rate for people of color was lower than that for White employees. They also put together several recommendations for improving the experiences of people of color at the organization, and put on a series of “Growing for Change” workshops that every Sierra Club employee, and some 150 volunteers, participated in.

“That was a pretty incredible feat to get our organization to start talking about this White, hetero, patriarchal society, and how it shows up in Sierra Club’s processes, politics, dynamics,” she says. “It kind of kicked off a conversation for all of us to begin talking about: What does oppression look like, how do we perpetuate it, what is our role in it, how can we undo it?

This intentionality seems to be paying off: Sierra Club celebrated a major milestone last year with the election of an all-female-identified executive committee for its board of directors, the first in the organization’s 125-year history. That’s not to say that the nonprofit has is all figured out. As Kennedy-Howard points out, Sierra Club has never had a female-identified executive director, and though the executive team, of which Kennedy-Howard is a part, is majority-women, she admits that “the dynamics still feel very male centered.”

“That’s just one of the ways that the White male patriarchy prevails [over] every facet of today’s society,” she adds.

The so-called big green groups aren’t the only organizations struggling with these issues. According to Green 2.0, government environment agencies and environmental grant-making organizations in the US also skew very male when it comes to top leadership, and very White overall. Tome thinks that smaller grassroots groups, and particularly environmental justice groups, may be doing better when it comes to equity, and a quick online search of organizations like Communities for a Better Environment as well as the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment supports this. But overall, inclusion challenges extend to organizations big and small.

The good news is, we have decent models and tools for raising the bar on equity in the environmental movement. Now it’s up to us to embrace the imperatives of workplace inclusivity, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because we can’t afford not to.

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