Ladies interviews in this article

Women in Sustainability: 6 Expert Insights

Introduction and Alpin Women

In late 2019, we launched the Alpin Women Initiative, dedicated to creating a community for our female consultants and to provide them with the necessary support in achieving their ambitions and goals. With this, we hope to also make a broader impact for the women in the fields of construction and sustainability.

The backbone of this initiative is our Alpin Inclusion and Diversity Policy, and the steps we take as part of this initiative include holding workshops for both women and men to create an accepting and bias-free work environment, and lending our storied experience and expertise to events that promote this cause.

Our Alpin women: Camille Hubert, Strategic Client Engagement Consultant, at the 2020 Innovation Arabia Conference (left); Tasneem Bakri, Operations Coordinator, as part of the Women in Clean Energy (WICE) Panel Discussion at the 2019 CEBC MENA Clean Energy Summit (top-right); and Sadaf Ghalib, Strategic Consultant, at the 2019 Kuwait Green Building Week (bottom-right).

As part of our initiative, we were honored to participate in the 2019 Women in Clean Energy panel and we also got the chance to interview some great women in the construction industry for our article: Women in Construction: Why the Industry Needs More Women. In 2020, we also became an official signatory of the United Nations’ Women Empowerment Principles (WEPs) that aims to ‘advance gender equality in the workplace, marketplace, and community.’

This year, we wanted to look specifically into the field of sustainability, a buzzword that comes up quite often. But what does it truly mean and how is the sustainability industry like for women? These are questions we were asking ourselves at Alpin, so we decided to interview some of the top women in the field in the Middle East. We got some really interesting feedback and we are happy to share them with you here.

Women in Sustainability

“The way I see it, sustainability is a way of life where all the entities on this planet are at a state of equilibrium, while humanity makes strides in progressing further. In a truly sustainable world, I envision an environment where our biodiversity is preserved, our forests are nurtured and celebrated, our surroundings are clean and free from pollutants, our waste is recycled, and every global citizen has the opportunity to access and benefit from the same, fundamental privileges that every other has,”

Habiba Al Marashi, President of Arabia CSR Network and Co-Founder and Chairperson of Emirates Environmental Group.

“Sustainability is our responsibility to our planet, to next generations, to all living beings. Sustainability is no more a trend or business case but a fact, an obligation in order to continue life on our planet,”

Dr Yasemin Nielsen, Associate Professor, Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design, School of Energy, Geosciences, Infrastructure and Society, Heriot-Watt University.

“Sustainability is a way of living, a way of thinking. Climate emergency has been declared across the globe and cities must act. We can do this even through the smallest changes in our day to day life. Being an environmental professional, I have a professional responsibility to influence the technical decision-making, have the right conversations with our peers and industry leaders, and spread awareness in the industry as a whole. This is the key focus of my work in BuroHappold as well as my role as CIBSE UAE Chair,”

Farah Naz, Sustainability and Innovation Leader, BuroHappold Engineering.

“Sustainability is a lifestyle, a commitment to preserve our world for future generations. It is relevant to every aspect of our lives – our work, our families, and the way in which we interact with the community and the environment,”

Masara Alameri, Head, Freezone Operations, Masdar.

The field is growing and developing just as humanity is

“One thing I have realized about Sustainability in 20 years in my experience as founder 2D Interior Design studio in Saudi Arabia, is that the society is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of living green and protecting the environment, I am noticing in many ways such as consuming recyclable goods, doing recycling and focusing of green building and interior design, which benefits the environment,”

Samar Alfadl, founder, 2D Interior Design studio.

A Field of Opportunity and Challenge

“The sustainability field offers great potential to women, particularly considering the amount of investment going into the sector these days. I would say my role as head of free zone operations at Masdar City, the first business destination in the region dedicated to sustainability, is evidence of the opportunities available to women willing to consider a sustainability career. I think UAE women enjoy an advantage because more and more of us these days are graduating from university in the critical STEM subjects,” said Alameri.

As an emerging field, sustainability has seen many women leaders

“Women, as leaders and key stakeholders, have a lot of very strong opinions about sustainable development, and their contribution towards sustainability is truly unparalleled. A lot of the international organizations that I interact with are led by exemplary women, whose ideas and efforts have contributed greatly to the global community through capacity building, social entrepreneurship, and strong partnerships. Women, therefore, are one of the strongest ambassadors of sustainability,” added Al Marashi.

“It is very challenging and motivating for women. To be effective in this field, women must be well educated and conscious. I consider women as the power supply for our communities, they support their families emotionally and raise their children up in a sustainable way of thinking. They are the soul of the sustainability movement,”

Hoda Ibrahim, MSc, PhD candidate, Sustainability Consultant, LEED AP BD+C, USGBC Faculty, Edge Expert, Board Member at Egypt GBC.

“Sustainability has no gender. However, there is a common belief based on several studies that women live more sustainably than men. Women care more about the environment, animals, children, plants, etc. These may be related to some female traits such as empathy, resilience, altruism and protecting. These traits make women more concerned on climate change and the impact it will have on us and future generations,” added Nielsen.

More women are needed

All the women however seemed to agree that despite recent progress there was a need for more women in sustainability.

“The sustainability field lacks adequate women involvement, and in fact, the energy sector is the least gender-diverse sector. According to a 2017 Boston Consulting Group report, women make up only 22% of the oil and gas sector and 32% of the renewable energy sector; very few women reach senior levels in these sectors. Although this has been changing recently, we still need to work towards involving more women in all aspects of sustainability work. This is essential because I strongly believe that women bring a very different and versatile perspective to the table,” Al Marashi explained.

“We are going to be a huge force in the solution for the growth of sustainable living for the society and the future generation. Currently, in Saudi Arabia we have women that are leaders in sustainability such as Dr. Majeda Aburas, deputy executive director of the Saudi Environmental Society (SENS), one her great successful initiatives in 2018 is having a green Haj/pilgrimage, meaning haj without plastics. Sustainability is a subject that appeals to the interests and talents of women,” said Alfadl.

“Women are conscious leaders by nature. Harvard Business Review (HBR) Studies have shown, having women in senior positions especially on the Board, brings a wider level of diversity, improves the quality of Board discussions, and assists in moderating overconfidence-based decisions. At the same time, HBR research has found that female directors tend to be less conformist and more likely to express their independent views for the betterment of the wider company than male directors because they do not belong to old-boy networks, which is still prevalent in many corporate cultures,” said Naz.

Education is key

When it comes to bringing more women in sustainability, education is key.

“I think we must begin in basic education at schools and undergraduates. Most students in early stages do not have any idea what sustainability is. We shall share the awareness with governmental parties to be part of this movement. As a direct movement in this issue, we can do this through NGOs by giving educational training to school and universities students and let them create their own ideas and micro projects which will support sustainability and publish their initiatives,” said Ibrahim.

“We are all well aware of the gender gaps present in the renewable energy workforce. A 2019 IRENA report revealed that women are more likely to be employed in lower-paid non-technical, administrative roles than in policy-making or managerial roles. Women are actually found to be more attracted to renewables, but encounter numerous challenges such as lack of equal access to training, networks, finance, and to the glass-ceiling systems. To tackle these issues, we must collectively encourage our girls to study and take an interest in STEM during earlier stages. The international community must provide scholarships and internships to encourage students, and work on policy reformulation that help remove socio-cultural barriers that prevent women from progressing in the renewable energy sector,” said Al Marashi.

Acknowledging contributions

However, once women are in the field, it is important that their hard work and contributions are acknowledged.

“I encourage women to be more forthcoming with their achievements, define success and have conversations with line managers about career growth and progression. We as women have to first become inspirations to our own selves before we can inspire others. I strongly encourage women to become leaders in their own life. I would humbly request anyone looking for some guidance to read this excellent book titled “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, which talks about the 12 habits women should become more aware of in their own life’, shared Naz.

At Alpin too, we recognize the importance of building up the confidence levels of our women, and how coaching sessions such as those provided by Google’s #IamRemarkable initiative can serve as the first step in the right direction for corporate entities around the world.

Dedicated platforms

We also need more platforms dedicated to empowering women.

“One way to attract more women is through dedicated platforms such as Masdar’s Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energy (WiSER) strategic outreach initiative. This platform is dedicated to inspiring women and girls to play an active role in addressing global sustainability challenges by equipping them with the professional skills and experience they need,” said Alameri.

Overcoming roadblocks

When it comes to success, all the women had faced their own roadblocks and had key advice to overcoming such experiences.

“I must say that I have been truly blessed with the opportunities that I have received, and the caliber of people around me who offered guidance and support every step of the way. However, there was a time where I also faced the sting of a patriarchal mindset. As a result, I would say it took a lot more time and great effort to become an advocate of sustainability. It was more difficult for me to be taken seriously or have my ideas and thoughts recognised. The one thing that did keep me going during those hardships was the thought of making a meaningful difference. I wanted to ‘be the change that I wished to see’, and I did not give up at the face of any obstacle,” explained Al Marashi.

“I have worked for both Academia and Industry. I felt gender inequality strongly. In some cultures I felt it stronger but gender inequality exists in all cultures. Biased opinions and acts are so common in everything we do. Society has difficulty in accepting women leaders, entrepreneurs, business people and politicians. As a woman I needed to work harder, be more resilient, stronger, determined, optimistic, caring, and follow my ideals despite all obstacles. Unfortunately, even women in some areas prefer to have men as their leaders. It needs lots of work and determination as well as leadership skills and enthusiasm,” said Nielsen.

Words of wisdom

The women also had some words of wisdom for younger generations looking to follow in their footsteps.

“If you have a passion follow it. When you have an idea, be passionate about it and get your voice or product out there. Do not allow fear of failure hold you back from expressing yourself creatively. Realize that you are not alone in your experience as a young woman in the workforce,” said Alfadl.

“To all beautiful women, believe in yourself, believe that you can do whatever you want. This may take time, effort, many days of crying, ups and downs in your journey, but never give up. You can do it. You can succeed. You are strong and very effective. Your children, community, and planet need you and cannot go on without you. We are all waiting for your step, so just begin and you will find many beloved ones who will support you. You are the intrinsic strength of sustainability,” said Ibrahim.

Naz also shared some of the powerful mottos she lived by: “Know your personal and professional values that will impact your life and career as a whole. Be self-reflective but not judgemental, as it increases personal growth. Acquire knowledge and invest time and resources for yourself; this will help to strengthen your relationship with your own self. Remember that the calibre of your thinking determines the quality of your performance. Be an inspiration to your own self, before looking outward, and always remember, criticism is the price brave people pay to become iconic.”

A bright future

Regardless of the issues encountered, one thing is for sure: sustainability has a bright future. Some of this success has come from an unexpected source: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe that because of the challenges posed by the COVID 19 pandemic, people have become increasingly sensitive to the idea of sustainability. We now see more efforts being taken by NGOs, corporates, governments, and individuals towards environmental protection and the promotion of equality. It is reassuring to see this positive change. To me, the future of sustainability would also mean achieving the 3Es: equal opportunity, equal pay, and equal leadership. I believe that this pandemic has indeed been an eye-opener to many, and every actor in the global landscape is going to work towards turning the idea of sustainability into a universal reality. I sincerely hope that it is not a phase but a true change for the better,” explained Al Marashi.

“I think the global pandemic has made us reexamine what is important in life and forced us to think more sustainably. Now, we can clearly make a distinction between what we need, and what we want. And that is what sustainability is. Working with what you need in order to maintain the resources we have,” concluded Alameri.

That’s it, now you know what the sustainability field is like for women.

We’re excited to have gotten the chance to feature so many accomplished women in sustainability.

Now, over to you:

What do you think about the field of sustainability and women’s role in it? Are you excited about the future of sustainability?

If you enjoyed this article and want to know more check out our article on women in construction from last year: Women in Construction