Women: Systems Thinkers

  On the opening day of West Coast Green (which took place in San Francisco a month ago), I moderated a panel that included architects Carrie Meinberg Burke and Lynn Simon; Valerie Casey, a designer and the founder of Designers Accord; and Hunter Lovins, the founder of Natural Capital Solutions. Our topic was women and […]


On the opening day of West Coast Green (which took place in San Francisco a month ago), I moderated a panel that included architects Carrie Meinberg Burke and Lynn Simon; Valerie Casey, a designer and the founder of Designers Accord; and Hunter Lovins, the founder of Natural Capital Solutions.

Our topic was women and their leadership patterns. Specifically, I wanted to get at whether our ways of leading are particularly suited to or relevant in the sustainability and sustainable design fields. I framed the panel based on research that Lance Hosey and I did for our book, Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing). In the book, we called out some sensibilities that are commonly understood as feminine in our culture—

  • It’s about sensibilities and sensitivities more than it is about gender or sex.
  • It isn’t divisive; it’s inclusive. It’s not fragmented, it’s holistic. It’s about synthesis.
  • It’s about collaboration and building community. It’s not about things, it’s about relationships. It’s not about products, it’s about process.
  • It’s about grassroots, building from the bottom-up. Not proclamations from above. It’s about interaction and dialogue, not solitary vision.
  • It’s about changing the status quo. Innovation requires new ways of thinking and doing.
  • It’s about long-term evolution, not the quick fix.
  • It’s about versatility and balance, adapting and improvising. It’s not about single-mindedness.
  • It’s about deep-rooted respect and wonder. It’s not about opportunism, it’s about opportunity for all.
  • It isn’t conclusive; it’s suggestive. In other words, all of the above must be taken with a grain of salt.

Before we got to dig in, we tussled about whether we were really talking about gender or not. Lovins suggested maybe not. “This ought not be a conversation about men and women,” she said. “It ought to be about who is the most capable of doing the job that most needs doing. And, as Van [Jones, the keynote of the morning] was saying, ‘How do we bring into the conversation the people who have been excluded?’ Women, biologists, African-Americans, young persons, disabled persons, etc. the litany of diversity. Nature runs on diversity. Humans tend toward homogeneity. We like to group up with those who make us comfortable. That is a mistake. What we are doing now is not working. If we want a future that works, maybe we should take a lesson from 3.8 million years of life thriving on diversity’.”

Architect Lynn Simon, who has run her own green building and sustainability consultancy for 17 years, said that she hadn’t focused on being “the only woman in the room” too much in her career. As part of her preparation for the panel, she asked a few colleagues what they thought about the issue of gender and leadership in the green sphere. A young man in her office said that he couldn’t care less about “whether you are a man or a woman or frog.” And a male client, a developer, took this a bit farther. “I really don’t like this way of thinking,” he told Simon. “We need a diverse population involved in design, but I don’t really like to define people by ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. That gets you to a strange place: Obama is our first feminist president because he practices balance and collaboration. A man who is a great cook is showing his feminine side. A woman who is a great softball player is showing her masculine side. And so on. For that matter, Meg Whitman, Sara Palin and Margaret Thatcher are women—are they masculine in nature because they have no social conscience?”

After a certain amount of “it’s really not about gender” and “we need diversity,” I mentioned that we are different in some ways. Certainly this is what brought me to the topic (and gave rise to our book) in the first place: I could see that there were more women in green architecture circles than in architecture circles. Valerie Casey said that she was initially reluctant to engage this topic and then began wondering if it was a feminine characteristic to not call out these feminine attributes and asked, “Why are we afraid of this conversation? What we are trying to get at: What are the attributes that help us get at the big problems? Are they female? If so, why cast them as neutral? Maybe this can be a useful construct precisely because of the tension around it, and if we ignore the tension, we lose that as a foothold.”

Architect Carrie Meinberg Burke suggested that differences can be quite nuanced. “There is complexity and subtlety in the world. Women have the capacity to grow a human being. I don’t know how that affects me as a designer, and I wonder about that.”

There are some physiological differences between men and women, and some of those relate to workplace and leadership behaviors. In The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine writes about how women’s brains are networked differently than men’s. I am intrigued by this as it relates to sustainability and the kind of systems thinking that it requires.

In fact, that was a point of broad agreement: integrated thinking and working is critical and we need more of it to progress more quickly. This is important for the work, but also for the health and well-being of people and organizations. Simon talked about her deep and long engagement in the U.S. Green Building Council, and how she tries to encourage that kind of engagement among all her staff. “Building relationships across disciplines and beyond your community is critical,” she said.

Meinberg Burke said that maybe what we ought to talk about is the notion of being “gendered” rather than just “gender.” “I have had moments of being perceived in stereotypical ways. When our daughter was born, I felt professionally invisible. I was designing our home at the time, important work in my life, but I was perceived as ‘not practicing.’ At first that was daunting and upsetting, but ultimately it became somehow liberating.”

We had a large and enthusiastic audience, and one woman asked for advice on how to plug in to the movement. Lovins reminded her that not everyone has to be first or be the charismatic leader. “Have you seen the story of the ‘first follower’ on YouTube?” she asked. “Check it out. You see this guy dancing crazily at a concert. By himself, he seems crazy. But the first person who dances with him creates the movement. You don’t have to be first in everything. And the first following is just as important—maybe more so. Without you, the guy is crazy.”

Kira Gould is co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (find the Facebook group here) and is director of communications at William McDonough + Partners. Hear a podcast of a recent Women of Green radio interview with Kira. Follow her on Twitter.

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