More work needed to create an inclusive, equal and diverse sustainability profession - survey

Source: Diversity in Sustainability

Only half of sustainability professionals believe their organizations have put their words into action on equity, diversity, and inclusion across several sectors including oil and gas, according to findings from a new survey. 

Heather Mak, co-founder of Diversity in Sustainability (DiS), said the newly-formed organization wanted to understand what is happening in the wider profession of sustainability during a webinar releasing its A State of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Sustainability survey results. Mak said the survey is the first of many research pieces that will form the basis of allyship tools.  

“While organizations are making strides and trying to close the gap in equity, diversity and inclusion, it is clear that significant improvements are needed to ensure that the views of society – particularly the most vulnerable voices – are truly reflected,” reads the report. “We must remember that there are adverse consequences of not being inclusive.”

The survey was conducted between February and April 2021. It looked at the demographics of the sector, barriers to entry and advancement, experiences in inclusion and diversity within organizations and how organizations supported equity, inclusion, and diversity. A total of 1,500 sustainability professionals from Canada (30 per cent), the United States (22 per cent), the United Kingdom (33 per cent) and other countries (15 per cent) took part in the survey across publicly and privately held companies in multiple industries. Thirty follow up interviews were conducted.

 “Sustainability is an elite and privileged profession, and it attracts those who have the means to be in it,” the survey noted.

Seventy-seven per cent of sustainability professionals grew up in a middle-class or upper class household. If we look at advanced degrees with 90 per cent having an advanced degree, 62 per cent having a master’s degree, said Mak. 

Many jobs are in major economic centres where cost of living is very high. This creates a huge barrier, and it prevents people who are experiencing social and environmental injustice from participating. It also limits approaches to solutions that fit society at large,’ said Mak.

Respondents mentioned several barriers to entering the profession including, access to networks, financial means, education, legacy hiring, and lack of exposure to sustainability. Barriers to advancement included networks in the workplace, lack of access to growth opportunities, caregiver commitments and lack of turnover at senior levels.

“To fully realize the benefits of equity, diversity and inclusion, dedicated time and resources are needed to build a meaningful program and to ensure it goes beyond a tick box exercise,” said Mak. “If you look at the data, most companies have some sort of policy or grievance mechanism. However, the percentage falls below 50 per cent for diverse recruitment, training, goal setting, employee performance management, employee resources groups and other.”

Mak said the one of the most interesting findings from the survey was the younger the sustainability professional, the more likely they are to be a person of colour. Forty-two per cent of sustainability professionals aged 25-34 are people of colour, and 54 per cent of sustainability professionals aged 18-24 are people of colour. Those who hold junior and middle management staff roles are often women (both white and people of colour) and in the LGBTQ+ community.

“To me that indicates to me that the sector will be more diverse over time, but it also indicates a need for us to take succession planning seriously and to make our organizations more inclusive, so we don’t lose that talent,” she said. 

The volunteer-run group’s mission is to equip current and future black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) sustainability leaders with the skills, networks and resources to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and just future.

Other survey key findings:

  • Many do not see the profession as being diverse. Twenty-seven per cent of all respondents felt that their leadership teams were diverse. Black (24 per cent), South Asian (29 per cent) and East Asian (37 per cent) practitioners were less likely to agree that they saw someone like them in the profession, as compared to white women (70 per cent)
  • Of all groups, white or Caucasian practitioners have the longest tenure in sustainability as a profession.
  • White men are the leaders of many sustainability organizations, and generally feel included within the organizations they work in. Of the respondents in senior leadership roles, white men make up a larger demographic percentage than other groups. Mak said there is a role for white men to play as leaders of organizations in building psychologic safety and belonging in the workplace.
  • The larger the organization, the more likely there are specific equity, diversity, and inclusion programs in place

Read the full survey here.

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