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Student Club Spotlight: Women & Sustainability

Women & Sustainability (W&S) is an organization established by Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program (SUMA). The group strives to empower female leaders in sustainability and effectively navigate social and environmental inequities by building an inclusive network of diverse professionals. W&S works with current SUMA students and alumni to enhance their personal and professional development with deeper knowledge, relevant skills, and collaborative discussions. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we interviewed the club on past achievements and what it means to be a woman in the sustainability sector.

To celebrate the "history" part of Women's History Month—is there a woman from history or who relates to your club’s mission that you find especially inspiring?

Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, has been a huge inspiration for us. Her work in New York City since the 1980s has been integral to urban environmental issues. Her advocacy and community-based participatory approach to environmental justice has taught us to keep historically excluded people as the priority in all of my sustainability work. 

Women & Sustainability was awarded the Student Organization of the Year last year. What club activities contributed to this award? Any new events we should get excited for?

At a time when the student body was struggling to find its rhythm amidst a global pandemic and social justice reckoning, W&S became more than just a student club by hosting critical discussions around climate change, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and sustainability more broadly, and turning those conversations into action by creating meaningful opportunities for professional development and long-term relationship building. We kicked off our inaugural Uplift Summit, with attendance of over 230 sustainability professionals and students from across SPS in Fall 2020. The Summit consisted of a keynote, three panels, and a fireside chat, as well as an intimate networking session where participants could connect directly with speakers. We did the summit again this year and are excited to make this a keystone event going forward.

We also leveraged the strength of our network to create a custom six-month mentorship program with over 65 participants, including professional mentors, student mentees, and undergraduate student mentees, which we successfully kicked off again this spring semester.

Also, W&S used its budget to sponsor 20 TRUE Advisor certifications last year, which emboldens students with a practical tool focused on zero waste initiatives. 

We are excited that now we can expand our event opportunities to be in-person, and have already hosted a great outdoor coffee chat, professional headshots for 36 students, and most recently a documentary night! There are even more events coming up that everyone should be VERY excited about including a private luncheon with career professionals, more in-person coffee chats, and other social and networking opportunities. Subscribe to our newsletter (email us at women [[dot]] sustainability [[at]] gmail [[dot]] com) and follow us on Instagram (@womenandsustainability) to be the first to know about these upcoming events.

What actions should the sustainability sector be focused on to accelerate change, increase diversity, and foster a better gender balance?

A meaningful way to achieve gender equality is to bring women into leadership positions and actively give them a platform. Simply hiring women without giving them leadership positions is tokenizing and does little to rectify unequal power dynamics. Additionally, it’s important to note that Black, Indigenous, and women of color particularly experience more challenges in the workplace, whether it’s related to upward mobility or microaggressions. McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace 2021” explains how “gains in representation for women overall haven’t translated to gains for women of color.” This is why it’s so important that there is active and consistent allyship from white men and women.

Any advice for the next generation of women who want to engage in sustainability?

The world is now seeing that sustainability can’t just be a siloed team in an organization or only concern the environment. It’s all encompassing and inextricably linked to topics of justice and equity. Achieving sustainability requires systems-change, which entails challenging the status quo. With that comes barriers inside and outside your organization, which can cause burnout or imposter syndrome – especially as women. What we’re trying to solve isn’t easy but you don’t have to do it alone. Find communities of like-minded women or people to encourage you and fill your cup when it’s empty. 


To learn more about Women & Sustainability, follow them here