How women around the world are creating greener, better buildings

Climate champions from around the world are celebrating International Women’s Day by pushing gender equality as a way to save the planet.

The campaign theme for IWD 2019 is #BalanceforBetter – and it is backed by the women leading the global green building movement.

Cristina Gamboa, Chief Executive Officer, of World Green Building Council said: ‘This year’s theme resonates on so many levels for women who are leading the drive towards sustainability.

‘For us, better outcomes for women mean a better future for our planet. Balance for Better recognises that diversity and equality are inextricably linked to our mission to create green buildings for everyone, everywhere.’

The World Green Building Council is a global network of around 70 green building councils who are transforming the building and construction sector, aiming to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050.

Despite construction still being a traditionally male-dominated industry, more than 50% of the CEOs running established Green Building Councils are women.

Cristina said: ‘To prevent further devastating climate change, we need these passionate and dynamic women to inspire people around the world to take action.

‘They are the catalysts for change we need to cut greenhouse gases and limit the planet’s rising temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.’

Below are seven incredible women who are dedicating their expertise, passion and bravery to create a better world for all, offer real hope for the future and explain why gender equality has to be part of the solution.

Dorah Modise, CEO, Green Buildings Council South Africa (GBCSA)

Dorah Modise is candid about the challenges she faces running the green buildings movement in South Africa.

Already an expert in sustainable development, she was on maternity leave when offered the chance to head GBCSA. She had the passion and the commitment to environmental protection but with a small baby in tow, she knew it would not be easy.

She said: ‘There has been some progress but I feel like women start on a deficit. There’s a lot of work to do even before you do your job. You are working harder just to prove yourself.

‘There is still an old boys club when it comes to networking and I haven’t really managed to overcome that. I just have to do my best and be truthful to who I am.

‘I can’t do a business deal over a round of golf or over drinks so I have to find my own ways of networking. The business code needs to change; we need to break boundaries and create a business culture that is inclusive.’

Not only is Dorah shaking up the green buildings movement in South Africa, but she is also supporting those working in sustainable development in other African nations. Across the continent, millions of people are living in poverty – many do not have the security of decent housing or easy access to clean water. But Dorah is working to ensure that protecting the environment is part of the solution.

She said: ‘We need collective action if there is going to be a win for the entire continent. It’s a tall order but I’m not going to give up.’

Dorah has already increased the number of certified buildings in South Africa and is now working with the public sector to develop and implement policy which would ensure net zero carbon, waste, water and ecology for all new builds.

She also wants a more conscious move to include women as decision makers.

She said: ‘Discrimination is an enemy of progress and can never yield positive results. If we don’t have a balanced approach to finding a solution then we are bound to fail.

‘Climate change affects us all. It’s not just our environment but also our economy, our society, our communities.

‘It can’t be left to half of the people to make decisions, it needs to be all of the people.’

Yvonne Soh, Executive Director, Singapore Green Building Council (Singapore GBC)

Despite being a young country, the old boys club is also still dominating industry in Singapore. Yvonne Soh has always found herself outnumbered by men – first when she started out in engineering and now as a leading light in construction.

She said: ‘I have got to the stage now where I am valued for my input. I have been championing alternative and recycled materials for many years now – and in Singapore there is no choice, we simply have no natural resources.’

Not only is Yvonne’s input highly valued, but she has put sustainability at the core of new building in her city state. She has made it her mission to bring the green message to the masses – and has contributed to making Singapore one of the greenest urban areas in the world.

She said: ‘We have a small land mass so development has to be well planned and ecological with an appreciation for both the urban and the natural.’

Her passion for sustainability grew during the 10 years Yvonne spent at the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and eventually led her to current role leading the Singapore GBC.

It is the collaborative nature of her position, working with other leaders within the WorldGBC, that continues to inspire her.

Yvonne said: ‘We face different challenges in our different parts of the world but there is so much scope to learn from each other.

‘It is common sense to take a global approach to solving the global challenges of sustainable development.

‘This is exciting because it is an opportunity to tackle social problems including poverty and inequality.

‘When we think about buildings we must think about the people in them. It is about better places for people.’

Yvonne fully endorses the IWD theme – believing women are more than qualified to lead the fight against climate change.

She added: ‘We have a great propensity to think beyond ourselves, to think of others and our environment. Women tend to be the ones to nurture the natural world.’

Maria Fernanda Aguirre Busto, CEO, Chile Green Building Council (Chile GBC)

 As a mother of two boys and the oldest of five siblings, Maria is a certainly able to nurture but has also had to hone her skills in negotiation, diplomacy and problem-solving.

And since becoming CEO of Chile GBC just a few months ago, these skills are constantly being tested.

She said: ‘I think women are good leaders. Often our work is very structured; we are good at planning and organisation; we foster good relationships; we multitask and we can take a holistic approach to problem solving. This is essential in fighting climate change.

‘However in Chile, we have a very unequal society and the pay gap is very bad. In construction, women are left in admin positions and not seen as decision makers.

‘Women are constantly having to prove themselves; society asks more of you.

‘When I first started working, I felt I had to be a perfect mum as well as a perfect employee’.’

Maria relishes the opportunity to talk about gender balance – not just in terms of equal pay but also challenging the culture that might hold women back including long hours or inflexible working.

She said: ‘I always felt judged for being too bossy, too hard, too critical – qualities I think would be celebrated in men.

‘But working for Chile GBC, the possibilities are huge, the schedules are flexible and women are able to influence decision making.

‘I have discovered that sustainability was not only a business, but a way of living.’

Chile – and the rest of Latin America – is urbanising at a very fast pace and as the construction industry grows, Maria wants to ensure its profile is green.

She said: ‘Chile is a very interesting place to work – we feel far from the rest of the world, you have to cross hills to get to us and that isolation has been good for us, it has protected us.

‘But we are changing– and this is a great moment for innovation. We can make the construction industry one that is more productive, doesn’t contaminate and doesn’t use a lot of resources.’

Maria is an active feminist and her two sons are equally committed to fighting climate change and building a better world.

The dog lover and tattoo addict added: ‘Balance for Better really means something to me – we all need to play a part in making society more equal – just like we all need to take responsibility for caring for our planet.

‘It must be more than just a commitment but rather ethical behaviour at all levels and taking into account not only environment impact but also social and economic.’

Ala’a Abdulla, Executive Director, Jordan Green Building Council (Jordan GBC)

Ala’a Abdulla is one of the youngest leaders of a green building council – taking charge of Jordan GBC two years ago when she was just 34.

She feels her youth chimes perfectly with the dynamic culture in Jordan where new start-ups are booming and innovation is invigorating the nation.

Women are becoming more empowered to overcome traditional restraints and become more visible in leadership roles.

Ala’a said: ‘I have a busy strategic role within Jordan GBC, planning and fundraising.

‘But I am always working to create more green leaders and inspiring them to make a difference in the world.’

Ala’a has always excelled in her fields – first engineering – she was the only woman on her course at university, then the car industry and now heading up the Jordan GBC.

In that time, Amman has become one of 70 cities worldwide pledging to become net zero carbon by 2050.

Ala’a said: ‘To make our cities greener, I need to support women in the industry and bring different entities together – to complete each other.

‘The public and private sectors need to work together, we need to incorporate a global vision but also listen to experts on the ground.

‘I want to make it green for everyone, everywhere, and open the door for cooperation.’

The Middle East is particularly vulnerable to global warming – temperatures already soar above 40 degrees Celsius and the region lacks natural water resources. Political instability, war and mass migration only add to the complexities of Ala’s work.

But in the face of these challenges, Ala’a remains determined and positive. She added: ‘I love what I do and I believe in what I do.

‘Everyone is affected by climate change – but in the green buildings movement we have a real opportunity to make a difference. Buildings affect us daily – not just their impact on the environment – but our happiness, productivity, health, everything in our life.’

Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive, UK Green Building Council (UKGBC)

For Julie, a sustainability expert for more than 25 years, healthy green buildings are also the most commercially successful.

She said: ‘There is a clear correlation between healthy buildings and occupier productivity. That’s down to aspects including the materials used, access to natural light, plants and biophilia and good air quality.

When assessing green buildings, she recommends looking not just at the way they were designed and constructed, but also their ability to evolve and adapt and stand the test of time.

‘Sustainability needs to become second nature – the one and only choice for all built environment professionals.’

Julie was a pioneer of sustainability within the real estate sector back in the 90s, and recalls having to argue the ‘why bother’ case in the early days. But she stuck to her path while the rest of the industry has gradually been catching up.

Now she is a sustainable development commissioner for the Mayor of London and influencing environmental policy in the UK. Under her direction UKGBC has launched an Advancing Net Zero programme to push forward the transition to a net zero carbon built environment.

She said: ‘Climate change is a problem that transcends human differences and it will need every single person to step up and fight.

‘Embracing diversity and inclusion will be critical if we are serious about achieving our carbon targets.’

As a working mother of two sons, she thinks the Balance for Better theme can be interpreted in many different ways.

She said: ‘For me balance is also about work-life balance. It’s about the balance between the built environment and the natural one. Also the balance between physical and mental health. Spending time in nature with my family, being fit and active, all make me more personally more resilient and effective.’

Christine Lemaitre, CEO, German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nachhaltiges Bauen e.V.)

Christine is another CEO who works hard to maintain the balance between her professional life and her personal life but admits it is particularly challenging for women – even in a progressive nation like Germany.

She heads the largest green building council in Europe – but finds time to get away from it all by spending time with her three sons whose ages range from four to 12 – sometimes that has meant taking her family with her when she has to travel for work.

Christine has been environmentally aware since she was a Greenpeace-supporting schoolgirl. But it was as a structural engineer student, that she realised building had a social responsibility.

She said: ‘I learnt how projects can make a difference to society – from the design and materials used; the jobs it creates; the skills and expertise it can foster; and the impact on the environment and the economy.’

Despite climate change already having a deadly and devastating impact on the world, Christine has reason to be optimistic.

She said: ‘I think values are changing. Young people want to do something meaningful – so we have more people working for a sustainable future.

‘And our attitudes towards building are also changing – they aren’t about status – they represent how we live, learn, work and play.

‘Working in buildings gives us a big opportunity to improve health and happiness – and I think women have been part of that change.’

Christine’s vision for saving the world, means including as many people as possible in the solution.

She said: ‘Gender balance will lead to better outcomes and better decision-making across the construction industry.

‘Our mission for climate action is stronger by including all voices. That means learning from other cultures and sharing our knowledge – and building on that collective wisdom.’

Romilly Madew AO, CEO, Green Building Council of Australia

Romilly Madew is one of the most experienced CEOs in the green building movement. She steps down from the role next month after 13 years and accruing a multitude of accolades – including an AO – one of the highest honours in Australian life.

It is a long way from the early days when doors were constantly being shut in her face.

She said: ‘When I started, the green buildings movement was in its infancy. I had to persevere to be heard.’

She became CEO at 39 when she had three children under six where she regularly dealt just groups of all men.

She said: ‘On top of that I’m small – just 5ft 3ins – but I think it helped that I was just me. Women need to feel they can be themselves and be successful.

‘With balance we can make a real impact. When polled, climate change is a priority for women while for men it’s the economy. Perhaps we have a more emotional response and a more protective instinct.

‘Women also look to other women and feel connected to the plight of other women.’

According to the UN, the world’s poorest people bear the brunt of climate change. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to floods and droughts and fires.

But rich countries like Australia are also witnessing the climate devastation at first hand.

Romilly said: ‘We used to live on the land where we faced drought and bush fires – they stopped being blamed on freak weather – it just became the weather.

‘Now we live by the ocean and we see the coast changing. It gives a real urgency to my work.’


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