Sustainability - Women and the Earth: An Interview with Environmental Engineer Stephanie Hamilton

 

Stephanie Hamilton is an environmental consultant and a dedicated promoter of sustainability-thinking. She was first exposed to the topic by chance. She had graduated from the University of Surrey with a degree in engineering. Her first job in Canada, nearly 25 years ago, was as an environmental consultant focused assisting companies with environmental permits and understanding legal requirements for their industrial facilities. Slowly but surely, with her new job, she began to read more about environmental issues, developing a passion for understanding energy flows and climate change impacts. 

As a consultant, she helps companies to build their decision-making capacity on sustainability issues. “I help companies decide how to report on their sustainability activities. I help them understand their reporting obligations (whether those be legislated or mandated for investor reporting)”. I asked Stephanie what she meant by sustainability and she introduced me to the definition given by The Natural Step. 

“In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing ....

1. ... concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust.

2. ... concentrations of substances produced by society.

3. ... degradation by physical means.

and, in that society ... 

4. … human needs are met worldwide.” (CSA - The Natural Step)

Stephanie’s personal definition of sustainability is about living within the limits of the planet, in a fair society. “I want to encourage a just and fair society, within the carrying capacity of the earth. Representation of our diverse society in our decision-making functions is essential; women’s voices are are an essential part of that. Studies show that organizations do better when they have diverse views, diverse leadership. Women have so much to bring; views, skill sets, world outlooks, sensitivities...” she says. Stephanie cited her experience as a mother of three (including twins!) as being hugely beneficial to her workplace skill set; “juggling children and a career helped me to be pragmatic, quick to focus, and very skilled in prioritizing: skills that are valuable to me today.”

However, as we know, womanhood also poses challenges. Though Stephanie hasn’t ever felt held back as a woman, she did take a backseat position at work in the 10 years of her life when she had young children. In this period, her male counterparts were able to advance. “Today, I’m behind in terms of seniority in contrast with my male counterparts.” And this is common for working women: she sent me the Canadian Securities Administrators September 2018 review regarding women on corporate boards and executive officer positions in companies to highlight her point. 

“ The total percentage of board seats held by women increased to 15 per cent in 2018 from 11 per cent in 2015.” (OSC)

This grievously low number still shocks Stephanie. “I think it’s terrible that so few women get senior positions, especially considering that nowadays, a majority of university graduates are women. The fact that only fifteen percent make it onto corporate boards ( and therefore become some of the highest earners) is untenable.”

I asked her how she thought this could be rectified and she firstly advocated recognition of the problem by government and by companies. She attributed part of this statistic to the maternity leave/lack of paternity leave. “With my first child, there was a mere 5 days of paternity leave (SIDENOTE: who’s excited for “On the Basis of Sex”). Today, Quebec has a much more generous program of paternity leave that helps set couples off to more balanced care-giving arrangements, but it still often falls to the woman to be primarily responsible for childcare. I do think that companies should recognize that this male-female dichotomy is a common occurrence. I encourage companies to develop programs that accelerate women when they get back from their back-seat position to help them catch up - give them interesting projects, good exposure to diverse situations, etc."

Stephanie’s job, as she monitors sustainability guidelines, allows her to institute changes in fields she’s passionate about. For example, if you are a publicly traded company, then your disclosures have to meet the requirements of the Canadian Security Administrators.  You must disclose how many women you have on your company board of directors and senior executive officers and disclose whether you have targets to have a certain amount of women. If you do not have such a target, you have to say why. Another example, around climate change, is what we can do to meet Canada's ambition for 2050: we must reduce our use of greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, based on the level in 2005 if we want to keep global warming levels to less than 2oC. But that is really challenging. The interim target of 30% by 2030 is not looking good... "We need to move a lot of capital from fossil fuel energy production to more sustainable, renewable energies... and fast. And we need 100% of society contributing to the effort."

References:

CSA - Natural Step: https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/canadian-securities-regulators-rel...

Paternity Leave: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-001-x/00303/6490-eng.html

Clean Growth Economy 2050: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2016/11/canada-...

OSC: http://www.osc.gov.on.ca/en/NewsEvents_nr_20180927_csa-release-fourth-re...

Pictures provided by interviewee