11 May by Alan Jarque


According to the Guardian in a recent article published about Women in Sustainability; “the "leader" equals "man" days are long gone”; this is despite the fact that the same article goes on to say that in a recent "Pioneers of Sustainability" report the six top trailblazers were all men

In our experience at Allen & York, Sustainability Recruitment Consultancy, we see a wealth of women working within sustainability, many of whom are leaders in their field.  However, when we cross examined almost 600 sustainability leaders from our network, we also found that the numbers at Director Level were disproportionately low;

Of the 600 individuals 58% were male and 42% female – so far so good.  However, at Director Level only 19% were women and 81% were men.  Our figures also show that 39% of ‘middle’ managers are women and 61% men.  So does this suggest that there is a glass ceiling in sustainability?

The figures are very similar to those published more broadly across UK business.  The latest data from the Professional Boards Forum’s BoardWatch  shows that women made up 20.4% of FTSE 100 directors on January 9 2014.

Although these figures are initially disappointing, they do indicate an upward trend with an increase from 17.4% last May and 12.5% three years ago and although we are making slower progress than we might like, we see huge potential for women in leadership positions within sustainability in the future;   

“In my experience (19 years within sustainable recruitment), I see a wealth of talented women within sustainability at all levels.  I suspect one of the reasons for the lower representation of women at Director Level is the relatively youthful status of the sustainability industry. When we first started recruiting within sustainability in the early 90s the market was dominated by male engineers moving across to environmental disciplines.

More recently, sustainability has evolved into a more complex and varied discipline and many men and women are now rising through the ranks, to attain senior positions.   I anticipate many more Director level roles being taken by women in the near future as the industry continues to mature.”  Paul Gosling, MD UK & Europe at Allen & York.

At Allen & York, we are often asked; what are the best pathways into a sustainability career?

With this in mind, I’d like to profile three leading women within sustainability to see what career route they have taken.  Dr Elisabeth Culbard, VP & Manager of Sustainable Development at Bechtel; Bea Perez, Chief Sustainability Officer of Coca Cola and Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike.

They have all taken slightly different career journeys, which illustrates the variety of potential entry points into this vibrant field.

  Dr Elisabeth (Lis) Culbard is currently VP & Manager of Sustainable Development at Bechtel Corporation – the largest construction and engineering company in the United States and ranked the 5th-largest privately owned company in the US.   

I think it is fair to say, that Dr Culbard has taken a technical route to sustainability.

She graduated with a BSc in Environmental Biology and Geology and holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering from Imperial College, Royal School of Mines; where she was one of the youngest lecturers to be appointed to manage the Pollution Option for the MSc Course in Environmental Technology. 

Dr Culbard’s entry point to a sustainability career was through environmental consultancy and she has become one of the leading technical experts in the field of sustainability, environmental and social impact assessment, and mitigation management in developed and developing countries.

With over 30 years of professional experience in the delivery of infrastructure megaprojects worldwide, she is currently responsible for driving the sustainability agenda across a multi-billion dollar portfolio at Bechtel; overseeing new industrial and economic cities in Saudi Arabia, ports in Abu Dhabi, airports in Qatar, UK and US, rail infrastructure in the UK, US and KSA, as well as infrastructure development projects in Gabon, West Africa.

Dr Culbard has been instrumental in embedding Bechtel’s sustainability strategy and has done this through her strong technical background as well as an ability to galvanise and lead individuals towards a common cause. 

In her recent work she has brought together a range of NGO’s to support the development of community investment programmes on financial literacy, as well as leading business entrepreneurship initiatives on a number of Bechtel’s projects.  She is also a Trustee of theEngineers Against Poverty campaign and is certainly a leading light for women in sustainability.

Our second leading woman within sustainability is the high profile Chief Sustainability Officer for Coca Cola, Bea Perez. 

Perez has forged her sustainability career from a strong marketing and communications background.


In July 2011 she became the first-ever CSO of Coca Cola, prior to this she had held the position of Chief Marketing Officer, North American Division and before that had held a variety of brand and operations orientated roles.

This marketing approach is evidenced through her persona and presentation of Coca-Cola’s sustainability strategy.  Perez has an obvious passion for enabling human-beings and protecting the environment and has created sustainability campaigns which draw on her marketing experience. 

You only have to look at the Coca-Cola 5by20 initiative, which is designed to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs worldwide by 2020 or the Water Stewardship initiative to see this demonstrated.

Perez has two children and is married to an executive of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who by her own admission challenged her and Coca-Cola to address the growing global obesity issues, especially in children.    She is a very charismatic leader and a great champion for sustainability worldwide.

Finally, I’d like to focus on, Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business & Innovation for Nike, who started her career as a Researcher/Producer for the BBC. 

Working on BBC Radio One’s Social Action Team, which partnered with government and NGO's to run campaigns to enable vulnerable young people, Hannah’s social conscience was awoken.

She continued to work within the media, developing close partnerships with NGOs and Charitable organisations, becoming European Manager for CSV Media and leading pan European public service campaigns and youth training schemes.  

In 1998 she was appointed Director of Corporate Responsibility at Nike, MENA region and latterly VP for Sustainable Business & Innovation, where she has been for the last 8 years. 

Jones’s experience of partnering with civil organisations, government, charities and governments is reflected in her innovations at Nike.  In a recent interview with the Guardian she describes Nike’s strategy of “taking coalitions of the willing, to a whole other level,” and has recently galvanised over 30 companies throughout the US to lobby government on sustainable issues. 

“It is no surprise that these leading women within sustainability have taken three different routes to a career within sustainability”, Paul Gosling MD at Allen & York comments;

“common routes to a career within sustainability are; engineering or a scientific background, marketing and communications or via a social, charity or NGO path.  Each route produces individuals with a distinct focus and skill-set, which leads to a rich mix of approaches, enabling business to continue its drive towards a more sustainable model.”

These are exciting times for all professional working within sustainability and we are definitely heading for a future where a balance of men and women in sustainability leadership positions becomes the norm.