Explore insights from four members of USGBC’s green building community.
Elevating the voices of women in our green building community is especially timely during Women’s History Month. Women have always been leaders in the sustainability movement—from Rachel Carson’s environmental advocacy in the 1960s to Greta Thunberg’s in the present day. Among the many women setting the course for an even more sustainable future are four professionals who recently shared their thoughts with USGBC on the future of green building, mentoring the next generation and projects that inspire them:
Hannah Baghdadi, sustainability and environmental analyst, Corning Incorporated
Katie Bergfeld, branch chief, building performance and enforcement, Department of Energy and Environment, Government of the District of Columbia
Meredith Hendricks, vice president—sustainability, Entegrity
Tonya Hicks, president and CEO, Power Solutions; president and founder, Women Do Everything LLC
What are the challenges of your professional role in helping to build a more sustainable world?
Baghdadi: As a sustainability and environmental analyst focused on renewable energy (RE), I face new challenges each day, sometimes without clear solutions in immediate sight. For example, it is difficult when there are roadblocks to RE availability in the markets we operate in—especially since some regions still lack cost-effective yet impactful ways for corporations to buy RE. These roadblocks are challenging because RE is an integral piece of accomplishing greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy use goals. As a renewable energy practitioner, I find that other requirements of my role include staying up to date with frequently changing market and policy conditions, engaging in ongoing educational opportunities, and finding creative solutions to support the path toward building a more sustainable world.
Bergfeld: I have been working at the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) for the Government of the District of Columbia for the last eight years, supporting programs under the District’s Clean Energy DC climate action plan and specifically addressing the energy efficiency of our built environment. Generally, in my experience, the biggest challenge to my work is balancing the need to move quickly in order to address the real and present threats of climate change with the need to design programs in the most thoughtful, comprehensive and equitable way possible. Government policy can truly be transformative, but implemented improperly, it can also cause great harm, specifically to some of our most vulnerable communities.
There are also often many unknowns in the work that I do, which can make it difficult to discern the best path forward. We are implementing really big solutions to address really big challenges, and it can sometimes feel overwhelming to try and stay attuned to the efficacy of our programs. I’ve found that the best thing I can do in my role as a public servant is to remain as honest and transparent as possible with our stakeholders. It’s also important to really listen to their concerns and try to meet them where they’re at. Our programs are only successful if they can actually be carried out by our partners in the private sector.
Hendricks: I work mostly with owners and project teams impacting the built environment, so the challenge tends to be defining the financial value of the recommended sustainability strategies. Most of our clients come to us to gain assistance with setting environmental goals or certification goals and they want to understand how they can contribute to a more sustainable world within the framework of the project they are building. Even when a building owner or operator is motivated to make the best environmental choice, they still have to operate within a project budget. Making the financial case for sustainable solutions unrelated to energy improvement can be challenging. That being said, in recent years, metrics related to occupant productivity, health, carbon, marketing and resilience related to climate change impacts are being used more and more as a lens for decision-making, in addition to ROI.
Hicks: One of my professional challenges is resisting being pulled in too many directions. There are so many areas that I am qualified to cover and so many major problems to address. My goal is to focus on the shared problems within the nexus of food, water and energy. That is the best use of my experience and expertise.
How do you think the industry could become more equitable and inclusive for women professionals in green roles?
Hicks: The industry will be more equitable and inclusive for women when leadership in private, public and community organizations demand a culture change. Women in male-dominated industries are not valued the same as men. That’s why women aren’t paid or promoted equally. The charge has to come from the top. Systems should be in place to measure DEI goals, and managers should be held accountable for not meeting those goals. Hiring more women leaders and managers is a strong start. In addition to that, DEI training should be implemented on every level, just like safety. There are several other things that should be done: extended maternity leave options, properly fitted PPE and insurance benefits that support women’s health, to name a few.
Hendricks: In general, women are a large part of the sustainable industry movement. However, valuing the work that is being done in the industry with equitable pay throughout the industry and within companies is still important and should be part of an annual review process. Also, whether in a green role or otherwise, women need the ability to have flexible schedules, access to health insurance and family leave. The ability to flex your work schedule means you can pick up your kids from school or take care of an elderly family member when needed. The great news here is that the work-from-home scenario that the industry learned and adopted to address COVID-19 has allowed flexible schedules to be much more acceptable.
For women reentering the workforce after having children, something as simple as offering a part-time or quarter-time position, where in the past only a full-time position was offered, can open up new job opportunities to women. A flexible schedule can also support a woman who is in school part-time trying to gain the skills needed to move from an existing career to one in a sustainability-focused industry. One of the best ways to allow new mothers to return to work is to provide equal time off for mothers and their partners. If the work of staying home with a new baby can be shared between both parents, then that opens up the opportunity for new mothers to get back in the workforce. I’ve been lucky enough in my current and past employment to be afforded the flexibility needed to return to the workforce after having children, which gave me the awareness to share that opportunity with others as I’ve transitioned in my career.
Bergfeld: Providing a formal or informal mentorship program for young female professionals is one key to creating a more inclusive work environment. Earlier in my career, I often found it difficult to be taken seriously as a young woman in professional settings, and I’ve met many young women that have had similar experiences. However, I was fortunate enough to have several strong female role models and mentors who guided me on how to identify my strengths, build my skillset, and better advocate for myself. In order for this type of support to be meaningful, though, there must be enough women in leadership roles who can serve as mentors to younger female professionals in any given organization. This requires awareness and intention from leadership in these organizations to ensure that hiring and recruitment practices are more inclusive and will attract strong female candidates.
We also need more men to step in and truly serve as allies in this space. They must be educated and willing enough to call out any inequities or problematic behavior aimed toward their female colleagues, as well as strongly advocate for more inclusive workplaces. Additionally, there are a lot of simple strategies that men can apply in work settings to help support equity and inclusivity. Some tactics that I’ve personally witnessed some of my male colleagues employ to help provide a more supportive work environment include intentionally providing more time and space for their female colleagues to contribute during meetings, calling out other male colleagues when they’ve interrupted a female colleague, and offering to take on more administrative tasks that are usually delegated to women (such as note-taking).
Other examples of strategies that can help foster more inclusivity at the organizational level include pay transparency, flexible work hours, strong family leave policies and accommodations in the workplace for nursing mothers. These types of offerings will help organizations attract and maintain their staff, particularly young women professionals.
Baghdadi: Since the sustainability industry is relatively nascent, I believe there is great potential for women to grow within it and flourish as leaders. I see new job postings popping up every day around RE, sustainability and the environment—but these opportunities are not always as accessible as they could be for some individuals.
I think the industry could boost women’s involvement by spreading awareness about green roles at all stages of a career. First, educators should introduce students of all age groups to the green industry. Next, higher education institutions should provide scholarship opportunities to incentivize women to pursue a major in green areas of studies. Finally, companies could offer internships for women focused on green roles, while nonprofits could create specialty focus groups, societies, panels and roundtables for women leaders to share their experiences with the next generation. For a great example, check out the annual Women in Green panel hosted by the USGBC New York Upstate community.
In addition, leaders should continue to use their platforms and networks to increase access to these opportunities for emerging women professionals. By sharing career advice and serving as mentors, leaders can be pivotal in shaping a more equitable and inclusive future.
What has been your favorite sustainability project or activity?
Bergfeld: Implementing the nation’s first Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) program has been such a unique and exciting experience. BEPS is one of the flagship policies of the District’s Clean Energy DC climate action plan. The District is often at the forefront of energy and sustainability policy, which means that we usually do not have lessons learned from other jurisdictions to rely on. With BEPS specifically, we certainly feel like we are “building the plane as we fly it,” which can feel overwhelming and exhilarating all at the same time.
I am someone who prefers roles in which I consistently feel that I am learning and developing new skills, and implementing a complex regulatory program across 2,000 buildings in the District has certainly provided me the opportunity to grow in many ways. Additionally, I truly love working in local government, as it gives me the opportunity to really see the impact of my work and regularly interact with the stakeholders that are affected by our policies. I consider myself very fortunate to get to work with such talented, passionate and intelligent people who are working to implement some of the most innovative climate action policies in the nation.
Hicks: My favorite sustainability project is electrification, of course! As an electrician, I also look forward to projects upgrading building equipment to use digital optimization for energy efficiency or process efficiency.
Baghdadi: I am currently on the planning committee for a Corning-sponsored program called “Choices.” This program helps introduce local middle school girls to career paths by offering workshops and an opportunity to learn valuable professional interviewing skills. During this program, students can explore a variety of fields for the day, including security, robotics, media, finance, legal, culinary services, 3D printing and more.
Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a “Girls Go Green at Corning” workshop where my (all-women) volunteer team and I introduced students to our energy management program. For Choices’ 30th anniversary this year, my team plans to host another sustainability-related session for the students based on identifying energy-, water- and waste-saving opportunities in an office setting.
Hendricks: That’s a really hard choice—we are lucky to get to work on a lot of fun projects at Entegrity. Of all the tasks we do, our early sustainability design charrettes are one of my favorites. These meetings really bring the entire project team together and set the project up for success for an iterative design process that supports incorporation of lofty sustainability goals. It also supports team synergy and group problem-solving and, ultimately, successful projects that promote environmental stewardship and human health.
A close second on my list of current faves is waste audits. I know it seems odd to enjoy sifting through trash, but this has been exceptionally fun over the last two years, partly because we engage K–12 students in the process (and they really get into it). It’s fun to share our knowledge and passion around waste reduction and encouraging to see the excitement and engagement in the next generation.