Women Leading in Green Around the World

Women Leading in Green Around The World

The green building world has changed dramatically over the past two and a half decades. These five women have been there since the beginning.

Spring 2020 | Written by Calvin Hennick

The numbers are stark. Women make up around 10% of the U.S. construction workforce. At job sites, that figure is even lower, with only one woman for every 100 male construction workers in the field. Only about 14% of construction executives are women, who also make up just 13% of construction firm owners. And only around one in three construction firms promoted women to senior roles in 2018.

However, there are bright spots everywhere, especially in green building. There was 64% growth in female construction firm owners between 2014 and 2019. Nearly half (44%) of the top 100 contracting companies have women in executive roles, and the number of women working in construction trades jumped by nearly 18% between 2017 and 2018—the sharpest increase in two decades.

Beyond the numbers, there are countless stories of women in leadership roles at their companies, in their communities and in the sustainable development world as a whole. Many of these women have been on the front lines of the green building movement since its beginning, or very nearly so.

They have not only seen the movement unfold over time, but have pushed it forward with their projects, helping to shape each new iteration of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system with their innovative ideas and willingness to push the envelope.

While these leaders say that women continue to face unique challenges, they also see enormous opportunity in the green building sector. And those opportunities continue to grow as these trailblazers clear the path for the women who are following in their footsteps.

Here are five of their stories.

Theresa Lehman

Director of Sustainable Services

Miron Construction Co., Inc.
Neenah, Wisconsin

Theresa Lehman helped to pilot LEED v4 while working on the LEED Platinum Lake Mills Elementary School in Wisconsin. The team’s design work helped the school to reduce illness and absenteeism.

On the farm where Theresa Lehman grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, waste wasn’t allowed. Lights were turned off when they weren’t in use. Plates were cleaned. But when Lehman went to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, many of her classmates were wealthy, and Lehman found that they often weren’t as concerned as she was about conserving their financial resources. Some of the wealthiest, she says, received a spending allowance of up to $30,000 a month from their parents.

“I just saw an immense amount of waste,” Lehman recalls. “When I graduated from college, I hoped to make that much in a year, not waste that much in a month.”

Lehman decided to research waste in the construction industry while she was in college. During a summer internship, a design/build firm asked her to build a library of sustainable materials—a nearly impossible task in the mid-1990s, just a couple of years after USGBC was founded. At her first full-time job as a construction manager, the company owner wanted to build a new office, and he asked Lehman for her opinion on what green building rating system the company should follow. “I said ‘LEED,’” Lehman remembers. “He asked if anyone in Wisconsin had done it before. No one had.”

Lehman found herself becoming an early expert in the emerging rating system. (“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she says.) After a couple more green building projects, she sat for the LEED AP exam, and her high score led USGBC to reach out to her for help in writing the new LEED AP Operations and Maintenance Exam.

Lehman then became a LEED Faculty member and started her own consulting business. She began working with Miron Construction Co., Inc. on its rebranding effort, which included sustainability as one of the company’s six key drivers, and joined the company as a full-time staffer in early 2008. Since then, the company’s LEED portfolio has included 64 projects valued at $904 million.

Lehman says that construction is still very much a “man’s world,” and acknowledges that it can be frustrating to see entire firms that, even today, have zero women on their executive teams. However, she says, being a woman in a sustainability role can actually be an advantage, as men tend to see her as a partner rather than as a competitor or antagonist. “Because I don’t intimidate them, and they know I’m a resource for them, they’re open to collaborating,” she says.

Although Lehman certainly could have found opportunities in larger markets during more than two decades in the field, she preferred to stay close to both her family and the open space of the Midwest. “When I go to big cities, it’s cool to see, but it causes me stress and anxiety,” she says. “I can’t imagine sitting in traffic. I can’t imagine living in a condo or an apartment, and not having a yard to enjoy going outside.”

Staying in Wisconsin hasn’t prevented Lehman from making a large impact. She helped to pilot LEED v4 while working on the LEED Platinum Lake Mills Elementary School, and her team’s ideas for that project led to a number of pilot credits that were incorporated into the new standard. The team’s design work helped the school to reduce illness and absenteeism, with a corresponding spike in standardized test scores, and soon families from neighboring towns were clamoring to transfer their kids to the district.

“There’s just so much to do here where I was born and raised that I feel compelled to stay here,” she says.

Green features of Lake Mills include a vegetated green roof, photovoltaic system, solar hot water system, operable windows, GreenGuard furnishings and a web-based eco-screen that all serve as educational tools, providing hands-on learning opportunities for the teachers, students and the community.

The Kowloon Commerce Centre is the first LEED certified project in Hong Kong.

Grace Kwok

Chairman and Executive Director

Allied Sustainability and Environmental Consultants Group
Hong Kong

Grace Kwok worked on the first LEED-registered building in Hong Kong, the Kowloon Commerce Centre.

When Grace Kwok was in high school in the early 1990s, she took a trip from her native Hong Kong to mainland China and marveled at the natural wonders that unfolded over such a large canvas. “It was amazing to me, the sky and the mountains,” she says. “I knew China was developing quickly. I knew that kind of scenery and natural environment would be damaged in 10 years’ time. I saw the urgency and the need for doing environmental work.”

Before that trip, Kwok had planned to go into computer science. But afterward, she decided to study environmental engineering at university. “I really wanted to be a pioneer,” she says.

When Kwok was finishing up her degree, she says, it was still quite unusual for engineers to have a sustainability focus. Most of her classmates in her environmental engineering program ended up becoming civil or structural engineers. “In Hong Kong, at that time, there were just a few private consultancies focused on environmental work,” she recalls.

Kwok joined Allied Sustainability and Environmental Consultants Group in 1999, and became executive director in 2015, taking on responsibility for the overall planning, management and strategic development of the company, as well as overseeing business operations. She has been involved in numerous green building projects in Hong Kong, Macau and China, including some of the earliest LEED-certified building projects in Hong Kong. Seventeen of these projects have obtained a certification level of LEED Gold or Platinum, and many have received additional green building awards.

Kwok worked on the first LEED-registered building in Hong Kong, the Kowloon Commerce Centre, completed in 2008. She also led the sustainability work for the University of Hong Kong’s Centennial Campus, a large expansion at the western end of the main campus that was completed in 2012.

Initially, the university only planned to meet the standards of a local green building system, but Kwok and her team convinced officials to shoot for LEED certification. Kwok saw an opportunity to dramatically improve energy performance by adopting a highly efficient air-conditioning system. “They only aimed for Gold at first,” Kwok recalls. “I told them they could get LEED Platinum. At first, they didn’t believe us. They thought I was joking.”

The Centennial Campus of the University of Hong Kong received LEED Platinum certification in 2013 and was the first higher education project to be awarded such distinction in the city. Innovative features include the positioning of the building to capture natural light, breezes and stormwater.

Her involvement from the beginnings of the green building movement has given Kwok a front-row seat from which to watch the evolution of the movement over time. As an example, Kwok points to the way that LEED standards have become more people-centered, focused not only on hard metrics around emissions and water consumption, but also on the experience of the people who live and work in green buildings.

“It’s becoming more people-focused,” Kwok says. “Initially, it was very focused on how we could protect the environment and be more energy-efficient. But now, it’s looking more at how the people, the users, can benefit from the indoor environmental quality.”

“I’ve always tried to work on something new, to not just work in my comfort zone,” Kwok adds. “That’s one thing I really like about the green building field—that it keeps developing. With LEED, there are always new versions, and when they update it, there will be something new that they include based on the feedback or the experience of people using the previous version. That’s what has kept me interested.”

Kwok has served on a number of committees for the Hong Kong Green Building Council, and is an advisor to the LEED Data Centers Advisory (China) Committee, a Certified Carbon Auditor Professional accredited by Association of Energy Engineers, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Environmental Impact Assessment, and a founding fellow of the Hong Kong Institute of Qualified Environmental Professionals Limited. She also acts as a co-chair of the Hong Kong Women Professionals & Entrepreneurs Association Environmental Sustainability Working Committee.

Today, Kwok enjoys passing down her expertise to emerging professionals and students. “Because I started early in this field, I always like to share my experience with all—not only with other professionals in the field, but also with students,” she says. “Advocacy is something that is very important to me, and something that needs to be important to all of us if we want to continue to push the green building movement forward.”

GBCI India headquarters in Noida provides on-the-ground customer support for regional green building and business project teams in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.

Deepa Sathiaram

Executive Director

En3 Sustainability Solutions
Chennai, India

Deepa Sathiaram of En3 worked closely with the Oberoi team to achieve the school’s sustainability efforts.

One of the first green building projects that Deepa Sathiaram led was a World Bank building in Chennai in 2006—one of the first buildings in India to attain LEED certification. Her firm came on board late in the process, when the design was nearly finalized. It was the first World Bank building to pursue LEED certification, and Sathiaram—then heavily pregnant—had to move quickly to incorporate sustainable elements before the design was finalized to ensure that these measures could be achieved during the construction process.

“At every stage, we had to keep working with the client to make sure things were on track,” Sathiaram recalls. “It was a fast-track project that was going to be inaugurated by the chief minister of the state, and the date for the inauguration was fixed. We had to make sure LEED certification was issued before then. This was before LEED was online, and I remember calling the project manager saying, ‘You need to print out these final documents to be shipped, because I don’t know when I will go into labor.’ He came in at night to pick up CDs so he could print out the documents. That was just a couple of days before I went into labor.”

Sathiaram’s story illustrates some of the challenges that come along with being a woman at the head of a movement. Not only did she have to essentially help invent how to implement LEED in an emerging market, after all, but she also had to work around a deadline imposed by her own pregnancy. However, Sathiaram says, she views being a woman in a male-dominated industry as something of an advantage, rather than a detriment.

“I don’t think of it as a challenge,” she says. “Actually, it was definitely a big plus. It’s helped me open up a lot of doors. I would say it was a huge strength, rather than a limitation.”

An electrical engineer trained at the Anna University’s College of Engineering (India’s oldest engineering school), Sathiaram says she remains one of the “very few” women HVAC design engineers in all of India. She was also the first woman to become a chapter president of ASHRAE on the subcontinent. She explains that being a woman has seemed to be an advantage in her work, because she stood out when she tried to appeal to men’s sense of right and wrong, and to shift the conversation ever so slightly away from the bottom line.

Oberoi International School Phase 2 has achieved LEED Gold under Building Design and Construction.

“Even today, I feel that the decision to go green or not is not just about the cost or the money,” Sathiaram says. “It’s about the fact that the client has to want to do it. It’s never been about the cost. It’s to make the client say, ‘Yes, I want to do it, because it’s the right thing to do—not just for the environment, but also as a good asset management practice.’ Being the odd one out as a woman in the industry, when you talk to senior people, it strikes a chord. Women are passionate and push for what they believe in. Sustainability, air quality and wellness in buildings are all things that I’m passionate about. When you talk with so much passion and commitment, people on the other side of the table realize that it’s the right thing to do. It really helped open doors.”

Sathiaram notes her own staff is 60% female.

Although she worked in the U.S. early in her career, Sathiaram moved back to her native India shortly after starting her firm. En3 Sustainability Solutions now has four offices in India, with around 40 employees, and the firm has worked on close to 300 million square feet of green building projects in the country, with more than 500 LEED-certified projects and 3 LEED Earth Awards for implementing the first LEED project in various countries, including South Sudan, Kenya and Afghanistan. Sathiaram has been recognized as one of India’s “Top 15 Nature’s Keepers” and has been honored with several awards, including the 2020 IWBI WELL Community Award, the Greenbuild India Leadership Award by USGBC in 2018, the IWBI Leadership Award in 2019, and the Outstanding LEED Professional Award by Rotary. She is a LEED Fellow, IGBC Fellow, and a Faculty member for both USGBC and WELL.

Sathiaram says she was lured home by the opportunity to embed sustainability principles into the rapidly developing Indian market.

“It made sense to be part of the green movement right from day one here in India,” Sathiaram says. “We are the second largest country in the world in terms of population, but compared to China, we have one-tenth the resources and one-third the land mass that China does. So, resources are going to be scarce. It’s imperative that we do things right the first time. We can’t afford to make a mistake and then come back and fix it.”

Revitaliza Consultores has guided several sustainability projects in Mexico.

Alicia Silva

Director and Founder

Revitaliza Consultores
Mexico City

In Mexico, design and construction professionals are routinely referred to by titles like “architect,” “engineer” or “master.” But when Alicia Silva, director and founder of Revitaliza Consultores in Mexico City, shows up to project meetings with her female employees, they are sometimes greeted with the less formal “miss,” or even “darling.”

“At my company, we have trained everybody to say, ‘I’m not “miss,” I’m “architect”.’ Or: ‘I’m not “darling,” you can call me “master”.’ We have to train women to not allow people to put them down.”

Other times, Silva and the firm’s executives will be told that Revitaliza Consultores never brings its “experts” to important meetings—“experts,” in these instances, being code for “men.” “Because we were women, we were not recognized as the experts,” Silva says. “We had to explain to everybody, and even read our CVs to them.”

Silva is accustomed to breaking new ground, both in leading the charge for sustainable development in Latin America and in working to create more opportunities for women in the field. She started her career in green building in 2002 while living in Seattle, working on interiors and lighting projects.

She moved with her family back to her native Mexico in 2009, partly because she wanted her children to be more connected to their roots, but also because she saw tremendous opportunity to make an impact in Mexico City, which serves as a cultural and corporate hub for all of Latin America.

“Mexico City is the epicenter for a lot of things,” Silva says. “Here, I have many more ways to connect to people, and a lot more opportunities. If I go and talk to the people at Nike, they’re the people who work with the whole country, and sometimes Latin America. I would go and talk to the president of Toyota [for Mexico], and he ended up being my high school classmate.”

“This was a huge opportunity for me,” Silva adds. “We were at the beginning of the wave. When I came here, there were, like, five people in green building. Because of my Seattle background, coming from this eco-topia, I was already at the top of the wave.”

Silva’s firm, which started with five people, now employs 25. The firm has led the sustainability efforts on 42 projects that have achieved LEED Gold or Platinum certification, and is currently working on 35 more. Revitaliza Consultores guided one of the earliest LEED Platinum projects in Mexico, a facility for Nestlé. The firm also led the sustainability work for a LEED Gold terminal at Cancun International Airport, and it convinced the operators of the 55-story skyscraper Torre Mayor in Mexico City to pursue LEED for Existing Buildings certification.

Silva is a founding member of SUMe (Sustentabilidad para Mexico, the green building council) and served as vice president of the group from 2011 to 2015. She also serves on the USGBC LEED Steering Committee, and has participated in the Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group, the Supply Chain Manufacturing Group and the USGBC Education Committee. Silva also speaks at national and international forums in the United States, Central America and South America.

Despite her ambitious leadership in the field, Silva takes an unconventional approach to leading her firm, emphasizing work-life balance, along with excellent design. “One thing that is very important, when we talk about women in leadership roles, is that we bring another perspective to the table,” Silva says. “I have two kids, and even as a business owner, there’s no amount of money that can buy time away from my kids.”

Silva researched which countries around the world are the best to raise a family while also pursuing a professional career, and she decided to model her firm’s approach after that of Scandinavia—setting a 33-hour, full-time weekly schedule for her employees and providing healthy meals at the office.

“I’m very demanding in terms of quality,” Silva explains. “It’s 33 hours, but with super high standards. Then you can go and have a family, and not feel guilty that you’re losing time with your children. I think that’s a female perspective. I don’t want more money or more power. I want to have a family. You have to do your 40 hours of work in 33 hours, but it’s worth it for people. Then you have a life.”

Revitaliza Consultores also led the sustainability work to pursue LEED for Existing Buildings certification on the 55-story skyscraper Torre Mayor in Mexico City.

Vodafone Village in Milan, Italy, achieved LEED Silver certification in 2012. Energo was hired to oversee a number of aspects of the project, including energy modeling, and to develop documentation to record increased ventilation, thermal comfort design and HVAC in general.

Marija GoluBović

Chief Executive Officer

Italy and Serbia

At the beginning of her career, Marija Golubović, a mechanical engineer by training, worked mostly on projects like ships and hospitals—projects for which commissioning, or a verification process ensuring that systems perform as designed, was routine.

So, for Golubović, it seemed faintly ridiculous that this sort of quality control wasn’t being conducted for most other buildings until recently. “You would think, yeah, this happens all the time in buildings,” Golubović says. “But no, they often just design and construct, and systems are working God knows how. Before LEED, most normal commercial buildings weren’t doing that.”

Her commissioning-rich background made Golubović a natural fit in the world of sustainable building, where performance tracking and verification is a must. In 2007, she co-founded the European design, engineering and technical consulting firm Energo, and in 2008, she became one of Europe’s first LEED APs. In 2012, the company became one of USGBC’s first European education partners.

“When I learned about LEED, for me the most interesting thing was that finally, finally, somebody in the design and construction world was asking for commissioning, for energy modeling—somebody was rating that,” she recalls.

Golubović’s firm provides green design services, as well as consulting. Her team worked on the first LEED Gold manufacturing facility in Serbia, Europe’s first multifamily LEED Residential project, and commercial facilities ranging from shopping malls to corporate headquarters. For her first LEED project in 2010, Golubović obtained a LEED innovation point by placing plants on shelves throughout a warehouse—both sprucing up a sometimes drab building type and providing a natural source of oxygen for the facility.

The entrance to Milan’s Malpensa Airport Terminal 1 is transformed into “Soglia Magica,” a weightless curtain of light and artificial fog. Energo worked with the architects to create this art installation to capture the imaginations of travelers coming through the bustling passageway.

Her career has given her a front-row seat to the rapid pace of change in the European market. While she was a rarity as a LEED AP only a bit more than a decade ago, Golubović says, green building is now the norm on the continent. “The market in Italy and Serbia, there’s almost no new project that isn’t going to be certified or at least willing to consider being certified,” she says. “I’m hardly finding any projects that aren’t implementing some green strategies. This is a big change.”

Golubović notes that there are more women in green building than in construction and engineering as a whole. However, she says that women are often overlooked when credit is doled out for project outcomes. “It’s architects who are signing the projects, and those are mostly men,” she says. “Women are seen as the developers of others’ ideas, but not as the creators of those ideas.”

Even when she is evaluating talent herself, Golubović says, she sometimes has to stop herself from lending unearned credibility to professionals who are men. Instead, she says, she must check herself to make sure she is assessing prospective partners or employees on the basis of their credentials. “I catch myself sometimes in evaluating personnel,” Golubović says. “Even if I haven’t spoken with the person, I might lean toward a man, and then I say ‘Stop, stop, stop, it has to be a man or a woman who is competent.’ I think there’s still work in front of us to change this.”

Recognizing “Sheroes”

Each month in 2020, USGBC’s Women in Green program is recognizing eight women across the country who embody the program’s eight pillars: leadership, health, economic equality, mentorship, speaking up, democracy, purpose and courage.

The campaign, meant to highlight the impact that woman are having on sustainability in their local communities, will culminate this November when a “Shero of the Year” is named at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo.

“We want to not wait until the end of someone’s career, but to identify heroic leaders doing paradigm-shifting actions [today] to create equity and access for women in sustainability,” says Kimberly Lewis, USGBC’s senior vice president of market transformation and development in North America, who founded Women in Green in 2012. “We want to really give a national lens into who’s getting things done locally.”

For nearly a decade, Women in Green has emphasized local involvement, organizing breakfasts, workshops and other events for women leaders to connect and support one another. The program also has a partnership with Million Women Mentors, which connects female professionals with girls and young women interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Through this year’s “Shero” campaign—and through the program as a whole—Lewis hopes to communicate to women in the industry that they have the opportunity to be leaders, no matter where they’re based.

“It’s local, local, local,” Lewis says. “I want to make sure we provide the platform and opportunity so people don’t have to go to the coasts, but know that they have the power to organize right in their communities. At Greenbuild, we bring everyone together. But then you need to go back and make things happen where your feet are planted.”

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