Female Leadership in Corporate Sustainability – International Women’s Day 2022

Yue Qiu, Director of Business Advisory at EcoAct North America, talks to Atos Chief Diversity Officer, Abbie Cowan about female leadership in corporate sustainability for International Women’s Day. Yue has been leading sustainability initiatives at EcoAct for three years and prior to this was an Account Manager at CDP bringing climate consultant expertise to the ...

Liz Post

15 Mar 2022 8 mins read time

Yue Qiu, Director of Business Advisory at EcoAct North America, talks to Atos Chief Diversity Officer, Abbie Cowan about female leadership in corporate sustainability for International Women’s Day. Yue has been leading sustainability initiatives at EcoAct for three years and prior to this was an Account Manager at CDP bringing climate consultant expertise to the conversation.

Watch the interview. 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the work that you do with EcoAct?

Female Leadership in Corporate Sustainability - Yue Qiu
Yue Qiu, Director of Business Advisory at EcoAct North America

EcoAct is a part of the Atos Net Zero Transformation practice, a relatively new part of the business that brings together over 260 climate experts globally. We pride ourselves in delivering A to Z solutions to help our clients decarbonize their business. This includes carbon offset solutions, digital advisory services and environmental sustainability consulting, or more precisely climate consulting.  I head up the North America team and we work with some of the world’s largest companies, supporting them on their decarbonization journey, tackling a lot of different challenges that can come up as they target net-zero emissions.

In some cases, that means doing a complete audit of a company’s carbon footprint and not just within the four walls of their direct operations. We not only think about the lighting, the heating, the energy footprint but also the emissions upstream in their supply chain.

For example, when we work with a technology company, we consider the manufacturing of electronic components done by a third party. When we work with a food and beverage client, we assess the impact of agriculture and the growing of crops. We also look at how products made by one company are transported from their warehouses to the consumers by a third party. And lastly, we assess how when those products reach their end of life, what type of end-of-life treatment is required and what the emissions impacts are there. This approach can get complex very quickly and be fairly technical.

But that’s not the full picture. We also do a lot of stakeholder engagement and stakeholder education in my role and on our team. We try to help our clients understand what their carbon footprint means to the business. We get them to consider what kind of goals and targets would be meaningful and have a credible impactful – whether it’s a net-zero target or a carbon neutral goal. And we also look at some of the tangible ways to reduce their emissions over the next year, three years or over the next decade.

When we look at sustainability, it seems to be a more female-dominated space. Has that also been your experience?

I think that statement is true. I have heard from GreenBiz, which is one of the largest sustainability conferences in North America, that the number of women in sustainability leadership positions has really grown over the years. In 2020, they ran a survey and concluded that about 58% of sustainability executives in large companies are female.

On a more personal note, this has been my experience over the last eight years working in sustainability, both at EcoAct and at my prior place of work, CDP. I have had the good fortune of working with and alongside and under a lot of highly effective and visionary female leaders. I consider myself lucky, I just get to wake up and go to work with a group of like-minded, driven and compassionate sustainability champions. A couple of weeks ago, I got to connect with three former colleagues and good friends, all of whom are women. We worked briefly together on the same team and really supported each other at a environmental non-profit I was at six years ago. Since then, we  have gone on different professional paths, but all of us are still in the broader sustainability climate space. One of them is managing a corporate climate action program for a very large food and beverage company in the United States. Another is about to start practicing environmental law this fall. Another is directing a program where thousands of companies are making commitments to reduce their emissions. It was really inspiring to hear what they’re up to.

To be honest, I feel like I have taken that for granted, especially now that I am part of the Atos family. I joined in October, 2020 as part of the EcoAct acquisition. I remember pretty vividly stepping into meetings, and in 2020 it was virtual meetings, where it was all men except for myself and it felt different. I think being a woman in technology has its own set of challenges and triumphs. I’m very much looking forward to hearing what my colleagues are saying in the other interviews happening today.

What inspires you the most about your day-to-day work? What excites you?

I would say it’s the people that I work with, especially the women and the diversity of leadership roles that they have. I think when people think about corporate sustainability they tend to have a picture of a separate and specific sustainability department, like corporate and public affairs or marketing and communication etc. These are the departments or historically places in an organization that have better gender representation.

What I have seen though and what I find to be inspiring is the fact that, through the lens of being a consultant, working with different companies in the US and Canada, there is a parallel between the normalization of sustainability issues in corporate strategy and also the growth in female leadership in today’s corporate world. What I mean by that is I think there’s an increasing understanding that sustainability and climate mitigation, shouldn’t just be the responsibility of those who have sustainability in their job titles. To truly transform a business, you have to be climate resilient, which we know is good for the business and for creating long-term shareholder value. That requires every part of the business coming together. I absolutely see that every day in my work, which I find inspiring.

More often these days when I join a project, I not only work with the one champion from the sustainability department, I’m also working with a core group that is made up of leaders from operations, procurement, logistics, and finance. I often say to my clients that sustainability needs to be baked into every part of the business, whether it’s in the engineering department, product formulation or in supply chain managing relationships with thousands of vendors.  I see women smashing that glass ceiling in all of these places. I also think there is an opportunity for women with the sustainability mindset and skill sets to be empowered and to step into even more leadership roles.

Going back to your earlier statement about your transition from a female dominated workforce and environment and coming into a more male dominated environment, how has that experience been for you? And do you have anything else that you would  like to share with those listening to this conversation across the organization and especially maybe our male colleagues?

I mentioned technology, but it’s not just the technology world. Men still dominate the most influential companies in the world. I have talked about female leadership in different parts of the business. And when we look at the C-suite, it still lacks gender parity. I think this is particularly a difficult question to answer. On one hand, we are more than our identities, right? Whether it’s gender, race, or class. I think I would hate to be essentialized as a woman and reduced to that identity, especially at my workplace. On the other hand, I think it’s true and that there still is the reality that on average women are likely to be talked over, to be overlooked and for men to take credit for their ideas at the workplace.

There is no doubt a lot to do in gender balance and gender equality in the workplace. Actions are really needed from everybody, especially men and those with power and privilege. I look at the title of the interview today, “Female leadership in corporate sustainability”. I think it’s really interesting to stop and think that we don’t see events branded with male leadership. I have heard from male colleagues that to them, it’s actually just a single word of leadership. I think  it can be an example of what power and privilege looks like. They probably do not wake up in the morning, look at the mirror and think I am a male leader. While the labelling of female leadership could be empowering, whether in sustainability or in technology or in the corporate world in general, at the same time, it’s not a female issue, right? Gender equality is an issue for all. It’s good for business. It’s good for the labor force.

My personal hope for those who want to be allies in this fight for gender equality is to really examine that place within of power and privilege. It’s not about being the new cavalry. It’s not about having a checklist of actions for when you are in a meeting. It’s not about how to treat women differently. I think it’s coming from a much deeper understanding of power, of privilege and the socialization of men in society and in the corporate world of what it means to be successful and the expense at which it comes.


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