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The sustainability sector has to get better at taking its own advice.

Many professionals in the field spend their days working to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but it turns out the sector has a long way to go before it can hold up its own record as a shining example.

A new non-profit called Diversity in Sustainability has published the findings of an extensive survey of practitioners in Canada, Britain and the United States, and the report shows that jobs in the field are disproportionately held by society’s privileged – people who can afford postsecondary educations and can get by early in their careers on low pay or unpaid internships.

From 1,500 responses and 30 in-depth interviews, the researchers found that three-quarters of respondents had middle-class upbringings, 90 per cent had at least bachelor’s degrees and 62 per cent had graduate degrees.

The education numbers aren’t surprising, given the scientific, financial and legal rigour that careers focusing on environmental, social and governance issues demand. But they do highlight the barriers to entry facing people whose communities are most affected by the very issues sustainability pros deal with – things such as air pollution and a lack of clean water. Those communities often comprise racialized people.

In addition, jobs tend to be located in major financial centres such as Toronto, New York and London, which makes affordability a hurdle for some.

“This is a very elite and privileged sector,” said Heather Mak, a sustainability consultant who co-founded Diversity in Sustainability last year. “It’s not an easy sector to get into if you come from a materially poor or a working-class background.”

This is true of many professions, she said, but sustainability should be held to a higher standard, given the real-world problems its professionals deal with day in and day out. Only half the respondents said they believed their organizations put their words into action when it came to equity, diversity and inclusion.

Sustainability encompasses a wide array of disciplines, including science and technology, engineering, accounting, law, investment banking and communications. The results of the survey tended to hold true across all those types of jobs, said Ms. Mak, who focuses on food and consumer goods in her own sustainability consulting practice.

“We did notice some differences in terms of gender in some of the fields. When you look at sustainability from a STEM perspective, there seem to be more males in that sector,” she said. “In philanthropy, we found it to be more female. But in terms of race and ethnicity, the results were quite similar across the board.”

Ms. Mak is one of four professionals who started Diversity in Sustainability last year after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the United States, which exposed gaping inequities in society. She and her co-founders – Marie Jurcevic, Michael Harvey and Rida Bilgrami – also saw how racialized communities were often most harmed by the health and economic effects of COVID-19.

In their own careers, they say they have often been the only racialized people at their organizations and that their management teams often did not reflect the diversity of the communities where they worked.

The survey found that 63 per cent of respondents identified as white or Caucasian and 35 per cent as people of colour. Just 27 per cent considered their leadership teams diverse.

One set of positive statistics involved gender: 65 per cent of the respondents were women, 31 per cent were men, and 2 per cent identified as non-binary or third gender.

To make the field more equitable, Ms. Mak suggests following the advice professionals in the field give to clients or executives within their own large organizations. That means offering more flexible work arrangements to support prospective employees in caregiving situations and paying living wages for entry-level roles and internships.

She also says it is important to go beyond the typical networks that organizations fall back on for their hiring.

“As with other industries, we tend to go toward people and organizations who are familiar to us. We know them, we know what they’re capable of. But sometimes when we take a chance on people we don’t know, whether it’s new suppliers or speakers or employees, it really can benefit organizations.”

Jeffrey Jones writes about sustainable finance and the ESG sector for The Globe and Mail. E-mail him at

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