Spotlight on Women Leaders in Sustainability: Sally Uren

In this blog series we will be interviewing inspiring women leading the way in the sustainability sector to hear how they are creating positive change for a sustainable future, and what inspires them to do so.


Sally is Chief Executive at Forum for the Future with overall responsibility for delivering Forum’s mission to accelerate a big shift towards a sustainable future by catalysing transformational change in global systems. This involves working with leading global organisations, including businesses such as Unilever and Kingfisher, and Foundations, such as the C&A Foundation, both in one to one partnerships, and also as part of multi-stakeholder collaborations designed to address complex challenges in systems as diverse as food, energy, apparel and shipping.

Sally completed a post doctorate research fellowship funded by DfID (then the ODA) in optimal nutrient regimes for encouraging the regeneration of logged rainforest in Borneo. She also completed a PhD at Imperial College on the impacts of nitrogenous deposition on semi-natural ecosystems.



1.     What the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome to get you where you are today? (what tips can you share from that experience?)

Believing that I could make a difference, which meant that I carried on, and didn’t give up.  There are multiple barriers to shifting mindsets such that sustainability is taken seriously, in the 1990s when I started to advocate for sustainability, one of these was definitely being a woman.  Just imagine, a bright 20 something in front of an entire male audience, average age of 40, all from the construction sector, advising that these men should really and truly get on and abide by an environmental code for a construction site. The temptation to run away and hide was high. I’ve been shouted at, threatened, undermined and sometimes ridiculed, but that belief that what I am trying to do (along with countless others) is important, keeps me going.


2.     How can women have more influence in the workplace? (and why is that important?)

Don’t think you’re any different, because you’re not. Your values, your beliefs, they are as valid as the next person.  Don’t apologise for having to go and pick up a child from nursery, that too is part of who you are. Don’t expect to be treated differently, this usually means you won’t be.


3.  We know gender parity is essential for creating the positive, sustainable world we’re all working for (SDG 5). What action(s) do you think would make the biggest difference here in your sector?

Funnily enough, compared to other sectors, representation of women in the sustainability sector is not too bad.  I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but certainly this sector encourages high levels of emotional intelligence, and the ability to hold complex problems.

When it comes to delivering SDG5, then we could make the biggest difference by ensuring all the multiple economic empowerment programmes for women in developing countries succeed.  Economic empowerment for women and girls is the single most important thing that needs to happen.


3.     What successes have you witnessed over the past year that we should all be celebrating?

Sustainability moving from the edges of business to the Boardroom. Businesses with P&Ls the size of small countries understanding that they need to collaborate, and now working together on critical issues from human rights to deforestation. There are women in serious leadership positions in the sustainability world.  That we didn’t give up.


4.     When it feels the world is going crazy, what keeps your vision and passion alive?

I take myself back to the rainforests of Borneo, where as a young scientist I was trying to figure out optimal doses of nitrogen to catalyse the regeneration of logged over forests.  I would sit in the heart of the forest with my test tubes, listening to the cacophony of birds, insects and mammals.  The sunlight would form prisms of light through the dark canopy.  This is a habitat we must protect.  Ultimately everything I do is about ensuring the best of what we have now is sustained, and even better, nurtured.



Follow more conversation around women in sustainability on social media with @sustwomen and #WINSnetwork.