Spotlight on Women Leaders in Sustainability: Vicki Hird, Sustain

Ahead of the first London Women in Sustainability networking event on 7 June, 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.

Vicki Hird is an award-winning author, expert, strategist and senior manager working on environment, food and farming issues for over 25 years. As Sustainable Farm Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, Vicki leads on farm policy and related campaigning. Prior to this role, she was Director of Campaigns and Policy at War on Want, Head of Land use, Food and Water Programme for Friends of the Earth, Founder and Policy Director of Sustain, and Director of the SAFE Alliance.

As an expert consultant, she has also worked for RSPB, WSPA, The Sustainable Development Commission, Greenpeace, The Plunkett Foundation and HEAL. She has launched many major campaigns, blogs frequently, publishes on the sustainability of food systems and is author of Perfectly Safe to Eat? (publ. 2000). She has a Masters in Pest Management, is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and is on the Board of Pesticides Action Network, she had also sat on numerous NGO and government advisory groups over the years.


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?)

Over four decades of working as a campaigner I’ve had a fair few but probably one of my biggest challenges was saying no. It probably stems from an ability to multitask and the desire to please. I became head of a small NGO at a relatively early career stage – which was fantastic – but I was responsible for everything – so I ended up sometimes doing everything reasonably well and it takes its toll.  I learnt how to say no more effectively when I had children and learning to not feel guilty is vital. Resigning from a job on principle was empowering – you should not stay in an abusive environment however much you love an organisation.


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

I read a great blog recently on how women should support each other and notice when we are being disadvantaged because of our gender. That means spotting and calling injustice out more. It’s only relatively recently that I acknowledged how much I let happen that I really shouldn’t – such as mansplaining or my ideas being hijacked by a man in a meeting. If you see that happen to a woman you need to hand it right back to her with a “I’m glad you like Jane’s idea John – yes it was great”… and amplify women. There are lots of useful guides out there now – unlike when I started – so you just need to go on and use them. Women ‘failing well’ is probably the next big thing. It is fine and good to fail – one of the most important things as Sustainability is a long term project which needs risk takers – but we’ve probably got some way to go in terms of embracing it and being treated right when we do..


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?

I honestly felt my sector (campaigning NGOs) was pretty good until I began to look deeper a few years ago and discovered that so many women were unhappy about their prospects, recruitment, treatment in meetings, flexible working, and in decision making. I was part of the problem too as a manager. The big campaign prize tends to block out other considerations so in tight spots such as direct protests or big lobby events those who shout loudest get to lead. But we lose in the end if half the workforce is ignored. One action would be to acknowledge this prominently at board level – and so instigate training, safe listening spaces, new meeting etiquette and action plans across all aspects of the organisation to deliver gender parity.


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

That’s a hard question. Some everyday things like women and men refusing to be on all male panels and positive moves by some world leaders to promote feminism are all useful. The Women’s March was fabulous. But women are often the first to get hit (often literally) when things go wrong: poverty, conflict, climate change, etc and with so much instability over the past year celebrating is hard. I would have to go broader and say the push by more and more campaigns and movements for intersectionality (e.g climate movement at anti-racism demos) – the efforts to join issues together showing common cause – has been brilliant and should include gender equality.


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

Activists and people in the movement who I meet (not often enough) are the best way to both ground you, remind you of why you are doing this but also inspire.  I’ve also learned more from much younger women recently – they’ve grown up with a different gender environment – less everyday sexism than I – though there are big challenges I know with sexualisation and so on. I find Caitlin Moran keeps me thinking on these issues. Now, any chance I get to work with the younger generation, I try though inevitably have too little time.



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