Women Leaders in Sustainability: Catherine Fookes

In this blog series we’re 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.


Catherine Fookes is the Campaign Director for Organic Trade Board’s consumer campaign’s and has over 20 years’ experience in the food and drink arena. Her career started at an advertising agency, then she worked at ActionAid and the Soil Association as a Campaigner before joining Sustain. At Sustain, she was Co-coordinator of the Parliamentary campaign for an Organic Targets Bill. It resulted in an Action Plan for Organic Farming and greater financial support for organic farmers. She is a board member of the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board, advising Welsh Government on how to grow sales of Welsh food and drink by 30% by 2020.

Catherine is passionate about supporting other women in their career development and as a school governor she works hard to further gender equality.


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?)

One of the biggest challenge is making sure your voice is heard and you’re not intimidated by men who often want to do all the talking. There is still a huge amount of sexism in the work place and I’ve come across it in every single job I’ve ever done. From being told I was “part of his harem” by one boss, to having lewd jokes made that you are supposed to laugh off, and being man-handled, me and every other woman in the workplace will have come across this.

How to overcome it? As women, we need to have a strong inner voice telling us all the time that our voices are just as valid as men’s voices. I cannot count the number of meetings I have been in where men talk over women. It’s infuriating.  So, what to do about it?  Never preface your question or comment at a meeting with “I just wanted to say” or “Sorry but…”. You will be ignored. Say what you want, say it directly and succinctly and with clarity. Never apologise for speaking up.

Don’t hang back. Push yourself forward to speak up in meetings and look for opportunities. Don’t wait to be asked, now I’m older I know if I want to be a Chair of a group or speak at a presentation I need to get out there and say I want to do it.  And call out sexism when you see it. It’s not acceptable in today’s work place.


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

If you aren’t a confident speaker go and get training for this as soon as possible. All jobs require public speaking and even talking in a small meeting benefits from really good public speaking skills. The more confident you are at presenting your arguments, the more you will be able to ask for a pay rise or make your voice heard for example.

Find out the mentoring schemes in your sector and apply. I went on the Fabian Women’s Network mentoring scheme and it was brilliant helping you get the tools to get more involved in political and public life, and it has really helped my work too. 

Form networks both within your company or NGO and outside it – invite women you admire who you work with to meet you, invite them out to lunch, ask them for advice and grown your network and sphere of influence.

One of the biggest ways we can have more influence in the sustainability sector is to have more women CEOs. I look around and I see painfully few. I have been lucky enough to have had some inspiring leaders to work for and with:  Vicki Hird and Jeanette Longfield at Sustain, Anna Rosier Ex-MD of Organix and Anna Guyer at Greenhouse for example. So, we need more women in high places as this encourages the rest of us.


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?

The biggest single difference will be in more affordable child care, raising the minimum wage and ensuring that men have paternity rights too. That goes across all sectors as in all sectors women are paid less than men, and there are less women at the top. We need well paid flexible work and job shares at all levels in our companies and charities.

Another important place where things can improve the chances of gender parity is in school. Too many times I have been into schools and seen teachers say to the class – “Boys why are you so noisy, why can’t you sit quietly like the girls.”  The feeling that we should be quiet as women and not have our say starts very young. We need to change this.


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

The Woman’s march was inspiring and motivating and I am encouraged by more of us standing up and saying no to all male panels and boards.


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

I have always been the kind of person who wants to change things for the better, and I have lots of energy to make a difference. Outside of work I am very involved in my community and I am a political campaigner working for women’s equality and social justice. So, I meet amazing, inspiring people all the time. But the biggest thing that keeps me going is my wonderful family and children. I want a better world for them and that’s why I am working in this sector.


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