Sharon Beder

Photo from Sharon's website

Sharon was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1956, the grand-daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who escaped the pre-World War 2 pogroms.  Sharon describes her family as not especially religious, and is not sure that her Jewish upbringing had a great deal of impact on her thinking.

Sharon went to school in Lower Hutt, and then did her first degree in Civil Engineering in Christchurch.  She worked for a year in the Ministry of Works in New Zealand, and then came to Australia.  Sydney was her first port of call on a trip to see the rest of the world, but she decided to stay in NSW and has since lived with her Australian husband in Sydney and Wollongong, and now on the NSW far south coast.

Sharon worked first as an engineer, and then went back to University to do a Masters and PhD.  Having come from an engineering background, with few women, let alone women leaders, I was interested in Sharon’s perspective on women in leadership positions.  She said:

When I was an engineer, people used to say that if women got to top positions, they’d be different from men, but I’m not sure about that.  Women who get to the top usually have to be just as competitive and aggressive as men to get there.  I don’t see much evidence of female executives being different from male executives.

Sharon’s first environmental activism emerged while she was doing her Masters, as a member of the Society for Social Responsibility in Engineering (SSRE), a professional organisation interested in the social impacts of science, technology, and engineering.  Sharon edited the SSRE newsletter, became active in organising conferences, and then became the president – although she says that she wasn’t specifically looking for a leadership position.

Around the same time Sharon became interested in the issue of sewage pollution on Sydney’s beaches and began doing voluntary research for a group called Stop the Ocean Pollution (STOP).   This led to her PhD focus on sewerage treatment.

Most people were interested in STOP because they were surfers or swimmers.  My interest was more intellectual or political.  I was interested in the issue because I hated to see the marine environment being polluted.  I was incensed about the lies and the cover-ups. None of the other environment groups were doing anything about it at the time.

In 1989 Sharon’s research was the source for a series of major newspaper exposés of sewage pollution on Sydney’s beaches and contamination of fish in coastal waters, an issue which made international headlines. It also prompted the government to commission a major independent inquiry which confirmed Sharon’s research findings that extending the ocean outfalls would not solve the pollution problem. Subsequently she was elected chair of the Environmental Engineering Branch of the Institution of Engineers, Sydney.

Following the completion of her PhD Sharon was appointed as environmental education coordinator at the University of Sydney. In this position, the first of its kind at the university, she led a small unit and liased with academics throughout the university to  develop teaching modules, multidisciplinary masters degrees in environmental science and environmental engineering, and continuing education and professional courses, as well as producing environmental education materials for schools and the community.

In 1992 Sharon moved to the University of Wollongong where she continued to undertake environmental research that exposed the inadequacy of government policies and plans, often in areas neglected by environmental groups and other academics. She was an early critic of the government’s sustainable development process and her book, The Nature of Sustainable Development, commissioned by the Earth Foundation, became a major environmental text at several universities, both in Australia and overseas. In the years preceding the 2000 Olympics, Sharon was one of the few to raise concerns about the inadequate treatment of toxic waste at the Olympic site.

Sharon has been a pioneer in her critique of environmental economics, particularly the use of emissions trading and environmental fees and charges, and the role of neoliberal think tanks in their promotion. Her book Global Spin published in 1997 was  one of the first to alert the public and the environmental movement to the use of corporate public relations to oppose the environmental movement and counter environmental measures to deal with problems such as global warming. She is recognised internationally as a leading academic in this field.

Sharon’s efforts to introduce social responsibility and environmental awareness into the engineering profession and engineering education has led to her being awarded the World Technology Award for Ethics in 2001. Her book The New Engineer: Management and Professional Responsibility in a Changing World, has been used as a textbook in engineering courses around Australia and for several years she wrote a monthly column in the national journal of the engineering profession (Engineers Australia—circulation: 58,334) on social responsibility. Sharon was named as one of Australia’s most influential engineers in 2004 by Bulletin Magazine.

Over the last couple of decades Sharon has consistently spoken out publicly on environmental issues and concerns.   For much of that time, she remained at the University of Wollongong, which has been supportive of her critical stance.

 I’ve been in the faculty of arts – rather than a science or engineering faculty – and you’re supposed to be free to be a critical thinker and to challenge the establishment.  It’s difficult for them to criticise you for being outspoken on these issues.  I was also very careful not to defame anyone, and to be very accurate, fully referenced – no one was ever able to criticise me for inaccuracy – everything I said could be justified.

 It’s always good to be able to get an environmental point of view across to a big audience, and to be effective alerting the public to environmental problems.  There were a few wins along the way … .   Being able to refute lies and reveal cover-ups is always satisfying.  And when people give you feedback about books, articles, – when people say it opened their minds …

Over her academic and activist career Sharon has written 10 books and around 150 articles, book chapters and conference papers, many of which are accessible on her web page She has been invited to be a keynote speaker at conferences all over the world and her teaching materials, websites, books and articles, are used by universities in many parts of the world. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Sharon is currently an Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Wolllongong, still supervising PhD students and doing research.  Sharon wanted to focus more on writing and research rather than teaching, and her move to the far south coast has allowed her to focus on writing while living economically in a natural environment.   Being so far from major capitals means that the ability to attract media attention to her research is lower, and she now focuses her outreach onto her web sites.

Sharon’s focus on communicating through writing is probably a response to her own personal preferences.

 I ‘m not always keen on doing media interviews – I’m a shy person When you publish a book, the publisher arranges a whole schedule of publicity – I never looked forward to that. I’m more articulate in writing than speaking, and I’ve always been able to write Plain English.

I asked Sharon why she had not become involved with the more established environment groups.  She responded that she preferred to spend time on writing and research rather than working with major groups, some of which she sees as being too dependent on corporate donations

I’m spending my time trying to expose the way corporations seek to manage and manipulate democracy – I see this corporate activity as the main obstacle to environmental protection.

Rather than being a leader in a large environment organisation, or an environment movement representative,  Sharon sees herself more as a leader in environmental thinking .  Sharon greatly admires the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva –  her writings and her willingness to be openly critical and state the truth as she sees it, without fear.

Sharon’s contribution to environmental thinking through her writing and educating work is different from most of the other interviewees so far.  It demonstrates yet again however, that “leadership” itself, as a concept, is multi-dimensional – and that it can change in nature over time.

Comments welcome.

About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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