International Women’s Day: How can sustainable businesses truly promote gender equality?

EXCLUSIVE: Corporate efforts to champion women's rights across supply chains and within communities are not matched by internal actions, with some boards failing to understand the opportunities offered, making gender and inclusion activities feel like a "tick-box exercise".

International Women’s Day: How can sustainable businesses truly promote gender equality?

Around 51% of sustainability professionals globally are women - but is the business community doing enough to support them?

That is according to the Women in Sustainability Network’s founder and director Rhian Sherrington, who regularly meets hundreds of women from across the UK’s CSR, energy and sustainability sectors at events designed to help them forge partnerships and share advice.

Founded as a one-woman effort in 2014 after Sherrington left her in-house sustainability role in the transport sector, the Network now has “hubs” in six of the UK’s largest cities, giving Sherrington a birds-eye view of the issues facing women in all areas of the sustainability sector – from consultancies and communications agencies, to higher education facilities and multinational corporations.

Speaking exclusively to edie for of International Women’s Day (8 March), Sherrington explained that while women now make up more than half (51%) of the global sustainability sphere’s employees, she hears concerns from many of those with whom she has spoke, that they feel frustrated by unsupportive cultures, and that their long term career aspirations are not being fostered.

As a result, she argued, many firms with in-house sustainability teams are losing talent as their female employees leave to either join or set up consultancies.

“Sustainability and gender equality are still being done really badly by so many businesses – boards still haven’t gotten out of seeing them as an ‘add-on’, meaning they will set a strategy without deeply questioning the impact it will have or their internal culture.”

With a lack of firm data on the extent of the issue, a team at Newcastle University is currently undertaking research into the issue, with results due to be released later this year.

Agents of change

So, with numerous studies proving the benefit of fostering women in senior sustainability roles emerging in recent times, why are some corporates so slow to act on the issue?

Several experts have cited the sector’s gender pay gap – which stood at £12,000 in the UK and £8,720 globally in 2017 – as a key factor, with recruitment consultancy Acre dubbing this disparity “a major failing on the part of the sector to put its rhetoric about equality into practice”.

Similarly, the fact that science, technologies, engineering and maths (STEM) remain more broadly studied worldwide by men than women is often referred to as a key reason why there are not more women in the energy management and renewables professions.

According to Sherrington, in-house sustainability teams may be failing to address these trends if they view gender equality as an external problem to be solved across supply chains and communities, rather than something that affects their internal culture. 

Such a supply chain-focused approach has played a key part in placing gender equality higher up the sustainability agenda for firms such as MondelezPrimark and Coca-Cola, and are welcome additions to the renewed focus placed by corporates on the communities they rely on. 

However, Sherrington was quick to point out that while gender inequality is likely to be most prominent in developing nations, and that issues such as a lack of education for women and girls in these areas remain, business-led solutions to these challenges will need to be developed by “diverse” groups in order to guarantee social sustainability.

“Gender equality is part of the sustainability agenda to the point that it has its own Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), so a lot of academic literature and, in turn, a lot of business action, is focused on women as a cause to be helped,” Sherrington said. “What there is less of, is the need to position women as part of the solution to this, and other big challenges – women are benefitting from the change but not leading it.

“We are, I believe, only in some of the global messes we are in because we have failed to foster equality – not just between genders, but between races, classes and cultures. Without a full range of voices being heard, we haven’t been able to truly account for the ways in which the drive for a more sustainable world will impact others. If women don’t have an equal pace in delivering that change, we are going to fail to respond appropriately.”

Despite making up 47% of the world’s working population and 51% of sustainability professionals, women account for just 29% of board-level seats globally. That proportion drops to 13% in the UK tech sector, 7% in the global energy sector and 6.25% in the UK transport sector – all industries primed to lead the low-carbon transition.

An emerging approach 

Although she is yet to see evidence that gender inequality within the global sustainability, CSR and energy professions will be solved in the near future, Sherrington praised a “handful of leaders” for “getting the balance right”. 

Among them are the 2,778 companies to have achieved B Corp status to date – an accreditation which legally requires businesses to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.

A further key requirement is for B Corps to champion gender equality both inside and outside of their business. If they fail to do so, they risk losing their place within the movement. This approach to sustainability seems to be paying off, given that B Corps are growing 28 times faster than the national economic growth of 0.5%. 

A similar approach has been taken by industry body RenewableUK, which helps organisations across the energy sector to hire a greater proportion of women and minority groups through its #TimeToSwitch initiative. The campaign also calls on energy firms to complement their internal action by supporting at least one external campaign which empowers women and girls. 

“If we genuinely value the difference that people can bring and we know how to support that diversity and use it to our advantage – if we really understand our teams, really – we can bring the best out of them far more easily,” Sherrington said. 

“We have to see the big picture and include everyone as we transition to a more sustainable world, ensuring that nobody gets left behind.” 

Sarah George 

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