Women in sustainability: The agents of change are ready, its time businesses were too

At first glance, it would be easy to conclude that there’s never been a better time for women in the CSR, energy and sustainability profession, with female staff accounting for more than half of employees in these spaces globally.

But the fact is that this statistic is accounted for more by stand-alone consultants and low-paid interns than C-suite executives, with women filling just 29% of board-level seats globally. This proportion sinks even further for boards in the sectors best primed to lead the global low-carbon transition, from construction and energy, to transport and tech.

So, how can businesses empower women not only to join their sustainability, energy and CSR departments, but to stay – and flourish – in the long-term?

During a recent interview with the Women in Sustainability Network’s founder and director Rhian Sherrington, I ask that exact question.

Following that discussion and extensive research of my own, here are four things I have discovered and am sharing to mark International Women’s Day 2019.

1) Boardroom buy-in is crucial

Women make up 51% of the global population and 47% of the world’s working population, so you’d assume that boards would want to put their talents to good use by hiring, supporting and promoting them.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. The good news is that sustainability, energy and CSR teams now have access to a wide range of research proving the financial case for not just having women on board, but for creating a working environment where they can thrive.

Research carried out by Chelsea Liu at Adelaide University, for example, concluded that the average corporate could save as much as $3.1m (£2.41m) on the $204m (£158.54m) average environmental lawsuit for every woman it appointed at boardroom level.

And beyond individual researchers, the likes of the United Nations (UN) and the Project Drawdown Coalition have repeatedly concluded that gender equality is key to both environmental protection and economic growth.

Off the back of high-profile movements like #MeToo, this combination of individual case studies and conclusions from global authorities can be used as a secret weapon to coax any board yet to be convinced on gender issues. 

2) Seeing is believing

Because corporate sustainability is a young field – and one which was, until 2016, male-dominated – experts such as Sherrington are increasingly concluding that women in the field tend to lack role models around which to base their careers and foster their confidence.

Such is this absence of mentors and idols that the likes of RenewableUK are beginning to publicly publish lists of female speakers and visionaries, in a bid to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Given that mentorship has been proven as a key to the financial success of companies such as Apple and Daimler, boards are likely to be well aware of its benefits. But fewer people will be aware that 80% of all knowledge is learned informally, making networking and mentoring some of the most effective methods of conveying information and sparking inspiration.

3) Women want to work for purpose-led business

Off the back of politicised corporate communications such as Nike’s advert denouncing police brutality and Gillette’s campaign against toxic masculinity, ‘purpose-led business’ has become something of a buzzword recently.

But recent research has suggested that businesses touting purpose beyond products is likely to be more than a passing phase, as brands strive to gain the trust of (predominantly young or female) consumers and employees.

Beyond attracting women and millennials to your organisation, a thorough examination of its purpose may also bring financial rewards. Case-in-point: Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for a record 70% of turnover growth last year and grew 46% faster than the rest of the business, while British B Corps are growing 28 times faster than the national economic growth of 0.5%.

4) Honesty is the best policy

At edie’s publishing body Faversham House, staff have pledged to approach challenges with “radical candour” – honesty which goes beyond the perceived pressure for everyone to be content with all decisions and situations.

But Sherrington told me that such an approach is yet to be adopted by most of the organisations the meets through the Network, with most failing to simply ask what women want from their workplace and adapt their culture or policies accordingly.

Indeed, several of the press releases I receive and the panel discussions I attend bare titles like “what do women really want?”, as if we are somehow fundamentally different from men, or a concept to be theorised rather than living, breathing people.

According to Sherrington, this approach is likely to persist out of fears of discomfort. But in an age of scandals surrounding alleged sexual harassment at the likes of Arcadia Group and Ted Baker, it is undeniably worth challenging for any organisation wishing to remain relevant.

Comments (1)

  1. Dave Wilkin says:

    Great article! We need more Women Leaders in this world!

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