Innovation, technology, and blended financing are three necessary ingredients for today’s successful markets. A fourth element provides even stronger benefit for companies: women leaders in key organizational positions. The economy, environment, and society as a whole benefit when more women lead in business.
That’s the driving theme of a March 2018 report, Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals. When women leaders make key decisions, economic milestones follow, the report’s authors find, and so do important global goals — working to eliminate hunger, poverty, and inequality as well as to effectively tackle climate change and resource degradation.
Calling gender-balanced leadership a “massive economic prize,” the report from Women Rising 2030 was written in honor of Women’s History Month. It outlines how sustainable business models can unlock more than $12 trillion in new global market value and create up to 380 million jobs by 2030.
The key finding of the report is that boards with gender balance tend to prioritize environmental issues and are likely to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products, and energy efficiency.
Why Women Leaders Are So Important for Sustainable Global Business
Setting the world on a more sustainable path takes women who are ready to rethink the current directions of global business by recognizing the power they have to effect change through their roles in business. Companies can drive sustainability agendas by ensuring meaningful opportunities for diverse leadership and establishing gender equality at every link in the value chain, say the report’s authors.
Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals illuminates and extends recommendations within the UN Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) and Better World, Better Business. Highlighting another critical yet largely untapped resource, women leaders, the Women Rising 2030 report correlates economic success through examining and reconceptualizing the Global Goals.
The UN Global Goal 5 — gender equality — aims to empower women and fight discrimination. Indeed, this is a noble goal and one worth pursuing, but it may also be interpreted by some people as positioning women as beneficiaries of the goals, rather than as individuals whose leadership is required to achieve them.
Since the US presidential upset in 2016, much activism has surrounded gender equality in the workplace. Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals points out that gender equality benefits communities, business, governing, and society as a whole when women have an equal voice. Today, more than 73% of companies have at least one female director, but only 20% of boards include at least three women.
Numerous studies suggest that valuing and prioritizing gender diversity in leadership benefits companies in multiple areas and improves their market share, return on investment, and culture. Gender-balanced leadership teams are highly motivated to make a positive impact on the world. A Credit Suisse Research Institute report found that companies where women made up at least 15% of senior managers had 18% higher profitability, and companies with a woman as CEO experienced 19% higher profitability.
To achieve the Global Goals by 2030, all leaders in the private sector, “from senior executives and board members to managers and investors,” must accept responsibility to denormalize a patriarchal culture, value and embed women’s leadership skills, and seize change to unlock sustainable business opportunities at speed and scale.
How Women Leaders Can Make a Difference
“Women’s leadership is a sort of ‘secret sauce’ that could propel today’s business into a new era.” –Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals
The report outlines how new forms of leadership must include women business leaders, as they are more likely to pursue social and environmental sustainability as a means of growing long-term market share and shareholder value. Because this is a different way of growing a business, it requires a different kind of leadership. That’s where women leaders come in.
- A UC Berkeley Haas Business School report titled “Women Create a Sustainable Future” determined that businesses with more women in high level management positions, particularly on directorial boards, are better able to shift from maximising short-term profit to focusing on longer-term growth goals. Partially, that’s because women leaders, and women generally, are highly motivated to make a positive impact on the world through their work.
- According to a 2017 study by Calvert Impact Capital’s Women Investing in Women Initiative, women are more likely than men to invest in something that has a sustainable impact.
- A study titled, “When Women Lead: Women’s Environmental Voting Records in Congress: An Update, 2006–2015, 2017” found that women in the US House of Representatives consistently outvoted their male colleagues on environmental protection.
These are just a few of the hundreds of studies that the authors of Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals accumulated. The world that is necessary to reduce carbon emissions cannot only be desired, it must be constantly fought for amidst significant obstacles.
If a fairer, inclusive, and sustainable world for all is to be achieved, businesses need to change their discourse around what leadership looks like. When companies consistently highlight the positive impacts of gender-balanced leadership, downward patterns like an “echo chamber” can be reworked. Business needs to have more open dialogue with both men and women to challenge the status quo, the report indicates, and companies need to foreground these conversations at every level. Then meaningful change can happen.
Questions about Costs of Current Global Economy Approaches
“Business leaders need to strike out in new directions to embrace more sustainable and inclusive economic models.” – Better Business, Better World
In January 2017, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission presented its flagship report, Better Business, Better World, contributing to the changing narrative around the private sector and sustainable development. Despite successes of the last 30 years, the current global model of development is deeply flawed, say the report’s authors. Setting business strategy and transforming markets in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals would create a world that is comprehensively sustainable, socially fair, environmentally secure, economically prosperous,inclusive, and more predictable.
As a viable model for long-term growth, the Global Goals offer a pathway for businesses to move together through six leadership competencies critical to successfully developing business opportunities. Research highlighted in the report underscores how women in business can play a critical role in deploying these six competencies within more gender-balanced leadership teams.
- Long-term thinking: A growing body of evidence suggests that companies with a long term environmental, social, and governance approach – an overall strategic focus on sustainability – tend to perform better financially than those that don’t.
- Innovation: Progressive leaders need to adopt new technologies and mind maps to succeed in fast-growing markets that are working to solve the most pressing issues across the world.
- Collaboration: Forward-looking business leaders map their collective routes to a sustainable, competitive future by identifying the tipping points; prioritising the key technology and policy levers; developing new skill profiles and jobs; quantifying new financing requirements; and laying out the elements of an equitable transition.
- Transparency: Business leaders who are dedicated to a sustainable world disclose their company’s tax information, report their company’s impact on the environment and on society; have regard for human rights; encourage policies that strengthen public governance; tackle corruption, and disclose the policies or decisions they are advocating for and to whom.
- Environmental management: Forward-looking leaders encourage the development and diffusion of low-carbon, resilient, and environmentally sustainable business models; shadow price the resources they use at their real environmental cost; prepare themselves for continued financial viability when businesses must pay for resources at their true price: use renewable energy and water and circular business models to reduce their demand for natural capital; and publicly advocate for ambitious climate and environmental policy.
- Social inclusiveness: Business leaders ensure their workers receive decent work and fair wages; consider the welfare of their employees when difficult business conditions arise; develop services and other innovations that improve the lives of all; and model gender equality internally and through their products and services.
Prevailing company cultures and unconscious bias in particular are factors that can block women’s access to higher leadership roles. State Street Global Advisors researched gender diversity on boards at companies in Australia, the UK, and the US. The study found that most companies believe the lack of gender diversity at the board level is due to a lack of eligible female candidates. These companies required candidates to have CEO experience and also show an “excessive reliance on existing director networks and connections,” to which women are less likely to have access. MSCI’s analysis of men and women directors serving on the boards of MSCI World Index companies also showed women had less experience in C-suite roles, although they had more leadership experience at the executive vice president and senior vice president levels than their male counterparts.
The reliance on networks dominated by men and eligibility requirements that women struggle to fulfil for historical reasons are forms of unconscious bias. A World Economic Forum survey of chief human resources officers and senior talent and strategy executives from more than 300 global employers revealed unconscious bias to be one of the biggest barriers to gender parity in the workplace. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, a significant body of research has uncovered “subtle gender biases in organizations and society that prevent women from becoming a leader.”
Acknowledging the need for women leaders across all levels of business will take a mindset shift about what a sustainable future needs to look like and how businesses can adopt new mindsets to get there. When current boards position themselves critically to analyze cultural expectations of leadership groups, they can accelerate the impact and influence of women’s discourse.
Note: The Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals report team comprised Gina Campbell, Eva Dienel, Melinda George Deleuze, Gail Klintworth, Andrea Learned, Clare Oh, and Jeremy Oppenheim.