Women’s role in sustainability leadership

By Sophie Davies
Posted on March 30th 2022
Diversity & Inclusion Economic

The incorporation of sustainability as a fundamental business element has quickly become a determinant of success for companies; it has been given board-level priority, and so too has the role of a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). In 2020, the number of CSOs across Fortune 500 companies had increased by more than 228% from 2011. It is believed that the mounting importance of a CSO role will act as a springboard for women to access the board room (Austin, 2022).

However, at national and international levels, women continue to face glass ceilings that prevent them from reaching the most senior sustainability leadership positions. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, less than 25% of all influential leadership positions were held by women. In conjunction, the team representing Britain at the Conference was predominantly male and while there is no doubt that the team consisted of highly experienced leaders, for a summit that was promoted by the UK Government as “committed to championing diversity and inclusivity throughout”, the country did not exhibit it (Harvey, 2020). The absence of women from key influencing and negotiation positions at COP26 shone a light on the lack of female perspectives and persistent gender inequality in climate action.

Several articles and reports have been released in response to COP26. For example, the Women In Sustainability (WINS) network partnered with Newcastle University to research the key challenges facing women in sustainability and what women bring to climate action (WINS, 2020). They highlight a clear relationship between women’s leadership and pro-environmental outcomes. Research has shown that countries with higher proportions of women in Parliament are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties and put in place more stringent climate change policies.

The evidence shows that women play a fundamental role in sustainability leadership. The WINS research determines that women bring a ‘collaborative’, ‘empathetic’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘holistic’ approach to sustainability leadership. They argue that these attributes are reasons why women are often better suited for roles like CSO, and other sustainability leadership positions.

However, one could argue that viewing any gender as the better leader is problematic, especially for sustainability.

Why? While gender socialisation may equip women with competencies required for collaborative and holistic problem solving, it can also hinder mens’ ability to develop the same skills. The economy and wider society need leaders with the necessary skills and capabilities, regardless of gender. This is especially the case when facing a global challenge like climate change.

At the foundation of classically stereotyped feminine leadership roles are qualities such as ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’. Cameron and Tainio (2019) argue that these types of learned attributes should not be labelled ‘feminine’ as they can be acquired by both men and women. In line with this, these socially constructed stereotypes can potentially make men and women think they are not suited for certain job roles based on their gender, when in fact they may be the best-qualified person for the role.

Gender stereotypes are learned at a very young age – research has shown that many children develop rudimentary stereotypes by two years old. Children learn what constitutes stereotypical female and male behaviour in everyday life – from their family and friends, the media and institutions including schools and religious bodies (IoP, 2018).

In summary, it is promising to see the rise of women CSOs, but a lot more progress still needs to be made. It is essential that we steer away from using gender-stereotypical language on the leadership capabilities of women in senior positions, preventing discrimination and unconscious bias against any individual, irrelevant of gender, who takes on such roles.

At FuturePlus, we are a majority female team, with a female co-founder. We are often troubled by the lack of gender parity in all levels of sustainability leadership, and it is great to see that this issue has gained traction, notably after COP26. With this growing attention, raising awareness of how women in sustainability are framed is important. Women’s successes in this arena should be celebrated, where individual capabilities are acknowledged, and stereotypical ‘female’ traits are retired.