When I read a recent report saying that women are more likely than men to be appointed head of sustainability, frankly, I wasn’t that surprised1.
Having worked in environmental, social and governance (ESG)-related roles for many years, I’ve observed first-hand how women are drawn to this area and excel at it.
Why is this the case, when, across corporate life, women still lag behind men in terms of rising through the ranks?
I think it’s because diversity is at the heart of ESG. It requires thinking about business value through a wider lens, looking beyond traditional notions of profit.
As a woman who has spent my career in fairly male-dominated areas in academia and business, I tend to bristle at many of the female stereotypes. That said, I do think women tend to view things in a more diverse way, often having to juggle multiple roles of provider, care-giver as a parent and/or as a child, and household manager.
ESG is about balancing conflicting goals, empathy, caring for others and the world – all unashamedly, one might even say clichéd, “feminine” characteristics that are swiftly gaining traction as companies everywhere strive to create a sustainable future. Perhaps “you think like a girl” will become the next “you throw like a boy” compliment.
ESG can forge a path to gender equality in the workplace
As ESG becomes central to how we do business and assess value, it will also continue the push for diversity.
In the KPMG 2021 CEO Outlook survey of 1325 CEOs from around the world, over half (56 percent) admitted that their organization may struggle to cope with fast-rising public, investor and government expectations of inclusion, diversity, and equity.7
In my view, the diverse qualities that have seen women advance in ESG roles will become more and more important to generating long-term sustainable business value based upon financial and non-financial goals.
I believe an ESG-focused company can offer genuine work-life balance, with flexible hours, career breaks, childcare/elder-care assistance and extended leave, and equal pay, helping to attract and retain talent and bridge the gap between junior and senior management. I quite deliberately say “talent” rather than “female talent”. There’s a generational shift occurring – we all feel it. Younger women and men value and overtly seek what an ESG-focused company can offer, because ESG isn’t just diverse; it’s also inclusive.
Building on success
Of course, women aren’t just rising in the ESG ranks. We are seeing improvements in female representation at the highest corporate levels.
Women now hold at least 30 percent of seats on a majority of S&P 500 boards2, and one-third of directors in the FTSE 350 are now women3. We haven’t reached 50 percent yet, but it’s a vast improvement.
While this represents real progress, let’s not forget that, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 20214, it will take another 100 years to achieve gender equality. 100 years! We simply need to do better.
On top of this, COVID-19 has pushed back hard-won advances, disproportionately impacting women, who were more likely to lose their jobs5, and continued to take on the majority of household chores, elder-care and child-care even when both parents were working from home5.
Overcoming mid-career dilemmas
The progress made for women on boards should not distract us from the need to improve representation at junior and middle management levels. Across the developed world, women hold just 30 percent of junior management and 29 percent of senior management positions – with the figures even lower in emerging markets6.
For many women, the strain of balancing work and home life is a significant contributor, with some either taking a slower career track or opting out of the workforce entirely. This is a huge loss of talent and we must help companies find a way to retain these incredible women.
As the notion of purposeful value spreads through organizations, and the “profit above everything” ethos diminishes, diversity of thought becomes a bigger competitive differentiator. Women are already making strides as ESG leaders, and will become increasingly influential in strategy and operations, as companies integrate sustainability and diversity to align their values with customers, employees and investors.
I believe my many female ESG peers will in time be recognized as visionaries who blazed a trail, not just for women at work, but for stakeholder capitalism in general, ushering in a new approach to business that generates value for companies and society as a whole.
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1 “Sustainability leadership – women lead the way”, Credit Suisse, 28.09.2021
2 “Women’s Gains Push Majority of S&P 500 Boards Into the 30% Club”, Bloomberg, August 2021.
3 “Number of FTSE 100 female directors rises by 50% in five years”, The Guardian, February 2021.
4 “Global Gender Gap Report 2021”, World Economic Forum, March 2021.
5 “Don’t Let the Pandemic Set Back Gender Equality”, Harvard Business Review, September 2020.
6 “Gender equality in the workplace: going beyond women on the board”, S&P Global 500, February 2021.