A woman's place is everywhere in the green economy

Imagine: You've been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. You've been elected to Parliament. You've run the environment Ministry for a whole country. You've been a Cabinet member. You own a successful business, including the building from which it operates. You have an impeccable financial record.

Then imagine: You go to ask for a loan for a larger building to support your expanding energy and environmental consulting practice, and the bank clerk asks you to bring in your husband -- to sign the loan papers.

"No mature man with a successful business and a track record with the bank walks in and hears the desk officer say 'you must bring your wife in to sign, or you can't get a loan,'" explains H. Elizabeth (Liz) Thompson, now U.N. Assistant Secretary General and co-Executive Coordinator for the June Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

Her personal experience at the bank in her native Barbados, where she was the first graduate of the University of the West Indies to be appointed to the Cabinet and served as an elected Parliamentarian for 14 years, 12 of them as Minister of Environment, is among the many graphic indignities women face that have made Thompson an ardent supporter of women's development, access to jobs and investment in the 'green economy' that is a central theme and objective of the upcoming international meetings in Rio.

Recruited by the U.N. in 2010, Ms. Thompson's role "is to support the objectives and themes of the conference, build consensus around the objectives and themes, work with stakeholders at the political level, as well as non-state actors internationally, including the NGO community, business leaders and multilateral development world," she explains.

As if that weren't enough, she and a miniscule staff also support the negotiations and the U.N. Millennium goals and process, providing strategic messaging and producing papers and articles for U.N. agencies like U.N.EP and U.N.CTAD, as the Summit approaches.

A big role for big business

Thompson's vision for the Rio summit outcomes includes a bigger role for business in sustainability -- and a better role for women.

"We need the business community to embrace the principles of sustainable development as part of their operating ethic, so that they're more conscious of supply chain and procurement issues and policies such as employing and promoting women fairly," she says. "Companies need to be sensitive to their own practices toward women and their own environmental practices."

But hasn't business advanced in that direction since the U.N.'s first Rio conference 20 years ago? "It's a change that still needs to take place, a conversation that must be widened," Thompson says. "Not all businesses have done it, just as all governments haven't done so."

Expanding government's part at Rio+20

Which gets to another of Thompson's pet peeves: "Sustainability issues are mostly handled by environment ministers, who aren't the most influential in making critical policy and budget decisions." Just as many in the business community are urging CFOs and others in the C-suite to join the sustainability conversation, Thompson says: "We also need finance ministers," among others.

Next page: Green Economy: Women's Strengths and Weaknesses