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How sustainability achieved gender parity and what it means for women in business

Women in business
Mary Long

Our recent report on chief sustainability officers (CSOs) in the U.S. revealed that women went from holding 28 percent in 2011 of the CSO positions to 54 percent in 2021. That’s a 94 percent increase.

It’s a positive development to see the playing field level for women in sustainability, but what’s driving this trend? And what are the implications for women’s leadership in business more broadly? Before diving into those questions, it’s interesting to look at the trends in gender and leadership in sustainability and business. 

The state of women's leadership in sustainability

When it comes to women’s leadership as CSOs, the biggest jump happened between 2013 and 2014, when the number of women went up by 11 percentage points. There was another significant increase between 2018 and 2021, around the time the #MeToo movement gained momentum. In 2020, when more companies than ever hired their first CSO, female CSOs broke the 50 percent mark to reach their current status.

Outside of sustainability, women in business have not advanced as quickly. In the C-suite, men still far outnumber women. According to a Morningstar report looking at data from 2019, women hold only 12.2 percent of named executive officer roles at companies, up just 2.8 percentage points from 2015. The report authors noted that "this reflects a rate of growth that would only deliver equal representation sometime in the second half of this century."

So why are women advancing more quickly in sustainability?

Weinreb chart

The graphic above shows the percentage of sustainability professionals holding their role over the past decade. The first chart is Weinreb Group’s CSO research. The subsequent charts (courtesy of the GreenBiz State of the Profession 2020 report) show the increase in women for vice presidents, directors and managers.

3 reasons women in sustainability are moving up

I can surmise three reasons women are advancing faster in sustainability than they are in business more broadly.

1. There’s a robust pipeline of women vying for these roles. According to the 2020 GreenBiz State of the Profession report, which my firm sponsors, the percentage of women holding any sustainability position has been steadily rising since 2010. Between 2011 and 2020, the percentage of women holding a vice president role grew from 31 percent to 51 percent. The pool of female directors grew by 18 percentage points, from 37 percent to 55 percent. And the percentage of female managers in sustainability roles has gone up the most, from 39 percent to 63 percent. By contrast, the Morningstar authors pointed to the "broken rung" at major corporations, in which "women are systematically passed over being offered their first and crucial career promotion."

Based on the GreenBiz data and my experience as a recruiter, I believe this is not happening in sustainable business roles, where there’s a deep talent pool of women, starting at the manager level and steadily making their way up the ranks.

2. Women excel in these roles. As I have written about before, research suggests that women are well-suited to succeed in sustainability roles. A 2018 Business and Sustainable Development Commission report argued that women have the necessary leadership qualities to take on sustainable development, and they have the desire to address social and environmental challenges.

In my work, I have also found the "feminine" traits such as the ability to collaborate, translate complex issues and demonstrate humility help CSOs succeed. CSOs are not in it for the ego boost; they find it more fulfilling to champion others, praise generously and inspire others to support a vision for the future that benefits all.

3. The path to sustainability leadership is inclusive. Unlike other C-suite positions, there’s no specific set of credentials that CSOs are required to have, so the path to leadership can be more varied. Moreover, sustainability is, by nature, an inclusive field. The job requires engagement with diverse stakeholders, so it makes sense that hiring managers would seek out people with diverse experience and backgrounds. However, while this has led to gender diversity, it has not yet supported racial diversity: Only 16 percent of U.S.-based sustainability professionals today identify as a race other than white.

Is this trend good or bad for women?

I have many anecdotes pointing to executive leadership clarifying their preference for a woman to hold their CSO position. It made me wonder: Is this trend going to create a pathway for female leadership in business? Or are women being pigeonholed in sustainability?

While the Morningstar report authors noted that women in business face a "glass wall" blocking them from career tracks with room for advancement and higher pay, it’s my belief that gender parity in the CSO role is a good thing. With the growing importance of ESG at global companies, the women in the CSO role have great potential to influence the future of business.

Moreover, women have the skills to excel in these roles. Whereas in business generally there’s the "glass cliff" phenomenon — whereby women are promoted into leadership positions during a crisis and then blamed when they fail — my sense is that women’s aptitude with communication, influence and agility will help them succeed in the CSO role.

The rise of women in leadership roles in sustainability gives me hope that the field also can advance racial diversity. Racial diversity still lags, and this is holding our field back from fulfilling its greatest potential: to deliver on the promise of a sustainable, equitable and just future.

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