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Why business needs women to lead on the SDGs

The success of sustainability and gender equity are intertwined.

In recent years, two issues have taken on increasing importance to business: sustainability; and, thanks to the rise of the #MeToo movement, women’s leadership. By looking at the need for business to embrace new leaders to help achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new paper by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission (Business Commission) draws a connection between these two business priorities.

In "Better Leadership, Better World" (PDF), the Business Commission makes a timely case that women should lead on the SDGs — and that women from business are particularly well-qualified and well-positioned to do so. In her foreword, Business Commission director Gail Klintworth describes women’s leadership as a "secret sauce that could propel today’s business into a new era."

The Business Commission uses three arguments to make this case:

1. Women have the six leadership qualities needed to advance progress. The Business Commission identified six leadership competencies that are essential to sustainable business and that also happen to be qualities women tend to embrace: 

  1. long-term thinking
  2. innovation
  3. collaboration
  4. transparency
  5. environmental management
  6. social inclusiveness

I would add a few others to the list: Women build relationships, manage complex systems with multiple moving parts, and, to use a term popularized by the new women’s movement, they  persist until they change minds and company practices. 

2. Women want to address social and environmental challenges. While acknowledging that business needs leaders of all kinds — women and men — to champion sustainability, the Business Commission cites strong evidence that women show a proclivity to act on these issues. According to Korn Ferry, female CEOs are motivated by purpose and want to have a positive impact on their employees, community and the world. Net Impact found that women are more likely to want jobs where they can create an impact. GlobeScan found that women are also more likely to be concerned about global issues ranging from pollution to inequality. 

These data all point to the desire many women have to advance sustainability. As AXA CSO Alice Steenland told the authors of this report, companies looking to advance their sustainable growth strategy should just "put more women in the management community — period."

3. There’s an economic prize in both the SDGs and women’s leadership. The comission's last argument is economic: In earlier research, the Business Commission found that there’s a $12 trillion economic prize for businesses that invest in the SDGs. Likewise, there’s a payoff in women’s leadership: According to McKinsey research, investments in workplace gender equality could add $28 trillion to the global annual GDP by 2025. Why not capture both by investing in women’s leadership for the SDGs?

So, why aren’t more companies investing in women’s leadership for the SDGs?

Five years ago, James Epstein-Reeves and I published a report offering lessons from six "pioneers of sustainability." We compiled the list of pioneers from nominations provided by 35 chief sustainability officers. Of the 42 nominations we received, only five were women: 12 percent. As a result, our report featured six white men, which frustrated a lot of readers, who called us out on the gender imbalance. They were right to do so, and I wrote a follow-up piece digging into the data behind the nominations.

Companies looking to advance their sustainable growth strategy should just put more women in the management community — period.

The Business Commission's paper sheds light on what we learned back in 2013: It’s difficult to overcome the status quo. While the Business Commission makes a compelling case for companies to invest in both women’s leadership and sustainability, doing so means changing "business as usual." The status quo still promotes short-term profits over long-term sustainability and that has yet to value gender-diverse leadership teams. In the BSDC report, Amy Jadesimi, CEO of the Nigerian logistics firm LADOL, put it this way: "We’re in a battle against the status quo, and the status quo is very powerful."

Powerful though the status quo may be, we have only 12 years left to meet the 2030 deadline for the SDGs. As they say in the women’s movement, #TimesUp. We need to get serious about the SDGs, and that means taking a hard look at who’s leading them in business. 

If you’re a decision-maker at your company, it’s time to ask yourself: Does your business value the leadership competencies that can help people advance sustainability? Is there a woman with these traits waiting in the wings with the desire to lead?

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