Women at the top is better for business and the environment

by Shannon Houde

This article was written by Oliver Balch for The Guardian and features Shannon Houde.

Female leadership is characterised by vision and the ability to convey it to others, research shows, but senior sustainability jobs are more likely to held by men.

In the pale, male corridors of corporate power, Indra Nooyi represents a rare exception. She’s a woman, sure. But she’s also won praise for her long-term strategic vision, highlighted most clearly by her pledge to make PepsiCo’s product line more nutritious.


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For a manufacturer of fizzy drinks and crisps, that’s a big deal. Although no huge product overhaul has happened yet, investors are still jittery. “Wall Street beat her up and said she had to focus on quarterly returns,” says Kellie McElhaney, a professor at Haas School of Business’s Centre for Responsible Business. “But she’s stayed true to her vision.”

Vision, and the ability to convey it convincingly to others, are two core attributes that McElhaney ascribes to female leadership, and ones that differ from male traits of goal-driven short-termism.

They also help explain why, according to McElhaney’s research (pdf), companies with higher female representation on their boards tend to give higher priority to environmental and social issues. The more gender-balanced an executive team, the more likely the company is to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products and energy efficiency, her study of more than 1,500 global corporations revealed.

The findings reflect another more recent study by Credit Suisse (pdf) which shows the positive correlation between female leadership and financial performance. Between 2005 and 2013, firms with more than one woman on the board returned a compound of 3.7% a year over those with no women. Despite that, fewer than one in seven (12.9%) of those in top female management globally are female, the Credit Suisse report finds.

Sustainability’s unsustainable secret

Ostensibly, the sustainability profession fares better. A recent global survey finds little variance between the number of men (53%) and women (47%) in corporate responsibility roles.

Dig deeper, however, and the tell-tale divisions quickly become clear. Men are far more likely to head up sustainability functions (63% v 37%). Their take-home pay is likely to be higher, too (£67,859 for men v £52,201 for women).

Andrew Cartland, director of the sustainability recruitment firm Acre, which co-published the survey, says: “To think that this [sustainability] should be streaks ahead of the economy because it’s all about ethics is probably not going to happen because it’s part of the broader economy.”

Shannon Houde, founder of the career advisory firm Walk of Life Consulting, concurs. Lack of gender balance is not “a sustainability-only problem”, she insists. “It’s a business problem that we have with lack of diversity at the top.”

Reasons vary across countries and industries. But three common hurdles crop up all the time: cultural assumptions (“she’ll leave as soon as she has children”), workplace biases (promotion through male self-promotion, for instance) and policy impediments (such as minimal paternity leave).

If we’re to see more women in more senior sustainability roles, it will require policy responses for each specific area, experts say. More flexi-time options and family-friendly norms are two obvious measures for employers. Gender-balanced parental leave and tougher rules on wage discrimination should be top of legislators’ lists, meanwhile.

Quotas could be another answer. Countries such as Norway, Spain, Belgium and France have experimented with mandating targets for female board participation. Others, such as Finland and Australia, have implemented gender disclosure requirements. Evidence to support such an approach remains patchy, however, with fears that quotas encourage tokenism.

What is evident is that it’s not a supply problem. MBA graduates are emerging with “similar skill sets and similar job profiles”, the Credit Suisse report states. Yet, in Europe, women receive €4,255 (£3,082) on average less than men in their first job – and €36,304 less after five years.

In the sustainability field, this discrepancy might partly be explained by function. Women tend to predominate in communication and marketing roles, which tend to pay less regardless of gender. Men, in contrast, graduate towards better-paid technical, engineering-based jobs.

Getting ahead

The increasing tendency to recruit corporate sustainability leaders from within is also worth noting. As such, only wearing “just a sustainability hat” doesn’t cut it, according to Houde. Her advice to sustainability jobseekers is to first hone their commercial skills and gain business experience, “then you can layer on top of that the sustainability challenges for that business or sector”.

For inspiration, those in the fight for gender equality might look to sustainably-certified businesses. One in three (34%) of the board members of B-Corps, a network of nearly 1,250 progressive firms of various sizes, are women. Two in three US B-Corps, meanwhile, provide paid parental leave – five times more than the average for the US workforce.

“Diversity of any kind, not just gender diversity, in an organisation leads to better outcomes because there are more diverse inputs and more voices,” says Kim Coupounas, Colorado-based director of B Lab, the entity behind the B-Corp network.

The business benefits of gender-fair policies are reinforcing as well, she adds: “If you build a company that creates an environment that is supportive of making good lifestyles choices … then it’s a magnet to employees.”

In Colorado alone, Coupounas can list a variety of exemplary employers for women: New Belgium BrewingBhakti Chai and Teatulia, to name just a few. At the top of the corporate tree, in contrast, McElhaney is struggling to identify other Indra Nooyi equivalents. Female chief executives of large firms habitually keep their feminine instincts under wraps, she concludes. Why? Simple: “Because they have historically been rewarded for behaving like men.”

This article was written by Oliver Balch for The Guardian.


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