On International Women's Day, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission's Gail Klintworth argues that SDG 5 on gender equality is just the start. Female leadership is crucial to meeting all 17

In January 2017 the Business and Sustainable Development Commission presented its flagship report, Better Business, Better World, contributing to the changing narrative around the private sector and sustainable development. The report set out a compelling financial incentive for companies to align their strategies with the Global Goals for Sustainable Development – 17 objectives that aim to end hunger, poverty, and inequality, and to effectively tackle climate change and resource degradation.

The Business Commission provided evidence that sustainable business strategies could unlock more than US$12trn per year and up to 380 million jobs by 2030, demonstrating why the goals are truly the greatest economic opportunity of our lifetime. Better Business, Better World identified several critical drivers for accelerating progress towards the Global Goals – among them innovation and technology, blended finance, enabling policies, and enlightened private sector leadership.

Our report,  Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals, published this week in advance of International Women's Day, highlights another critical yet largely untapped resource: women leaders, who can help unleash a massive economic prize for companies that align their strategies with these objectives. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, women’s equality in the workplace will add as much as US$28 trillion to global annual gross domestic product by 2025.

The release of Better Leadership, Better World coincides with a critical inflection point on gender equality in society and, more specifically, in the workplace. The discussion around women’s rights and equality has intensified in many parts of the world due to movements initiated by women who have found their voice, and by the men who support them.

Women’s leadership is a sort of ‘secret sauce’ that could propel today’s business into a new era

These movements are not just about how gender equality benefits women as individuals. They’re also concerned with how all of society benefits when women have equal representation at the table of power – within their communities as well as in business and government – to lead and strive for the world we want.

Achieving gender equality is also an important focus of the Global Goals, although much of that dialogue to date has focused primarily on Goal 5 (gender equality), which aims to empower women and fight discrimination.

Shami Nissan, head of responsible investment at Actis, visits wind farms in Central America. Photo credit: © Preyavart Gadhavi

It may be an unintended consequence, but this limited discussion risks positioning women as beneficiaries of the goals, rather than as individuals whose leadership is required to achieve them. This report intends to bridge that gap in the conversation. Its findings show that when more women are in corporate decision-making positions, their companies benefit – as do society and the environment.

For example, one study of more than 1,500 global corporations found that compared to companies with less gender-balanced boards, those with more women board members offer more goods and services to communities with limited or no access to financial products. Those organisations also tend to prioritise environmental issues and are likely to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products, and energy efficiency.

Imagine what we could achieve if women who lead companies today championed the Global Goals and aligned their business strategies with them?

To highlight a strong public-sector example, a recent study found that women in the United States House of Representatives consistently outvoted their male colleagues on environmental protection every year from 2006 until 2015. This report shows that having more women in leadership could set the world on a more sustainable path. Women can take the first step by recognising the power they have to effect change through their roles in business. We also call on companies to drive forward their sustainability agendas by ensuring meaningful opportunities for diverse leadership and establishing gender equality at every link in the value chain.

There are some promising signs that the winds are starting to shift. In January of this year, the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, sent a letter to Russell 1000 companies with fewer than two women directors – an estimated 367 companies. The letter asked these companies to justify how the lack of gender diversity on their boards aligned with their long-term strategies and to report on their efforts to address this gender imbalance.

Women’s leadership is a sort of ‘secret sauce’ that could propel today’s business into a new era – an era that champions a long-term perspective and places profit on equal footing with positive social and environment impacts.

Christiana Figueres: 'We have to startle people out of the default'. (Credit UN Climate Change/Flickr)

Having worked in business for more than 30 years, I have been fortunate to engage with women business leaders across the globe – from an entrepreneur driving sustainable agriculture in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, to women helping communities create vital income-generation opportunities in Indonesia, to CEOs of multinational corporations and CFOs of the largest financial institutions in the world. These women grasp the importance of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and many of them deeply understand that business, communities and the environment are inextricably linked.

More recently, I have been privileged to engage with even more women who are striving to achieve the Global Goals, not least my remarkable female colleagues who have served as Commissioners for the Business and Sustainable Development Commission. I find myself asking: “Imagine what we could achieve if women who lead companies today championed the Global Goals and aligned their business strategies with them?”

Christiana Figueres has made it her personal priority to challenge the status quo that inhibits women from leading for the world we want

If society allowed women to speak their truth more comfortably and to take that space in the business world, amazing things could happen. This report may make some people uncomfortable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Christiana Figueres, the leading negotiator for the 2015 Climate Paris Agreement, has made it her personal priority to challenge the status quo that inhibits women from leading for the world we want, including in the fight against climate change.

In an interview with Scientific American, Figueres said: “I was recently at an event that was 28 men and me. I used my keynote – as I often do – to point out how this is just not acceptable. I go, ‘Good morning, everyone. What’s wrong with this room?’ And then I’m silent and let them figure it out. Very often they don’t even know what the heck I’m talking about. But I think we have to call it out constantly. Because otherwise we don’t startle people out of the default. Making people feel uncomfortable is the only way things are going to change.”

UN Global Compact'CEO Lise Kingo is a leader on the Global Goals. Credit: UN Global Compact/Flickr

We are not suggesting that only women can lead in pursuing the Global Goals, but we do believe they are an important driver of positive change. To achieve the goals by 2030, we need all leaders in the private sector – from senior executives and board members to managers and investors – to value and embed the leadership skills that will unlock these sustainable business opportunities at speed and scale.

We can’t sit back and wait for the world we want – one that is fairer, inclusive and sustainable for all. The responsibility rests on the shoulders of everyone who has an opportunity to influence the world’s trajectory. Women’s voices must be heard, and we need men to champion gender equality in business leadership, challenging the status quo to ensure more women in business can lead to meet the 2030 deadline.

I hope this report will motivate companies to see the incredible economic opportunities available if they align their strategies with the Global Goals, and to see women as a critical key to unlocking them. I also hope it will inspire women in business to recognise and act on the power they have to make a difference, and inspire our male colleagues to join us. A first step would be to simply share this report with your company’s leadership and your peers. The world has 13 years to achieve the Global Goals. It is time for us all to step up.

Gail Klintworth is director of business transformation at the Business and Sustainable Development Commission and champion of WomenRising2030, an initiative to champion the role of women in business to lead for a more inclusive, just and sustainable world. 


Lise Kingo will be a keynote speaker at Ethical Corporation's 17th Responsible Business Summit in London, June 13-14.

Main photo: Women training to be rickshaw drivers in India. Photo credit: © Karuna-Shechen
#WomenRising2030  UN Global Compact  International Women's Day  Business and Sustainable Development Commission  SDG 5  gender equality 

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