SDG5: Why you can't fight climate change without tackling gender inequality

Madeleine Cuff
clock • 16 min read

Empowering women is a sure-fire way of building climate resilience and cutting emissions - so why is it not on every sustainability manager's radar?

Today is International Women's Day (IWD), which means your email inbox and news feeds will likely be flooded with adverts and campaigns all claiming to celebrate the role of women in the world. Meanwhile, Twitter will be filled with comments from a certain type of man unoriginally asking 'when is International Men's Day'? The answer is November 19, November 19 is International Men's Day.  

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the stage is set for this year's International Women's Day to be the most high profile celebration yet of female empowerment. And the business community is getting involved. From limited-edition water bottles to high-fashion t-shirts and beer-themed football kits, brands have seized the opportunity to send their own message of support to the women of the world.

But despite this welcome corporate engagement, many companies still have a blind spot when it comes to gender equality. It is thankfully much rarer than it once was for major companies to operate without sweeping equality policies, while many industries are taking proactive steps to improve their gender balance. The pay gap, on-going instances of discrimination, and hugely variable maternity rights around the world may highlight how there is still a very long way to go if we are to achieve true equality in the workplace. But most progressive businesses acknowledge that these challenges need to be addressed and are working hard to tackle them. And yet, in the corporate sustainability sphere gender equality is rarely addressed. A growing body of work has demonstrated how improving the lives of women is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change, but the links between sustainability and gender equality remain an under-researched area that relatively few corporates are getting involved in.

"Women in climate is definitely a new topic," says Samantha Harris, manager at US-based climate NGO BSR and author of a 2018 report on the business case for addressing climate change through strategies to empower women. "I think a lot of responsible people in public policy building or private organisations have not yet taken the full measure of what is coming up through climate change on women's rights," agrees Alexandra Palt, chief corporate responsibility officer at beauty giant L'Oreal.

This oversight becomes even more glaring when you consider that gender equality is a major focus area for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UN Women has said actions to promote gender equality have a multiplier effect across the SDGs, accelerating progress on almost every area of development, from curbing poverty to improving access to education. Meanwhile SDG5 is dedicated solely to the empowerment of women and girls, aiming to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere by 2030. Sub-targets include ending female genital mutilation and forced marriages, recognising the value of unpaid care provided by women to the economy, providing universal access to education, and boosting access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

There's clear evidence that achieving these ambitious goals would not only improve the lives and prospects of millions of women and girls around the world, but would also directly help reduce the threat of climate change, boost sustainable economic development, and curb a host of environmental impacts.

I do not think we will see any advances in gender equality if we do not succeed in mitigating the consequences of climate change on women's lives - Alexandra Palt, L'Oreal

Project Drawdown, the influential US-based research mission to quantify and rank the impact different climate solutions could have on greenhouse gas emissions, has been absolutely clear on the central role equality policies can play. The 80 solutions measured by Drawdown are grouped into seven buckets: energy; food; women and girls; buildings and land use; transport; and materials. When the global impact of educating women and girls and expanding access to family planning services are combined, Project Drawdown's team of researchers and scientists found it would be the single most impactful tool for addressing global warming.

"Both education and family planning are basic human rights, not yet reality for too many," Drawdown author Katharine Wilkinson told online magazine Thrive Global in January. "Securing them could mean a global population of 9.7 billion people at mid-century, as opposed to one billion people more if we fail to address what girls and women say they want, need, and lack."

This picture is further complicated by the way in which climate impacts threaten to undermine progress on womens' rights. Addressing climate change will be central to delivering progress on gender equality, and vice versa, argues Palt. "In the 21st century I do not think we will see any advances in gender equality if we do not succeed in mitigating the consequences of climate change on women's lives and to help them adapt to climate change," she tells BusinessGreen. "Because climate change is going to impact every level of the life of women."

In short, support for gender equality can help deliver on businesses climate goals. However, the business benefits associated with equal rights are not limited to slower population growth and lower greenhouse gas emissions. BSR's report points out that women are often 'agents of change' in their communities, with the power to heavily influence agricultural supply chains, community behaviour, and household spending.

For example, as more men in developing economies move to non-farming jobs, increasingly in urban centres, women are taking on more agricultural labour. In some countries women make up nearly half of all smallholder farmers, but a lack of access to education and tools limits yields from the land they work. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education, and markets as men, yields on women's farms could increase by between 20 and 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, training women in techniques to improve the climate resilience and yields of crops means increased income, which studies have shown women tend to spend on schooling for their children, improved healthcare, better quality food, and building their financial savings - all actions that help to address systemic climate issues and build resilience in wider communities and business supply chains.

Such initiatives also help stabilise the workforce for businesses invested in the area, the BSR paper points out. "When women do not have access to family planning, lack proper prenatal care, or suffer from intimate partner violence, this results in lost productivity and high rates of absenteeism or turnover, all of which affect companies," it notes. "When women lack access to essential services, the market misses out on new entrepreneurs, and companies lose potential new consumer markets."

"I always say it's a win-win-win," Harris tells BusinessGreen. "It's a win for the woman, it's a win for society, and it's a win for the business."

Such research is beginning to feed through into corporate thinking, often starting with those companies that are reliant on farming for their raw materials - where the impacts of climate change are already biting. "Agricultural commodities is where we are seeing it a lot," Harris says. "Companies are feeling it. All of these companies which rely on these specific ingredients for their products, they are feeling it. So they are the ones that are naturally starting to decide that they have to do something about this."

For example, the Waitrose Foundation, the charitable arm of supermarket Waitrose, is working with the charity Farm Africa on its Partnership for Prosperity programme in Kenya. The scheme works with farmers to identify training opportunities and projects that will address climate resilience in Waitrose's supply chains and boost incomes for farm workers.   

One project under the partnership works with flower farmers in Kenya - more than 65 per cent of whom are female - to build worker committees, set up income-generating projects such as green energy installations, and improve financial literacy among farm workers. "The cut flower sector in Kenya is largely female dominated," says Peter Ndungu, project co-ordinator at Farm Africa for Waitrose Foundation. "So Waitrose's intervention plays a big role in elevating the quality of life for female workers. Specifically, by having women well represented on the worker committees, as well as ensuring they are linked-in with management, we can ensure that women have a voice. With female workers being empowered to create wealth, they become happier workers and are more motivated to work in the commercial farms, which in turn leads to more productivity."

Female Flower farm workers in Kenya are being trained in financial literacy | Credit: Waitrose Foundation

Likewise, drinks giant Coca-Cola has promised to enable the economic empowerment of five million women across the company's value chain by 2020. Across 17 business units in more than 75 countries, Coca-Cola approves specific women-focused programmes such as education and training opportunities, and counts women as 'empowered' once they have completed a programme. Many of the schemes intersect with Coca-Cola's climate resilience programme - for example the Meetha Sona Unnati scheme aims to boost the production of sustainable sugarcane, by upskilling India's "hidden farmers" of the ingredient.

To date well over 2.4 million women have been helped via the 5by20 programme, and Coca-Cola's senior director of social impact Angie Rozas, who oversees its delivery, insists the firm will meet its 2020 target. She also argues that empowering women is an important part of Coca-Cola's wider business success. "The ability to train and provide new outlets or raise the capability of the women-owned outlets so they can maintain their businesses is pretty cost effective from a long-term standpoint," she says. "Because every time someone opens up a store and then you have distributors or Coca-Cola themselves going to serve those stores, training them and building them up - if they go out of business then the cost to do that for a new store and a new outlet is always more than maintaining an existing store."

Given these clear benefits, why is the number of companies operating women-focused climate initiatives still relatively small? One challenge is that companies have to be aware of the cultural sensitivities of getting involved in gender equality issues. Often the role of women in society is deeply rooted in cultural or religious traditions, so multinationals must tread carefully when trying to break down such barriers in their path to achieving gender equality.

Firms must be prepared to partner with other agencies and locals to make sure work to empower women is done with the full support of the wider community, says Rozas. For example, Coca-Cola's ENGINE programme in Nigeria involved a partnership with the UK's Department for International Trade (DFID), alongside humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps and Girl Effect Nigeria, a social enterprise from off-grid solar firm d.light.

The scheme focused on providing education to marginalised girls aged 16 to 19, with the aim of promoting entrepreneurship and financial literacy. Community support was built by using local stakeholders to act as "safe space co-ordinators", and recruiting influential community leaders such as teachers and religious leaders to encourage families to let the girls take part. "This is the way that we are successfully navigating around cultural sensitivities," Rozas explains.

Girls taking part in the ENGINE programme | Credit: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Of course, gender inequality is not only a problem for developing countries. Women are still under-represented and under-empowered in developed nations as well, and there's a stubborn lack of female leaders in most corporates. According to 2017 data, women only make up about five per cent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies, and six per cent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.

Getting women to the top of the executive pile is a smart business move, research indicates. An oft-cited McKinsey study suggests gender-balanced companies reap above-average financial returns, while research also suggests women in leadership positions often push a company to grow more sustainably and boast more of the "critical competencies" needed for developing businesses in line with the SDGs: namely long-term thinking, innovation, collaboration, transparency, environmental management, and social inclusiveness.

L'Oreal is one of the companies leading on this agenda. "They are one of the first businesses I can think of to come out on women and climate," says Harris. "This is an opportunity for them to lead on an issue that no one else is leading on. They see how it will help their business, they see how it will help their employees."

Alongside work to improve the lives of women in its sourcing supply chain, L'Oreal is a founding member of the Women4Climate initiative from C40 Cities, which aims to empower and inspire the next generation of female climate change leaders. The scheme matches female mentors, including city mayors and executives from firms such as L'Oreal, with female entrepreneurs working on projects or business ideas to tackle climate change.

"Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change, but there are very few in leadership positions to fight climate change," says Palt. "In the political arena there are more men working on the issue than women at the highest level. So the issue is how can we develop, foster and promote more leadership on climate change".

"We need perspectives of both genders in the debate, because our lives are different, our daily occupations are different, our situations, our life cycle, it's all different," she adds.

L'Oreal's Alexandra Palt speaking at the Women4Climate conference in Paris earlier this year | Credit: C40 Cities/ Jean-Charles Caslot

But despite the growing interest in this topic from the likes of L'Oreal and Coca-Cola, progress on gender equality is still moving nowhere near fast enough. At the current rate of change, it will take another two centuries to close the economic gender gap globally, according to the World Economic Forum. Even in emerging clean tech companies that are noted for their progressive values and forward-looking strategies, men still tend to dominate the workforce and board level female executives remain relatively rare.

One issue is that the best practices on how to practically achieve more equal representation in the workplace are still the subject of fierce debate, while the role that gender equality has to play in corporate sustainability remains the subject of emerging research. It's only in the last decade that most companies have started to look at climate risk in their business operations with any particular vigour, let alone consider business climate risk through a gender-based lens.

Part of the difficulty is in finding the raw data to back up the business case for action, says Harris. But thankfully access to the necessary data is improving. For example, BSR's HERproject scheme aims to make farms and factories more inclusive by offering female workers access to healthcare, sanitary products and financial advice, and encouraging sites to adopt inclusive workplace policies. The project has collected data demonstrating a measurable impact on employee retention, staff satisfaction, improvements in product quality, and confidence in management. Across 10 factories in Bangladesh HERproject reports a 49 per cent increase in women wearing sanitary pads during menstruation, and an 11 per cent increase in women using family planning products across 26 factories in five countries.

It's only a matter of time before such data starts becoming a central part of business thinking, argues Harris. "I guarantee you that… by either not helping to build the resilience of these women and using this as an opportunity to help your business… we will be able to show you in 10 years why you should have done this," says Harris.

The more people who know your message, the more people who are aware of it, the more they will push for change - Lauren Gottlieb, Group M

Creating social pressure for change should also help galvanise action, and there are signs momentum is building on this front. In 2016 the United Nations teamed up with the six of the largest advertising companies - Publicis Groupe, Omnicom Group, IPG, WPP, Dentsu and Dentsu Aegis Network, and Havas - to promote the aims of the SDGs under the Common Ground Initiative.

WPP took charge of communications to promote SDG5, and in September 2018 cemented its role by announcing a formal partnership as UN Women's creative and media agenda for efforts around the goal.

For this International Womens' Day, UN Women and WPP have teamed up to create the Unheard Project, which seeks to spotlight the role of extraordinary - but largely unknown - women working to accelerate gender equality. The stories can be accessed and shared online, and even piped into homes using Amazon Alexa and Amazon Echo, which will read out the stories of the women as audio narratives via the system's Flash Briefing Skill.

"We wanted to shine a light on women who have been left in the dark in the past," says Lauren Gottlieb, client development director for Group M, the media management arm of WPP, and the lead for the firm's collaboration with UN Women. "UN Women had these amazing stories of trailblazing women who have achieved something or done something extraordinary in history, and we have created these beautiful illustrations to highlight these stories," she tells BusinessGreen.

Gottlieb sees these types of communication as central for creating the social pressure to push for faster change. "The more people who know your message, the more people who are aware of it, the more they will push for change, the more you are going to see them pushing for legislative change, the more you are going to see them donating to programmes that can push for this change," she says. "How all these movements work is a lot of starting from the bottom and having the message go viral."

A still from the UnHeard Project for International Women's Day | Credit: UN Women

By applying a gender lens to their corporate responsibility agendas, companies can amplify progress not just towards SDG5, but across every one of the 17 global goals. But inevitably, huge challenges remain. The inequalities that women face around the world are centuries old and deeply culturally embedded. The debates over how best to overcome these injustices - should we legislate, protest, invest, or simply 'lean in'? - are unresolved and fiercely contested. It would be an extremely brave corporate that waded into the controversial and increasingly ill-tempered rows over any distinction between womens' rights and gender rights. And the backlash from parts of the patriarchy rumbles on, making some industries hugely resistant to change.

But as those businesses that are committed to delivering on the SDGs and building a net zero emission economy seek to engineer the fastest and most wide-ranging industrial revolution in human history, it is clear that there is a parallel and interlocked opportunity to deliver a step change in global gender equality. A growing number of business leaders now understand that action to improve gender equality will help industries tap into new commercial opportunities, tackle the causes of climate change more effectively, and deal its impacts in a way that builds more resilient societies and improves the lives of millions of people around the world.

Climate change is often described as the greatest challenge of the 21st century. Companies will be missing a trick if they fail to include women in the hunt for a solution.

More on Management

PwC: One in four UK CEOs anticipate adapting business to climate impacts in next three years

PwC: One in four UK CEOs anticipate adapting business to climate impacts in next three years

Consultancy giant publishes climate-related insights from its annual survey of top CEOs

Cecilia Keating
clock 27 February 2024 • 2 min read
Why business needs to move away from sustainability silos

Why business needs to move away from sustainability silos

Business resilience, productivity and growth depends on a full integration of social and environmental sustainability efforts, writes Forum for the Future’s James Payne

James Payne, Forum for the Future
clock 22 February 2024 • 5 min read
Pedalling green credentials: How Forest increased 'spontaneous' brand awareness

Pedalling green credentials: How Forest increased 'spontaneous' brand awareness

Forest Bikes head of brand Joe Rampley explains how the e-bike sharing service underwent a swift, sustainability-focused makeover to increase its visibility and impact

Stuart Stone
clock 15 February 2024 • 9 min read