International Women's Day: Sustainable business leaders reveal their hopes for 'a greener, fairer economy'

Cecilia Keating
clock • 18 min read

For International Women's Day, BusinessGreen spoke to green economy leaders on the state of diversity in the sector

The pandemic has highlighted how quickly a crisis can expose and aggravate existing gender, race, and class-based inequalities, while also providing a reminder of how the climate emergency carries all the same risks, but amplified. Study upon study has documented how the combination of lower average incomes and women's role as primary caregivers means they typically bear the brunt of extreme weather events and are statistically more vulnerable to the food, energy, and water shortages that can be caused by a changing climate. But despite women's position on the climate frontline, persisting structural inequalities mean women's voices and opinions are often side-lined in discussions and negotiations on climate, energy, and environment, at the level of both international negotiations and local delivery.

That said, women have played a central role in 21st century climate action. The landmark Paris Agreement was designed and brokered under the leadership and influence of several women, including UN climate change chief Christiana Figueres and France's climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana. Since then, a protest movement of millions catalysed by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has significantly pushed climate up the political agenda. Meanwhile, women are increasingly at the forefront of the growing corporate and investor climate action movement, from Apple's Lisa Jackson and l'Oreal's Alexandra Palt to Ceres' Mindy Lubber and the Principles Responsible Investment's Fiona Reynolds. And there are many, many more women working behind the scenes on campaigns and policy, in businesses and within communities.

But the rapidly growing green economy has a huge way to go before its gender balance reflects that of society, with the government's initial decision to field an all-male leadership team for the forthcoming COP26 climate conference - an imbalance it has now sightly rectified - providing a high profile example of how men still dominate many of the key fields within the net zero transition. The same imbalance is rife in the world of green business. In the UK energy sector, just 12 per cent of engineers and 13 per cent of board seats are held by women, and while the gender pay gap is shrinking, it is still large, with men earning on average 17.5 per cent more than women in the same roles. Meanwhile ,the overwhelming majority of students opting for science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) degrees are still men, with just 26 per cent of STEM graduates in 2019 across the UK women. 

Similarly, the UK's investor community, which is set to have an outsized influence on the UK's net zero transition due its role in stumping the costs of early-stage, high risk climate technologies and funding the green infrastructure blitz required to decarbonise the UK's energy, buildings, transport, and industry, remains overwhelmingly male. Less than 13 per cent of UK venture capital investment teams are women, and 48 per cent of investment teams have no women at all, according the British Business Bank. It's a gender imbalance that risks curtailing progress, given that investment teams with more women and ethnic minorities have been proven to outperform the "male and pale" teams that have long dominated the industry.

There is some evidence that gender balance is a bit better when it comes to corporate sustainability roles, but many structural and cultural challenges remain for women in businesses of all types. And more generally, women across the UK continue to earn less money in the same positions as men and do 60 per cent more unpaid domestic chores such as cooking, childcare and housework, a gendered division of unpaid work the UN has warned has been turbocharged by the pandemic as household chores and care has multiplied.

To mark International Women's Day, BusinessGreen asked some of the UK's climate, energy, and sustainability leaders for their reflections on the state of diversity within the sector and the importance of female participation and leadership. The picture that emerges across the board is one of hope and urgency. The submissions underscore the critical role women have already played on climate action in the UK and further afield. They emphasise the green economy of the future can only be truly successful and fair if it built by a diverse range of people, noting that any alternative approach runs the risk of producing climate solutions that marginalise parts of the popuation and exacerbate existing inequalities.

As such, there is an urgent need to boost representation of women and minorities in the ever-growing ecosystem of green sectors, companies, and groups driving the net zero transition. As WWF's chief economic advisor Angela Francis put it: "A greener fairer economy is not an abstract concept or a slogan, it means real improvements in people's lives - in women's lives - and we should be using all of our talents to deliver it."  

EnergyUK chief executive Emma Pinchbeck shared how she hoped her efforts to visibly juggle childcare and her job on Zoom calls could break down preconceived ideas of what leadership looks like. Farhana Yamin, eminent environmental lawyer and campaigner, spoke of being the first woman in her family to go to university and hymned the need for laws and a climate movement that tackles inequality head on. PwC climate lead Celine Herweijer - who is to become HSBC's first global sustainability officer later this year - paid tribute to the female leaders that have been at the forefront of the climate fight thus far, and We Mean Business CEO Maria Mendiluce reflected on how successfully tackling the climate crisis would require huge amounts of "generosity of spirit", a trait she said had been familiar to female caregivers throughout history.

On this International Women's Day, here they are in their own words:


Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive EnergyUK, said:

The energy industry is changing rapidly. As we decarbonise, we will need an increasingly diverse workforce, not only to ensure we look more like the society we serve, but because we will need all the good ideas we can get. 

Just 12 per cent of engineers are women, so we need more diverse STEM candidates. Equally, we need to value broader skillsets because many of our strategic challenges are social or political. Women hold only 13 per cent of executive board seats although that has doubled since 2019. If we want women to progress in our sector, we need them at the top because you can't be what you can't see. 

I have had the opportunity to put into practise much of what I preach since becoming chief executive in September - an appointment made possible by steps to accommodate a breastfeeding mother and flexible hours. I hope there's value in others seeing me juggling my daughter and my career (often visibly on Zoom calls) - after all the gender pay gap - 17.5 per cent in the energy sector, according to the ONS - is in part due to women's career paths after having children.  

The industry does have measures in place to increase diversity, recent sector deals have included diversity commitments and there are initiatives spanning the sector, including Energy UK's own Pride in Energy network and Equality & Diversity Forum. 

I am fascinated to see whether new ways of working in the pandemic will endure, and if they will make it easier for diverse candidates to progress - something we will be exploring more at our forthcoming Inclusion, Equality & Diversity conference in April.  


Farhana Yamin, lawyer, author, activist, and advisor to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, said:

I was the first woman in my family to go to university. The first to go into a profession, law, and the first to out earn the men folk. Not bad for a Muslim and a migrant who came to this country speaking only a few words of English! I was lucky to benefit from a booming 1990s economy. International Women's Day is a day I take stock of the tremendous strides made in my lifetime. A chance for me to thank the generations who fought for equal opportunities so I could flourish by fighting for laws like the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act  and 1976 Race Relations Act 1976 that established the Equal Opportunities Commission. I am living proof that laws, and their implementation matter, and make a big difference!

I see my climate work through the lens of these earlier social justice struggles to make a better world for everyone. Covid-19 and the Black Live Matter movements have exposed that we are not all in the same boat. For 30 years, I have put my energy and talent to getting vulnerable countries and communities who contributed little to climate change and will be impacted most a seat at the top table. They are still excluded from power and struggle to have their voices heard. No-one is voiceless but some are not given the microphone and even then, are ignored by the powerful.

The story of the goal of net zero emissions, of orientating the economy to respect the 1.5C limit and support those now facing climate related loss and damage, are the defining social justice struggles of our age. People today forget there was tremendous resistance to movements championing feminism and racial equality and often the leaders of these movements were vilified or labelled as idealists or extremists, sometimes both! I am sad to see the same kind of attacks now on those leading the fight for climate justice, including our young people, who are asking for the "unrealistic" right to be heard and their views about climate solutions that leave no one behind to be respected. I hope COP26 will be a turning point and make us realise the fight for climate justice is just another chapter in the story of securing equal opportunities and allowing all life to flourish on earth.


Maria Mendiluce, chief executive We Mean Business coalition, said: 

I am inspired to see leadership from a growing number of women working to solve the climate crisis. I believe that to solve this crisis, we need to deeply transform our economic systems, from food to energy, from mobility to materials. No single person, business or country can achieve this alone. It requires a change of attitude and a different set of skills which I see many women bring to the table: collaboration, creativity, generosity, courage and passion.  

Creating a safe collaborative space amongst competing businesses to solve the issues that impact their entire ecosystems was a core part of my work at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and continues to be now as CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition. I have seen that the kind of transformations required has to be a team effort. Co-creating solutions and putting the general interest ahead of personal interests has proven to be the only way forward for societies, and certainly for many women at all levels in society.   

Effective collaboration requires a generosity of spirit, a fundamental trait of human nature, and one that society has historically demanded of women in particular, with women still carrying the greater burden of domestic and caring duties. It was this generosity of spirit that made the Paris Agreement possible under the leadership of two outstanding leaders, Christiana Figueres and Laurence Tubiana, and many more women leaders who are less in the public eye.  

The latest science tells us that we are surpassing the Earth's planetary boundaries. Air pollution kills one every five people on the planet. We know there is a huge inertia in our global economic systems. But we have no time to lose when it comes to climate change. Courage and passion are needed to accelerate the speed of transformation. I strongly believe that more women in leadership positions will transform the way countries, institutions and businesses view and act upon these challenges along with implementing solutions to protect the world for generations to come. It's part of their DNA. 

With women disproportionately affected by climate change, it is important to see more female voices on leadership platforms being part of the crucial decisions that will determine how we accelerate action to the levels required. 


Angela Francis, chief advisor of economics at WWF, said:

On International Women's Day, I think it is useful to reflect how we can bring the sum of all our talents - all the diversity of thought and imagination - to bear on the mission of our generation,  delivering a greener, fairer economy for all. This is certainly a challenge that needs the skills of all of us!

Importantly, a greener and fairer economy will benefit those who need it most; the poorest and most vulnerable globally, those who would suffer most from unchecked climate change and biodiversity loss. Very often that means black and brown women in the poorest countries in the world working in farming and food production.

We know that investing in greening our recovery is the best way to build back better post-Covid in the UK, because it will generate the jobs and business opportunities that make us resilient to future shocks and competitive in the net zero and nature restorative economy of the future. The same is true globally, particularly in farming. It's critical for people and planet that we move from conventional industrial models of agriculture that drive climate change and biodiversity loss, to more agro-ecological farming techniques. This also has major benefits for the women who work and live in farming communities around the world.

Not only are farm workers less exposed to dangerous and deadly pesticides, agro-ecological farming that works with natural systems requires knowledge and skills that promote better ownership models and employment opportunities. Agro-ecological farming increases job opportunities and wages, especially for women. Also, the variety of crops and different income streams associated with agro-ecological systems reduce exposure to crop failures and pests, and improve resilience, family food security and local food chains, all of which benefit women. 

A greener fairer economy is not an abstract concept or a slogan, it means real improvements in people's lives - in women's lives - and we should be using all of our talents to deliver it.  


Dr Celine Herweijer, global climate change leader, and partner at PwC UK, said:

It's been an incredible motivation for me personally to have such strong and impressive female leaders at the forefront of tackling the climate crisis over the past decade or two - Christiana Figueres, Rachel Kyte, Connie Hedegaard, Winnie Byanyima, Gina McCarthy, Mindy Lubber. It's tough to name check as there are so many - diplomats, authors, scientists, engineers, businesswomen - all making a critical contribution. It's great to see women shining throughout the climate movement, and I've seen and felt a huge amount of collaboration, support and camaraderie.

With sustainability now finally, and rightfully, shifted to the boardroom, we need to really pay attention to ensure that female talent goes right to the top. Not unsurprisingly, as with other sectors and industries, female representation in climate leadership roles dips with seniority - particularly in the corporate world. This again shines a light on the systemic challenges of gender diversity in boardrooms and senior leadership more broadly. 

Reflecting on International Women's Day and in this important decade of climate action, it's our role, our opportunity and responsibility as female leaders to show how we can radically collaborate to create change, and as we do so, to "pay it forward" to help those future leaders fulfil their potential.  


Juliet Davenport, chief executive of Good Energy, said:

I've been in clean energy for over 20 years and one of the key things I've learned is the importance of supporting others. Being honest and celebrating other businesswomen's success is a great way to start.

The main barrier to gender diversity in all companies is that it requires systemic changes in culture, work policies, and investment levels. Most, if not all, companies have the capacity to make efficiency savings. And any company with a diversity problem is likely be more inefficient and less innovative. These issues should be central to how any business is run and not treated in isolation.

All businesses, not just green ones, need to look at career development for women in areas of under-representation. Promoting flexible working for both genders is one way to do this as it recognises that many women's careers will be enabled if men take on an equal role in caring for dependants.

The bigger picture is we need to create an inclusive culture where women see energy as an attractive career option. This starts at a young age, encouraging more girls and young women to choose to study STEM subjects which are crucial in the sector. It also means showcasing role models and promoting careers across the industry.


Sagarika Charterjee, director of climate change at PRI, and COP26 high-level champions team finance lead, said:

Women leadership has a critical role to play, and there are two reasons. The first is that women are more impacted by climate because of the role they have as caregivers; they are more likely to be displaced by flooding, and more vulnerable to extreme weather events. The second is that we need to have women not only factored in, but represented at every single level as we tackle climate change. That means at the political level, at the technical and scientific level and at the inspirational ‘hearts and minds' level. We need political figures and corporate board-level climate competency that includes representation of women, and we need the mobilisation that is done on climate change - and the changes we enact - to very much think about women and include women as leaders.

Last week we saw Citigroup's new CEO Jane Fraser commit the bank to net zero on her first day. The PRI is still reviewing that net zero commitment, but I thought it was quite a symbolic thing she has done, on her first day. This year we have also seen the US re-join the Paris Agreement, and speaking in a more personal capacity, that winning combination of Joe Biden with Kamala Harris enables us to tackle these key challenges in very different ways to what we have over the last few years. The US climate leadership that we are now expecting to see at the Biden climate summit on April 22 and the domestic scale-up in climate policy will enable better cooperation at an international level between the US and with the EU and with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, requiring the strong cooperation with China. At the investor level, some of the female leaders that are extremely influential today are Anne Simpson from CalPERS, who has been the driving force behind CA100 +, and Fiona Reynolds as PRI CEO.

There is a clear need for female leaders to address the climate challenge, so they are represented and gender really is factored in at every single level. 

Living in Tottenham [in north London], I was close to Black Lives Matter protests [during the pandemic], which is of course related to this conversation, given the heightened inequality that you get from climate and the health impacts of climate change. We've seen how vulnerable the BAME community has been through the pandemic...

On a personal level, as someone who is a working mum, this pandemic has been rather trying! ... This is very small compared to many people's challenges, but we looked after my sister-in-law's kids classes for three days of the week for one period. It was hard, and of course some people had [situations like] that all the time... That reinforces, for me, how we need inequalities to be addressed at every level, including for professionals such as myself.


Hege Sæbjørnsen, country sustainability manager at IKEA UK & Ireland, said:

At IKEA, we are strong advocates for gender equality and diversity. Not only is it the right thing to do, but we recognise that ensuring a diverse and inclusive workplace makes good business sense and is the only way we will be able to solve the complex and interdependent challenges of climate change.

"I strongly believe that the more diverse a network, the greater its ability to respond to change. Having a broad range of experiences and talent is integral to providing multiple perspectives, experiences and knowledge to tackle the changes and challenges our communities and planet face. That is why we need diverse - be that more female and/or minority - leadership in the sustainability space to provide new ways of thinking, acting, leading and measuring change.

The climate crisis requires us all, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation to step up to the challenge, radically rethink our consumption habits and ensure that sustainability is woven into every part of our lives. It's only the most adaptable businesses who will survive, and the best way to do this is to bring in those who help us think outside our own box."


Iliana Portugués, head of UK and National Grid Ventures Innovation, said:

Transitioning to net zero by 2050 in a fair and sustainable way requires commitment to diversity and inclusiveness of thought. We know we need a mix of perspectives, experiences and skills to fully understand and solve complex challenges, and to achieve this we must engage the whole population. However, the energy industry still has some way to go.

In line with this year's International Women's Day theme of choose to challenge, there's opportunity for leaders to take personal responsibility for gender balance and equality. Businesses need to attract and encourage female talent by actively highlighting role models, celebrating women's successes and inspiring young girls to consider STEM. We need to retain this talent by implementing training, development and networking programmes to support progress, and commit to inclusive practices to bring the whole workforce, each and every individual, on the journey.

Energy and the environment are global existential challenges. It is in our own best interest to have a net zero workforce that truly represents and reflects society in order to address them; women are 50 per cent of this equation."