Why female leadership is crucial to tackling climate change and other crises

By Mariah Levin, Head of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum & Gwendoline de Ganay, Community Manager for the Americas, Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum | November 24, 2021

As the hard won compromises achieved at COP26 cast doubts on whether our leaders have been bold enough in their agreement, we examine the leadership traits organizations require to contribute effectively to the sustainability agenda.

In our recent report, Shaping the Sustainable Organization, we identified the behaviours that generate more inclusive and sustainable organizational outcomes: those that foster “human connections” by championing the values and needs of diverse stakeholders; boost “collective intelligence” through stakeholder engaged decision making; and finally, encourage “accountability at all levels.”

Over the past two years, leaders have faced many unprecedented decisions, and many natural experiments of responsible leadership – that which takes a long-term view with public interest in mind – have unfolded across sectors. Based on observations, research around the unique effectiveness of women’s leadership insights is gaining more traction. In government at national and more local levels, women leaders are associated with fewer deaths and faster action. In companies, women leaders have proven more motivating and communicative during a period of fear and isolation.

However, according to the Women’s World Atlas, only four countries have achieved parity between women and men in parliament, and the world is completely absent of countries in which public limited companies (those reporting to investors) have equal numbers of women to men on their boards.

The Dominican Republic and Eswatini are the only countries in the world where women and men in senior and middle management are at parity. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap Report, the pandemic has set representation of women leaders back by 68% – a trend reversal that will impact far more than 50% of the population.

If women leadership traits are proving to be more effective at this point in our history, what can we do to ensure that the insight of women leaders benefit our institutions and future? At the Forum Global Leaders, our team consciously commits to celebrating 50% female leaders among the 100 top leaders under 40 we recognize annually, to counterbalance public perception. Our public nomination process generates about 1500 nominations each year; on average 70% are male and in some regions 90% are male – a signal that the world still perceives leadership in public spaces as a male endeavour.

Research shows women are better leaders during a crisis. Image: Harvard Business Review

Given the current lack of female representation at leadership levels across sectors, we are surfacing their insights in this article below. While they may be a minority within our organizations at the moment, our hope is that, through disseminating their knowledge, experiences and examples as role models, we may see broader adoption of leadership qualities and leaders – who have proven effective at decisively building inclusive and sustainable societies.

Women’s leadership lifts all of us

Sarah Chen, The Billion Dollar Fund for Women, Cofounder and Managing Partner

When women become leaders, they show other women what is possible. The flywheel effect is beginning to take hold as more and more women rise to leadership and are importantly shifting the dynamics at decision making tables. Studies have shown that ‘the lone woman’ is not enough; and that the conversation changes significantly with a critical mass of women in boardrooms, bringing active listening, collaboration and further confrontation of difficult issues towards problem solving in not just a bold, but sustainable way.

I see this firsthand everyday at Beyond The Billion where female founders are building everything from nanofiber based medical devices that will help the human body heal itself, ride hailing ecommerce platforms connecting communities and helping them thrive; to female funders like Andrée-Lise Méthot that built Canada’s largest cleantech private venture capital firm with now over CAD$500M in AUM. Women’s leadership is not only key in building a sustainable and inclusive future, but is transformational.

Importantly as we celebrate feminine leadership, it is important for us not to create impossible standards for women. We need to celebrate the full spectrum of leadership styles that women bring, which will lift us all up.

Choosing better leaders

Victoria Alonsoperez, Chipsafer, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

There are three big evils in this world: corruption, mediocrity, and bad leadership. We need to start choosing better leaders, no matter the gender. If we would only have great leaders, then we would for sure have both male and female leaders. It is insane to think that for most of recent history, women were not included in major decisions despite representing half the population; can you imagine the amount of progress that could have been made if the other half of the population was involved?

It goes beyond representing one female or male gender, great leadership is about realizing that we need changes done and fast as well as providing the necessary vision to move forward. A great leader will always put sustainability and inclusion at the forefront of decision making. Once we realize that real leadership goes beyond gender and takes advantage of technology to increase transparency in decision making, we will evolve as a society.

Women need a seat at the table

Dr Neema Kaseje, Médecins Sans Frontières, Surgeon

The world is facing multiple crises: climate change, the health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, persistent conflict and civil unrest. Women and children often bear the consequences more acutely, from more vulnerable positions, with fewer resources to deploy to address these challenges.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we observed gains in maternal and child health indicators erode globally. In Kenya, we saw teenage pregnancy rates rise rapidly. And despite bearing the consequences, women are often not at the table when it comes to framing issues that are currently most challenging. They are not at the table when solutions are being developed. The exclusion of those most affected, means missed opportunities for adequately understanding challenges, and more importantly, it means solutions that are developed are unlikely to be effective, and are unlikely to be sustainable over time.

Women bring a different perspective, they bring a different lived experience, which are critical to adequately framing challenges and developing solutions. When women are at the table, the results are different, the potential impact is even greater. In global health, only 25% of top leaders are women. The global health community is not alone. Recent pictures at G20 and COP26 show very few women leaders. Often, a lack of a pipeline is mentioned as the reason for the lack of women leaders.

There is a solution for this. In the past 4 years, I have worked with adolescent girls and women from vulnerable communities to develop their leadership skills and to engage them in health interventions. As a result, we have effectively tackled maintaining access to essential health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen zero pregnancies and 100% of girls returning to school after participating in our program. The inclusion of women and adolescent girls works and sustainably transforms health and societal outcomes.

Women’s leadership is good for the planet

Dr Marga Gual Soler, SciDipGLOBAL, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

What if women and men led our world in equal measure, supported by science and evidence – would our planet and the decisions we make for future generations be different? This was the question I tried to answer in 2019 as part of the largest-ever all-women expedition to Antartica. Along with 100 women from 33 countries and 25 different disciplines, our goal was to elevate the visibility, leadership and collective impact of women leading a more sustainable future. This is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.

Women’s participation in decision making is good for the planet: research shows a clear linkage between women’s leadership and pro environmental outcomes. For example, countries with higher proportions of women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties, to create protected areas, and to have stricter climate change policies. Countries where women enjoy greater social and political status have lower emissions and climate footprints.

Women’s leadership style also favors long-term thinking, collaboration, transparency, and inclusion – in the YGL community this is manifested by the power of the “we”. We need to recognize the contributions of women as decision makers, stakeholders, educators, and experts across borders and sectors to drive long-term solutions. It’s time we realize women are the missing piece in our global efforts to protect and regenerate our planet.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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