Women are on the front lines of climate change — so let them steer the response
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Climate change news every morning.
After years of working in the finance sector on both gender and sustainable finance initiatives, I am convinced that more women at the top would help create a more just, innovative and ambitious response to climate change.
My experiences include: co-founding an impactful gender equality initiative for a large investment bank; working with executive teams on signing the UK government’s Women in Finance Charter; and handling the global launch of the world’s largest banking commitment to net zero emissions.
They showed me that women taking the lead on the front lines, at the policy level and across the financial industry can be key to accelerating action.
Women in Business essay competition
This article is an edited version of the winning entry to the FT’s 10th annual essay competition, organised with the 30% Club and Henley Business School, to win a free executive MBA place. The full essay question was: “Would efforts to tackle climate change benefit from more women taking the lead?”
The judges were:
Elise Buckle, Climate and Sustainability; Katy Jarratt, SpencerStuart; Evelina Olago, Just Climate; Ana Graca, Henley Business School; Laura Whitcombe, 30% Club; and Harriet Arnold, FT Project Publishing
The ‘front lines’
Climate change is a planet-wide crisis. Rising sea levels, sweeping wildfires and soaring temperatures will affect all humans. But not all humans will be affected equally. Variations in wealth, location, age and gender all affect the extent of the impact. The poor, marginalised and most vulnerable will suffer the most. Among the world’s poorest are women.
In many societies, women are excluded from decision-making, held back by unequal power structures and prevented from owning land and gaining access to resources and financing. They also carry a heavier share of responsibility for their family’s food and water security.
Women are on the very front lines of climate change. For that reason, they have unique perspectives on the challenges and approaches involved in addressing the crisis. In Kenya for example, droughts mean women must travel further from home to find water, which means they or their families miss out on education and are at a higher risk of attack from wild animals.
Climate change directly and disproportionately affects women. Their unique perspectives and experiences of both the challenges and solutions is a clear argument for the participation of women in leadership roles.
Women do not inherently make better leaders, but they do make different leaders. The Covid-19 crisis was tackled differently by countries with female heads of state, including Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand. These countries saw more effective, rapid responses in the initial phase of the pandemic, and were lauded by the UN for their “transparent and compassionate” delivery of public health information.
The insights from women’s different experiences of global challenges can enhance policy decisions; however, men continue to dominate decision-making worldwide — for instance, by holding three-quarters of the world’s parliamentary seats.
On the climate crisis, women’s voices remain in the minority despite strong female leadership from figures, such as Christiana Figueres or Vanessa Nakate, who have energised climate action in recent years. At COP 26, female representation among party delegates was 37 per cent, dropping to 26 per cent when it came to heads and deputy heads of delegations.
A similar picture exists in the financial sector. In 2018, I co-founded an initiative looking at ways to develop a more equal workforce for capital markets, focusing on recruitment and retention of women, and engaging with clients on the topic. This work highlighted that there remain many financial institutions that have a somewhat equal gender balance among entry-level employees but the roles become highly skewed in favour of men as employees rise up the ranks.
More stories from this report
One exception is the field of sustainable finance, where women are relatively well-represented and often found in leadership positions. Data is scarce, but having worked across the more than 300 banks committed to the UN Principles for Responsible Banking and/or the Net-Zero Banking Alliance, I have observed a higher proportion of women in ESG decision-making roles compared to the financial industry average of only 22-24 per cent women in leadership roles, estimated by Deloitte, the professional services firm, in late 2021.
Previously considered a niche area, sustainable finance has shot to the foreground in recent years as the financial system begins to shift direction fundamentally. With more than $130tn in financial assets now committed to achieving net zero status under the GFANZ Alliance, there is a clear opportunity to harness the extensive knowledge and experience of female sustainable finance experts, and to position them at the heart of an organisation’s strategy.
From local communities to governments and boardrooms, equal representation of women at a leadership level would dramatically enhance and accelerate humanity’s ability to adapt to and mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.
Wherever climate strategy is being shaped, including at COP 27 this year, governance bodies must take deliberate action to ensure an equal female/male balance of power in order to truly represent the populations they serve. More women at the top would lead to better outcomes, both for people and for the planet.
The writer has nearly 15 years’ experience in financial communications in the public and private sectors
Women at the Top Americas Summit
Join leaders from Qualcomm Incorporated, PepsiCo, Twitter and more at our Women at the Top Americas Summit. Taking place on November 14 at the Dream Downtown, New York, as well as online, our speakers will discuss how purposeful action from leaders can drive real change. Claim our limited 25% discount offer on our VIP in-person summit using promo code SPECIALREPORT22. Register for your in-person or digital pass today.