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Let’s tackle climate change by putting more women on boards…

…At the risk of stomping into dangerous “gender” territory, leaving a trail of muddy footprints that some will find offensive, let me first pause at the door. It’s a couple of days after gender day at #COP27 and I’m about to make a few points here on #gender and #sustainability. More specifically, how gender balance might play a role in the quality of debate about, and action taken to tackle, climate change in Board rooms of large businesses.


I’m not covering diversity more broadly nor unpicking what we mean by gender – I don’t write well enough nor have sufficiently new perspectives to hold anyone’s attention for that. That’s not to say these things aren’t important, rather a plea that you take the following at face value.


With that, let’s proceed across the threshold. Is there a link between the representation of women around Board and management tables and business’s approach to climate change? Let’s start with some interesting data from PwC’s Annual Corporate Directors Survey 2022:

  • 65% of female directors agree that ESG issues are linked to company strategy vs. 55% of male directors.

  • 66% of female directors agree that reducing the impact of climate change is a priority even if it impacts short-term financial performance vs. 45% of male directors.


Now throw another couple of relevant points into the mix:

  • c.30% of board seats across the EU are held by women (according to the European Institute for Gender Equality).

  • A plethora of findings in the run-up to COP27 show that we are rapidly running out of time to take the action that’s required on climate change to prevent severe implications, despite a series of commitments from businesses and governments over the past decade.


This generates two main potential arguments.

  1. There is something inherent in the female psyche that lends them to better grasp the importance of climate change to core company strategy and accept the consequences of taking action – forcing gender balance on boards will help accelerate the private sector’s climate response.

  2. Companies that have made progress on achieving better female board representation are also more enlightened about climate change and are further ahead with embedding it into core strategy and priorities – they are simply more progressive all round.

In other words, cause and effect are not clear.


We can also examine past economic models and the gender balance of decision makers. Not very sustainable and not very balanced. But again, there is no easy proof to show that we would have been any better off, have used up any less of our small remaining carbon budget, had we had an equal split of genders at the helm.


So, let’s generalise a bit and ask: “why wouldn’t we?”. Why wouldn’t we try to accelerate towards a corporate leadership model that better represents the gender split of people living on the planet? We’re running out of time to reorientate the global economy towards a more sustainable footing – why wouldn’t we shake up the mix of those in the room trying to solve the issues? Research shows that women and girls are more vulnerable to the physical effects of climate change (making up 80% of those displaced) – why wouldn’t we get a disproportionate number of female voices into the places they can be heard?


Solution designs that are blind to gender nuances don’t work well for anyone. Take the relatively glib example of the toilet situation in most large buildings or stadia – a 20-minute queue for the ladies while the gents can nip in and out without delay benefits no-one. Women are frustrated and uncomfortable, men are bored waiting for any women they’re with to return. For better examples, I recommend ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ by Caroline Criado Perez.


Why wouldn’t we put all our weight behind a different approach for the monumental set of solutions we require to tackle the climate emergency?


Why wouldn’t we put more women on boards – today, not in the distant future – just in case it helps, in the nick of time? What’s the worst that could happen if we did?


Returning to our muddy footprints as a metaphor for uncomfortable change – while they might prove a temporary eyesore, they’re likely a consequence of a decent walk. The mud will brush off when it dries, the health benefits of the walk will last far longer.


Why wouldn’t we head off down that beautiful muddy path?


This blog was written by Emma Tottenham, a Founding Partner of Perigon Partners.


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