Female advance is not a niche pursuit

Gender equity must be integral to all parts of organizations.

Where is the W in ESG? That was the question posed by a high-powered panel at Duke Corporate Education’s ‘Lead with Her’ event this spring. The W – as the name of the conference suggests – stands for women.

That there is a moral and social case for gender equity is not in question. Good business leaders would agree that inequitable companies are, like inequitable societies, undesirable. But should that mean that the W is encapsulated entirely by the S, considered exclusively part of the societal element of ESG? The evidence suggests otherwise.

I was struck by the comments of panellist Pauline Miller, chief equity officer at marketing giant Dentsu. “If we hold women back, we are holding back society and progress,” she said. “But we must recognize that it is not just one lens, not one single dimension – we must be much broader. The W is very powerful in the S of ESG. But it’s not the only place where we need to consider it.”

The arguments for a broader treatment of the W are many. The E – environment – has a strong case. Women constitute 70% of the world’s poor, according to the United Nations. Those in poverty rely more heavily on natural resources and are more likely than other groups to be exposed to extreme conditions resulting from climate change.

Businesses will increasingly be charged with finding solutions to global problems like global warming. Those solutions are more likely to emerge if the groups hit hardest by them are represented among senior decision-makers. “Women are disproportionately going to be affected by climate change,” Anna Stanley-Radière, director for climate transparency, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, told Lead with Her. “Women need to be part of the solution at all different levels – but we must also ensure that the leaders at the top that are making these decisions are much more female.”

Stanley-Radière’s testimony is therefore as much about governance as it is environment. Experience shows that businesses, charities – even governments – follow different paths if those at the levers of power are feminized. A female-run company, or one run by a mixed group, is likely to behave differently to a male-administered organization.

“The W is a business imperative,” said Stephanie Werner-Dietz, executive vice president and head of human resources at ArcelorMittal. “The research shows us that the more diverse teams we have and the more gender justice, the better the results. Women bring to the table different ways of thinking. There are some female characteristics – such as being more attuned to social responsibility – which mean questions are raised that would otherwise not be.”
It is crucial that the W pervades all elements of ESG, integral to all parts of the business. Siloing gender equity and female advancement in the S, as a purely social concern, is a narrow-minded mistake.

Brian Tippens, senior vice president and chief social impact officer at Cisco, has it right. “It’s important for ESG leaders to be core business leaders across the enterprise,” he told delegates at Lead with Her. “They must be able to lead up to their leadership, to the board of directors; to lead down, to all the employees in the enterprise – but also to be a trusted partner to other leaders in the business.”

The W isn’t yet everywhere. But with an integrated approach to ESG, we can make it so.

Sharmla Chetty is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education.