The New Global Economy: The business case for women’s climate leadership

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 13, 2023 - March 19, 2023.
The New Global Economy: The business case for women’s climate leadership
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How can we meet the world’s climate goals? We can start by putting more women in charge. That will give us a much better chance of not only controlling global warming but also achieving greater prosperity along the way.

Emerging research underscores the business and development case for applying a gender lens to climate-related investments. It also highlights the critical role women play in climate leadership. A recent report from the European Investment Fund shows that women-led firms have higher environmental, social and governance (ESG) scores than other companies, and that businesses with greater representation of women in leadership positions have better track records of adopting environmentally friendly practices.

Similarly, women leaders are more likely to invest in renewable energy, leading to reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improved environmental outcomes, and women-owned businesses are more likely to pursue greater energy efficiency and practices such as recycling. Banks run by women lend less to big polluters.

In the workplace, women’s leadership is associated with increased transparency regarding environmental footprints, and a higher percentage of women on a corporate board is known to correlate positively with the proper disclosure of GHG emissions. A critical mass of women on a board leads not only to better climate outcomes but also to more innovation. Given these findings, it is no surprise that the world’s most sustainable cities are led by women.

And, yet, while more than one-fifth of major corporations have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, very few are taking explicit steps to include women in their climate action plans and decision-making. If they did, they would have a far better chance of hitting their targets.

Elevating more women to the top ranks of companies is not just about equality; it is about leadership and entrepreneurship that play a critical role in driving economic growth and creating jobs with positive social, environmental, and climate spillovers. But women still face more economically and socially costly barriers to starting and growing a business than men do. Although female entrepreneurship is growing around the world, male business owners still outnumber female business owners three to one.

According to recent research by the Economics Department of the European Investment Bank, only 36% of all entrepreneurs in the European Union are women, partly because they have more difficulty than men when it comes to financing their ventures. Though female-funded companies get some public support, it mostly comes in the form of start-up grants, while access to a wider range of growth finance remains limited. In Europe, only 2% of invested capital goes to all-female founding teams, and only 5% goes to mixed teams. Men-only teams get an astonishing 93%.

The consequences of this disparity are far-reaching. Women who own businesses are more likely to employ and retain other women and improve their employees’ skills by investing in training. The EIB finds that 47% of female-owned firms have more than 50% female employees, compared to just 26% of male-owned firms.

The shift towards a greener, more digital economy can open up more opportunities for women because firms that pursue such goals also tend to grow more dynamically, which in turn creates jobs and helps mainstream practices that promote gender parity. Moreover, there is some evidence that green start-ups are more often established by women.

Beyond increasing the number of women in corporate leadership positions, we also need more women leaders across other parts of the economy. Women investors, for example, are increasingly important because they have a stronger preference than men for investments that emphasise ESG factors. By supporting women as investors, fund managers and entrepreneurs, we will have a much better chance of accelerating climate solutions — many of which require large-scale investments.

As 2XCollaborative’s Gender-Smart Climate Finance Guide shows, there are many ways to ensure that women play a greater role, from elevating more women to the top ranks of financial-services providers to supporting women investors and helping women customers go green. Women care about sustainability, and since they are usually the “chief purchasing officers” within households, they are who the marketers of climate-friendly products need to reach. Therefore, the Financial Alliance for Women, a global network of 90 large financial institutions, is exploring how to green the customer-value proposition for women across a broader range of products and services.

Similarly, as part of its new commitment to link gender and finance, the Luxembourg Stock Exchange has begun to flag sustainable debt instruments that either set gender-equality targets or raise financing for projects advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. These are simple measures that can make it much easier for investors to identify gender-focused bonds.

But policymakers also should do more to increase women’s participation in the green transition. They can do so by offering affordable, high-quality childcare to parents; increasing support for women-owned enterprises; expanding the financial and networking opportunities available to businesses managed and owned by women; and pursuing measures to eliminate the gender gap in technological industries.

We must both remove the economic barriers that women face and provide the resources and support they need to succeed. With more women in business leadership, we can create a more equitable world for everyone, as well as give humanity a better chance of survival. — Project Syndicate


Barbara Balke is secretary-general and Thomas Östros is vice-president of the European Investment Bank

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