Fixing the Green Economy Gender Gap

With more than a century of industrial development at our backs, the moral imperative to change how we treat natural resources and human capital while reducing and eliminating dirty fossil fuels is urgent.
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Much is being written these days about how an individual woman can forge a successful pathway into male dominated board rooms, executive suites, and legislatures. But few address the issue of what difference it will make when women have parity in the workplace, academia, and government. Even less is written about the stunning and negative consequences to the global environment resulting from an absence of women leaders throughout the Industrial Revolution, and conversely about the increasingly-chronicled advantages for business, society, and the earth when women assume leadership roles.

With more than a century of industrial development at our backs, the moral imperative to change how we treat natural resources and human capital while reducing and eliminating dirty fossil fuels is urgent. Nowhere is it more obvious that we need more women leaders than in the design and implementation of a global green economy.

As we enter the sixth consecutive year of global recession, and as climate change accelerates at a pace unexpected by even the most prescient climate scientists, the need for a deliberate, inclusive, thoughtful roadmap to a sustainable decision making process for designing a vibrant and fast-growing green economy is more important than ever.

Despite unstable carbon trading markets and weaknesses in some green technology markets, there are reasons to be hopeful. The green economy grew at a rate of 4.9 percent in 2011, four times the growth rate of the economy at large. And a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 3.4 million green jobs in 2011, including a small but increasingly meaningful percentage of new jobs.

While this momentum is certainly promising, the green economy remains stymied by a number of issues, including uncertainty in the marketplace accompanied by lack of political will in the United States and abroad. But perhaps the greatest handicap facing an acceleration to a sustainable post-carbon economy is the lack of gender diversity in the leadership of all the sectors addressing the issue -- governments, corporations, the media, academia, and even in civil society.

In the corporate world, a March 2013 Catalyst report found that only 14.3 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers are women, and women make up only 16.6 percent of boards. A Calvert study found that women represent only 8 percent of the highest paid executives. Although women today earn 41 percent of the Ph.D.s in STEM fields, they represent only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those areas. Women leadership in government and legislative bodies is particularly dismal.

But we know all of that.

The Anne Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg philosophies are all about "me." How do I beat or join or succeed in a system that does not necessarily want me? But the real question is how women can actively participate in this new global economy, already in the process of being carved up by a handful of men running a handful of green industries -- some revolutionary and sustainable, some just as destructive as existing technologies -- and how women's participation could improve on what could be a green economy in name only.

Let's start with why women will improve a better green economy. At the most basic level, an increasing amount of data and studies document the value added for having more women at the top. A Catalyst report on Fortune 500 companies found that companies with the highest numbers of women board directors and women corporate officers on average achieve higher financial performance than those with the lowest. Women are also turning out to be equal or better financial managers. A study by Barclays Wealth and Ledbury Research found that women were more likely to make more money than men in markets because they took fewer risks. In addition, a recent survey published in the International Journal of Business Governance showed that women corporate directors "tend to use cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building more often -- and more effectively -- in order to make sound decisions."

Women also bring diverse views to the decision-making process, including the important global concerns of investing back in families and communities, which leads to a more highly-educated and financially-sound society.

Minimizing the gender gap will provide our country with an unprecedented opportunity to add a robust corps of talented individuals who have the potential to increase the level of our country's innovation and competitiveness, especially as we advance the green economy.

The few women that have broken through the glass ceiling in green career tracks have demonstrated their success as green innovators and top decision-makers. Dr. Kristina Johnson served as undersecretary for Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and was recently selected to receive the Washington Award for her contribution to Energy Policy and Innovation. Previous winners of this engineering award include Orville Wright, Henry Ford and Neil Armstrong. Dr. Christina Lampe-Onnerud, founder and international chairperson of Boston Power, pioneered lithium-ion and energy storage solutions to deliver better, more cost-effective batteries for a range of electronic devices.

How can governments and the private sector accelerate women's leadership?

One idea that is gaining traction outside the United States is mandatory quotas for women in leadership positions in the private sector and government. The European Commission has proposed legislation with the goal of achieving 40 percent representation of women in non-executive board member positions in publicly-listed companies. Many countries require a percentage of women for elected positions, and a recent UN Women report found that those countries that had quotas elected more women to parliamentary seats than those without (27 percent v. 16 percent). The Women's Empowerment Principles, a partnership initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact Office, calls on companies to voluntarily assure sufficient participation of women -- 30 percent or greater -- in decision-making and governance at all levels and across all business areas.

Another approach is to increase angel and working capital financing of women-run small- and medium- size enterprises. This can be accomplished by improving access to federal loans and contracts; creating a global fund at the International Finance Corporation specifically focused on women-run SME's working on renewable energy and other sustainability areas; expanding the membership of banks that are a part of the Global Banking Alliance for Women and using tax incentives and public financing to expand the availability of these funds and products; and launching communication efforts to identify and engage women SME's and get them "over the doorstep" to ensure these funds and financial products are successful.

Third, we need more women as green economy spokespersons, mentors and sponsors. The media and conference organizers need to include women in equal numbers as experts, panelists and advisors. Businesses, professional organizations and institutions of higher learning need to coordinate efforts to build the networks and pipelines as well as mentor and sponsor relationships for women to achieve success.

Finally, why should our best and brightest women accept offers from a Fortune 500 company or a Silicon Valley high-tech start-up if the company cannot demonstrate in a real and transparent way that they are committed to sponsoring women as they move through the corporate system? The real answer may be for academic institutions to demand that companies demonstrate a roadmap for success. After all, a university is banking on attracting their own set of brilliant women because they have created a pipeline into America's best companies.

The challenge of building a vibrant green economy that will spark economic growth, global development and environmental sustainability is both great and urgent. We need women in leadership positions to help ensure that we achieve all of these goals.

Our future depends on it.

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