Women and Climate Change: How Women Leaders Will Save the Planet

Gender and climate change: Women leaders have an important role to play in sustainability. How can we support more women to take a leading role?

At the heart of the COP28 deliberations, a fundamental – and let’s face it –  familiar insight emergedthere are far too few women leaders. 

COP28’s conclusion? Gender diversity is not just beneficial but essential for effective sustainability and climate action strategies. “It’s also essential for economic growth and addressing growing inequity,” says Michele Lemmens, APAC CTO and Head of Business Sustainability at Tata Consultancy Services. 

This level of awareness is an important step forward for women leaders everywhere,  but why is climate change such an important platform for women? And what can we do to ensure women have a seat at the table?  

We asked our experts for their unique insights.

How Climate Change Affects Women

“Theres increasingly a recognition that climate change is far from gender neutral,” says Sarah Peers, Group Director of Sustainability, Spirax Group and Winner in the Corporate Communications Category in the WeQual Awards, EMEA 2019. Women and girls will be disproportionately affected by it. 

For example, according to a report by the UN, in some areas when extreme weather hits, men often head to cities for work, leaving women to juggle managing land and homes, often without the proper rights or authority. This shift leads to more gender-based violence and families resorting to tough decisions like child marriages as a way of gaining more security during natural disasters. In addition, everyday tasks like fetching water become even harder, increasing risks and sometimes forcing girls to quit school to support their families. (You can download the full report here).

This doesn’t bode well for shifting the gender dial, does it?

Sarah shares some further statistics: 

  • A new UN report (Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2023) suggests that climate change will push an additional 158 million women and girls into poverty by 2050. This is 16 million more than the total number of men and boys, with women and girls being particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.
     
  • Yet just 15 of the 133 world leaders who attended COP28 were women, and only five COP Presidents in the last 28 years have been women.
     
  • It’s also estimated that men currently occupy 70% of the jobs in emerging green technology sectors, whilst only a tiny proportion of climate finance funding – less than 1%goes to women.

 

“Whether intentional or not, women have been largely sidelined in the fight against climate change,” Sarah adds.  

Gender diversity is not just beneficial but essential for effective sustainability and climate action strategies.

Gender and Climate Change

It’s been long-since proven that women have natural skill sets and propensities that make them uniquely valuable to the sustainability agenda. 

Michele says: “Female leadership in sustainability and climate is fuelled by passion and a deeper belief in better outcomes for all. Power skills often found in women increases the collaborative and rich approach we need to bring to the FULL sustainability agenda through partnerships rather than just the financial opportunity lens of sustainability.” 

Here are just a few examples of ways women have proven themselves more than worthy of a seat at the sustainability table: 

  • A 2019 study revealed that national parliaments with a higher proportion of women tend to enact more stringent climate policies. This results in lower carbon emissions, greater risk assessments and improved community welfare, especially in resource management. 
  • Corporate practices also shift with more women in leadership roles, often leading to increased transparency around climate impact. The same applies when there are more women on Corporate Boards. 
  • What’s more, women investors are more inclined to weigh up sustainability factors before making choices, leading to more considered, less risky decision-making.


There’s no doubt that the presence of women in leadership roles can significantly boost a company’s approach to sustainability. Women are typically excellent at championing purpose, long term thinking and are more inclusive, which makes for better investment strategies, corporate transparency and policy-making. However, as Michele points out, “it takes courage by all and men are doing a lot here, too.”

This unique, big-picture perspective is incredibly valuable when it comes to tackling ESG issues preemptively. The good news is, according to Sarah: “Around the world, women have been rising to the challenge, from grassroots organizations to global businesses – they’ve  been making their voices heard.” 

We just have to band together as diverse and multi-stakeholder groups. “Addressing the climate emergency is complex,  requiring systemic change across so many areas including women’s rights and enablement. No one, no company or country can do this alone,” says Michele. “We must collaborate and work together and adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to considering sustainability and developing and delivering better end-to-end outcomes.”  

Diversify Boards and Executive Teams

A diverse leadership team is number one on the list. Actively seeking to diversify boards, moving beyond the ‘usual suspects,’ and ensuring women’s voices are heard in executive decisions will amplify the focus on sustainability.  

“I’m convinced that talent is not the preserve of men,” says Sarah. “I’m also convinced that diverse teams make better decisions, perform better, view problems differently and come up with more creative solutions. Having a diverse team can, therefore, only be beneficial when driving performance against sustainability targets.” 

Practically, this might look like:  

  • Broadening your search beyond conventional networks. Looking at diverse professional groups, online platforms, and industry associations that cater to a variety of demographics.
  • Implementing a structured interview process that assesses candidates based on predefined criteria to avoid unconscious bias. 
  • Collaborating with leadership development organizations like WeQual to create Board-readiness programs. These programs should focus on equipping women as Board members with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel in these roles. 
  • Setting clear diversity goals and sticking to them. Perhaps  enlisting external advisory boards consisting of diverse leaders from different sectors to provide fresh perspectives on your recruitment process and help in identifying potential gaps in your strategy.  
  • And, of course, regular inclusion training for current board members and executives can help in creating an environment where diverse perspectives are valued and encouraged.

 

“Sourcing and retaining talent are consistent problems across corporates with different scales, sectors and geographies,” adds Michele. “Thinking Skills-First (as outlined by LinkedIn) as a strategy enables an increased pool rather than being ‘locked-into’ role experience definitions; there are very few ‘experts’ in Sustainability. This approach will likely lead to more positive gender outcomes and results for corporates.” 

Encourage Women in STEM and Innovation

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields. This is due to an implicit gender bias in the sector. Yet STEM and Innovation are key players in the sustainability agenda. 

“Digital and Innovation are key enablers to how quickly we accelerate the climate transformation and the sustainability agenda,” says Michele. “While there is some focus on women in tech, startups and science, more needs to be done at the early stages, for example, from education to encourage entry and stickiness in sectors that create financial independence for women. Many corporates are playing an active role in these initiatives helping to achieve better outcomes across the “S” in their ESG metrics.”  

So, addressing this issue head-on within your organization keeps more women in these crucial sectors, driving innovation for sustainability. 

This might involve:  

  • Implementing a transparent, unbiased hiring process. 
  • Adopting a zero-tolerance policy against harassment in STEM sectors with clear reporting channels and swift action protocols.  
  • Offering flexible work arrangements and childcare support for parents, such as on-site daycare or partnerships with local childcare providers. 
  • Offering women-focused STEM scholarships and internships to attract young talent, and establishing mentorship programs to pair women in your organization with experienced professionals in STEM fields will help prepare them for a future career. 

Support Global Collaboration

Sustainability is a global problem, so encourage women leaders to participate in international conferences and workshops focused on women and climate change.  

Facilitate cross-border collaborative projects that allow women leaders to work on global sustainability initiatives and join global networks like WeQual or alliances dedicated to promoting women in climate change. 

Change Organizational Mindsets and Company Culture

Building an inclusive company culture starts with individual mindsets. Strategies like role-playing sustainability negotiations and confronting unconscious biases, as well as implementing initiatives that help women at the grass-roots level,can cultivate a more inclusive environment. 

“Companies need to clearly identify their material impacts through multistakeholder analysis, focus on strategies to address these that are aligned with business strategies, set measures and communicate their impact, enable strategies through leverage of digital and innovation and harness the power of ecosystems to build partnerships and create value,” says Michele.  

Encourage open discussions about diversity and sustainability; showcase success stories of sustainable practices led by women, both in your organization and externally. Learn from peers by creating alliances with organizations known for their inclusive practices in sustainability and regularly run refresher training with staff to keep sustainability front and center on your agenda. 

 

Your role as a woman leader in this sector could literally save the world. So, how will you channel your unique perspectives to become indispensable to the sustainability agenda?  

Thanks to our Guest Contributors:

Sarah Peers

Group Director of Sustainability at Spirax Group

Sarah is also a WeQual Executive and Winner in the WeQual Awards, EMEA 2019 in the Corporate Communications category.

Michele Lemmens

APAC CTO & Head of Business Sustainability at Tata Consultancy Services

Michele is also a WeQual Executive and Finalist in the WeQual Awards, APAC 2023 in the Technology category.