The United Nations has created an agenda for sustainable development. This agenda distilled down identified global issues into a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As I read the goals afresh, two pivotal things leap out:
- Women—the goals hold a fundamental requirement for equality and empowerment that is the nucleus to the other goals. Women are needed to unlock the partnerships.
- Partnerships—nothing can be achieved without a coordinated global partnership approach.
The crucial next steps for the SDGs will be the further development of partnerships and coalition building. If we want to successfully achieve the SDGs, women MUST be at the center of the agenda and especially in the implementation plans. Women are the drivers of change in their families, in communities and nations, and if we don’t invest in their lives and future, we cannot assume the SDGs will succeed.
As we struggle with containing the global pandemic and assess our damaged economies, we can learn from a study, cowritten by professors of economics at the universities of Liverpool and Reading, that found that COVID-19 outcomes have been better in countries led by women. The team offer one explanation for this contrast: Their leaders have differing attitudes to risk. They noted that risk aversion may manifest differently in different domains—human life versus economic outcomes. They found that the women in leadership roles were more risk-averse than men regarding human life, but less risk-averse than men with their economies. In a New York Times article, Amanda Taub writes that women political leaders’ success may offer valuable lessons “about what can help countries weather not just this crisis, but others in the future.”
Women-led initiatives contrast in key aspects across other disciplines besides government. Women’s leadership in business is critical to driving significant economic opportunities and driving better performance. We often see men and women differing in their leadership styles. Women tended to adopt a more participative style. According to a report by WomenRising2030, Better Leadership Better World: Gender equality in the workplace can help unlock more than $12 trillion in new market value and up to 380 million jobs linked to the UN SDGs by 2030. The report identified six leadership competencies critical to successfully developing business opportunities in line with the SDGs:
- long-term thinking,
- environmental management, and
- social inclusiveness.
Research highlighted in the report underscores that women in business can play a critical role in deploying these six competencies within more gender-balanced leadership teams. Businesses with more women in high-level management positions, particularly on non-executive boards, are better able to shift their business’ focus from short-term profit to achieving longer-term goals. The research showed that women leaders also tend to be collaborative and skilled at balancing multiple stakeholders’ interests to reach decisions that benefit all parties. Crisis management requires connecting skills. Companies with more women on their boards are also found to be more likely to invest in renewable power generation, low-carbon products and energy efficiency, all of which are aligned with the SDGs.
The lack of gender parity in the impact of COVID-19 is stark. In pandemic-related leadership roles, women represent 25 percent in national parliaments and 36 percent in local government. However, women account for 70 percent of health and social workers on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus. In addition, women bear more household burdens during the pandemic, already spending about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men. It is difficult to expect a full understanding of the pandemic’s impact on women if women are not equally well-represented in the planning for mitigations and solutions.
Through our struggle with COVID-19, it has been the speed of change in how we use technology that has enabled much of our economy to pivot and adapt to survive. As we look to a post-pandemic business recovery, both technology and investment will be drivers. It is in these industries, in particular, where women’s leadership could help accelerate both the economy and the achievement of the SDGs. “We used to think that leading with purpose was nice to have, however, today this has become a must-have,” says Cecily Joseph, vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec Corporation. “Technology innovation is moving at lightning speed. Female technology leaders can apply their unique and individual strengths to capitalize on this.”
As we look to a post-pandemic Better Normal, addressing the lack of women business leadership is an integral part of recovery issues. Women occupy just 15 percent of board seats worldwide. In the U.S., women account for an abysmal 5 percent of all CEOs among S&P 500 companies. The SDGs present a global challenge and one to which the women of the world must take a key leadership role. They are a call-to-action for more companies to integrate sustainability into their core business strategies, value their leadership competencies critical to achieving the goals, build gender-balanced leadership teams and promote gender equality throughout their value chains.