“We are working in a complex system”
Gender inequality and its impact in the sustainability sector
1 Feb 2023

How has your gender impacted your career? It is likely that the answer to this question is shaped by your gender – as it is by your ethnicity, class, and location. If it were up to Gaya Herrington, Vice President of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) research at a large energy company, this question would not be reserved for women, so that everyone becomes conscious of the often-invisible impact of gender on our career progress. “When I get this question, I would always like to tell people to ask men as well. I think it would be good if men were prompted more to think about how their gender has impacted their career, because it has.”

Gender equality is not a luxury, but an absolute imperative for Gaya. At Schneider Electric, she and her colleagues think about energy solutions, seeking to contribute to mitigating climate change. “But gender equality is also high on the agenda in their everyday practices, which was important to me,” says Gaya. Having a leading position in the technology sector, the econometrist witnesses gender inequality through the lower representation of women in the field, particularly in higher positions. While this underrepresentation is a reality in many professions, there is an overlooked negative effect of it in the sustainability and technology fields, because inequality might slow down the fight against climate change merely by squandering creative potential: “We’re underutilising about half of the population of the world. The idea that we will reach any kind of sustainable status at the speed with which we must make these changes now, without the full capacity of the population, is just unrealistic.” Gender equality is not only a social or governance issue, but an ecological one too.

This touches upon an issue at the heart of what sustainability professionals are currently struggling with. Some debate has formed around the question of whether sustainability should focus merely on the E, the environmental aspect of ESG metrics. The arguments are on the table: climate change is urgent, and solutions need to scale up quickly. Scaling up, on the other hand, works best with a single, objective metric that applies to everyone – such as measuring carbon emissions. Social and governance aspects are far more difficult to accurately measure and compare despite their equal importance for sustainable development. While concentration on a single metric might be productive for targeted and short-term projects, there are also some pitfalls to this approach. One of them lies in the belief that one metric is simple to handle: “measuring accurately can help to prevent greenwashing”, Gaya explains, “but using one metric such as carbon emission assumes that you can measure it very accurately, which is often not the case.”

But even more importantly, concentrating on one metric may overlook the complexity of our environment: “We are working in a system where economic, ecological, and social aspects are intertwined,” says Gaya, “if we don’t tackle income and wealth inequality, for example, there will be no energy transition possible. People will feel left out and resist change, as you can already see in the US where inequality is high and people are opposing sustainable policies.” In her book “Five Insights for Avoiding Global Collapse” which was published open access in October of 2022, Gaya factors human-centric ideas into economic models for the future. For her, this is the prerequisite to change: “People have to have their immediate needs met first”, Gaya says, “because only then will they be able to work collaboratively, think in long-term strategies, and turn their potential and creativity towards the pressing problems.” Tackling inequality – gender, social, wealth, income, race – might therefore not be the lowest priority of the ESG metric, but the very first one: it is the prerequisite to getting people on board with the changes lying ahead.

What if we think of the advancement of gender equality in terms of tapping into potential? “The good thing is, if you are working in a system and you do it right, you will get to tap into synergies,” Gaya points out. Advancing gender inequality is therefore not only working towards Sustainable Development Goal 5, but might also prove useful in accelerating others: innovation, industry, education. It is a global task with challenges cut out for different regions of the world: Access to education, changing outdated definitions of masculinity, equal division of care work, closing the gender pay gap, and making sure that women get their say in meetings are different aspects of it. Some of the measures are straightforward: “Setting targets for female representation is important,” Gaya says, “I believe that we need temporary policies to counter the 100% male quota in practically all jobs, for a long time.” She also emphasises the importance of making gender equality everybody’s issue: “The tone at the top is very important.”

Equality is not only a question of how your career has been impacted by gender – it is also a question of making sure we really have done everything to tap into the creativity and curiosity of everyone in order to achieve sustainability and to give everybody a chance to awaken their innate drive to contribute to the common good: “If you bring aboard the other half of the population, way more than we are doing now, that is going to make a difference for all of us.” 

* Leonie Achtnich (Communications) and Marianne Schörling (Stakeholder Engagement) work for the Think Tank Geneva Macro Labs.
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