It’s almost a motherhood statement, to excuse the pun – businesses professing a commitment to sustainability. At the same time there is discussion about the number of female sustainability managers. 

On the face of it, the growing commitment to sustainability is great news. It also makes business sense.

But how many of these businesses are genuinely living and breathing sustainability?

To put it another way, they can talk the talk, but are they walking the talk?

Authentic sustainability encompasses a wide variety of issues and practices across environmental, economic and social ‘dimensions’, to use the terminology of the respected Dow Jones Sustainability Indices. The breadth of the sustainability agenda is illustrated by the hundred-plus questions in their annual survey.  Inclusion in the index is based on analysis of corporate performance in each of these three equally weighted ‘dimensions’.

We understand about using less energy and water, reducing waste, doing less with more. Companies are clamouring for a green tick for their product, service, business or building.

Economists increasingly see sustainability as a way to make money and an enlightened few even see it delivering a new economy.

But what about the social pillar of sustainability?

The ‘social dimension’ of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices questionnaire seeks data regarding workforce participation, human rights, labour rights, freedom of association, learning and development, talent attraction and retention, corporate citizenship, philanthropy and stakeholder engagement.

 It includes questions aligned with the ILO convention number 111 which opposes discrimination in employment. The questionnaire specifically seeks data regarding female share of total workforce, females in management positions, and remuneration by gender.

Indeed, diversity, including gender diversity, is a key tenet of social sustainability.

As Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address:"A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.”

And further: “I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."

Hear, hear.

Yet when Melissa Grah-McIntosh, the director of the Women in Leadership Initiative at the US Studies Centre, recently wrote on this topic, she was flooded with comments, many along the lines that “If women aren't getting into certain positions then it's no-one's fault but their own”.


Let’s return to those businesses making commitments to sustainability.

A sustainable business must be based on gender inclusion and removing the obstacles in the path of women. So many studies point to the economic benefits of full female participation in the workforce, the economy and in society.  When women participate, economies do better.

Yet consider the representation of women in ASX 200 companies as documented in the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick’s Male Champions of Change 2013 Report Accelerating the advancement of women in leadership:


·     University graduates – 62 per cent

·     Entry-level professionals – 45 per cent

·     Executive committee – 10 per cent

·     Executive committee (line roles) – 6 per cent

·     CEO – 4 per cent


·     University graduates – 38 per cent

·     Entry-level professionals – 55 per cent

·     Executive committee – 90 per cent

·     Executive committee (line roles) – 94 per cent

·     CEO – 96 per cent

Clearly, business leaders must do better – especially those who profess a commitment to sustainability.

Most major businesses have a sustainability manager, and recently there has been discussion around the tendency for sustainability managers to be women, rather than men. Is this the case, and if so, why? And is it relevant?

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices states on its website: “Leading sustainability companies display high levels of competence in addressing global and industry challenges in a variety of areas … (including by) integrating long-term economic, environmental and social aspects in their business strategies“. (my emphasis)

In other words, it is of little significance whether a sustainability manager is male or female; what counts is whether they are reporting into the C suite or CEO, with influence over strategy and risk management, or are they functional managers, sidelined when it comes to key business decisions and operations?

I’ve walked in these shoes – as the only woman on a corporate global executive management team.

And yes, I worked with men who genuinely understood and supported sustainability, including some who I witnessed having their ‘ahah moment’ as they ‘got’ sustainability.

But I also worked with men who said they understood and supported sustainability, but didn’t walk the talk. 

Think about it, if so many men in so many businesses support sustainability, why are the gender diversity statistics so bad? Why don’t they have - and deliver on - aspirational gender diversity targets for their companies?

Why isn’t the sustainability manager in the executive team and influencing strategy?

Why and how do big companies get away with one or two women on their Boards of ten and more Directors? And don’t tell me there aren’t women out there who could fill the positions.

Are executives doing no more than paying lip-service to sustainability? Or to put it crudely, are they using sustainability managers as little more than lipstick on unsustainable pigs?

I think there is a direct correlation between the disdain of a CEO or Board to sustainability and sidelined sustainability managers – be they male or female.

At the end of the day, while sustainability encompasses a range of activities and initiatives, as Avastone put it, it is fundamentally a mindset through which the world is seen. There is definitely a correlation between sustainability transforming business and markets and where the CEO is on the Leadership Development Framework.

We must see beyond the talk and not be distracted by the x and y chromosomes of the sustainability manager.