How do you explain to your five-year-old child what you do for a living?
I recently found myself struggling with this question while practicing for a speaking engagement. As vice president of marketing at SAP Ariba, the world’s largest business network, I lead an initiative that helps companies establish ethical supply chains. The larger goal is to eradicate such world problems as human trafficking and gender inequality, hardly topics that a five-year-old can grasp.
Nonetheless, my daughter insisted on knowing what I would be talking about in my speech. I broke it down into five words she could understand: “Women leaders save the planet.”
In many ways, this is a powerful message every company needs to hear.
As investors and consumers increasingly demand that companies serve a social purpose, the pressure is on to develop policies and programs that take on the world’s challenges. Look no further than Laurence Fink, the CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock. Fink recently put CEOs on notice: Take steps to boost the security and prosperity of your fellow citizens or risk losing BlackRock’s investment.
To successfully implement sustainability strategies, companies will need to make radical changes – and it starts with elevating more women to leadership positions.
Research shows the more women occupying the C-suite, the better a company’s sustainability initiatives. Kellie McElhaney, a leading expert on the topic of corporate social responsibility, and the founder of the Center for Gender Equity & Leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, has conducted extensive research on the role women play in both boosting a company’s bottom line and as corporate social change agents. Her research found companies that have women on their corporate boards are more focused on environmental, social, and governance issues than companies with no female board members.
In what ways do women in power make a difference? Companies with female board members are more likely to do such things as invest in renewable power generation, measure and reduce the carbon emissions of their products, and implement programs with their suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint.
Companies with female leadership are also more inclined to work to improve access to healthcare for underserved populations. They focus more on the health and nutritional value of their products and they take measures to develop their workforce by offering competitive benefits and formal training programs, McElhaney’s research found.
“This is not about simply having a woman present and at the table; this is about tapping into the talent and resources of 52% of the population and having multiple women at the table,” she concludes. “This is about women being actively engaged in the process to renew trust in business and to help correct the unsustainable paths we are currently charging down.”
Placing more women in corporate leadership roles is also a crucial step toward creating a more gender-diverse workplace. A study conducted by LinkedIn for the World Economic Forum found that when more women are in power at a company, more women are hired overall.
The link between female corporate leaders and corporate social responsibility isn’t surprising when you consider that women tend to be more focused than men on the environment, and that female consumers favor products tied to social causes.
The question remains: Are there enough women in power to lead sustainability efforts? While we’ve made progress in narrowing the corporate gender gap, we still have a long way to go. Women represent fewer than 50% of corporate leaders, and in some areas, such as energy, mining, and manufacturing, women hold less than 20% of leadership jobs, the LinkedIn study found.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role women leaders play in creating a more sustainable world because this topic touches me on multiple levels.
In my professional life, I’ve been working with the UN Global Compact to help ensure that more companies work toward achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I’m helping companies make a positive impact on society and on the environment by using their purchasing power to drive ethical standards across their supply chains.
As a mom, I want to make the world a better place for my daughter. I hope she’ll one day work on sustainability initiatives of her own. She’s already learned that women leaders save the planet. Let’s hope companies learn the same.
This blog originally appeared on LinkedIn.