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A Secret Too Well Kept

The Pivotal Role that Women’s Leadership Plays in Addressing Climate Change



Recommendations for Companies and Investors

Executive Summary

Companies, governments, the general public, and civil society organizations worldwide increasingly agree that climate change must be tackled quickly and effectively if we are to avert planetary cataclysm. Cities, like Chennai (water shortage) and Paris (extreme record-breaking heat), are now directly experiencing what scientists have been telling us for decades -- we are running out of time.
And while the “problem” side of the story is rather well understood, the “solution” side is missing the mark because we often overlook the transformative role women and girls can play. As you’ll see in this paper, the most compelling set of solutions to climate change is hiding in plain sight – the full engagement of the women and girls who are central to the very innovation, team performance, investments and natural resource management that we need to effectively address climate change. To echo a phrase recently introduced by Rachel Kyte, Dean of Fletcher School at Tufts University, when describing the lack of clean cookstoves, these solutions to climate change are silent because they have “a female face” (see).
The Mara Partners contends that gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is impeding our ability to address climate change. However, we are hopeful and excited by the evidence in this paper because, taken together, the research offers numerous entry points for companies and investors to deepen their environmental work through increased innovation, more inclusive negotiations and policies and future-proof commercial investments. Below we illustrate the specific ways that companies and investors (and in future papers, governments and communities) can be more effective in their respective spheres of influence by applying a gender lens to everything that they do.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to detail the myriad reasons for this phenomenon, but broadly stated, gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is impeding our ability to address climate change. This is the case because bias is causing us to collectively overlook the very strategies that offer the most promise: family planning, increased innovation, more inclusive negotiations, improved policymaking and future-proof investments. We intend to contribute to global efforts to address climate change by illustrating the numerous ways that companies, investors, governments and communities can be more effective in their respective spheres of influence by applying a gender lens to everything that they do.

Women at the Center of the Solution

Given the increasing urgency of addressing climate change, we need solutions that are catalytic – ones that offer an outsized return on investment and that ignite progress in accelerated and unforeseen ways. This concept note is part one of a three part series that summarizes how and why women’s leadership in companies (part one), governments (part two) and communities (part three) offers just such a solution. We brought together data from several disparate sources, each of which tells one part of the story. When combined, however, the research reveals something profound: increasing women’s leadership at all levels -- from the household and community levels all the way through to the highest echelons of policymaking -- appears to be the best way to rapidly address climate change.
We recognize that this is a bold assertion, but when you integrate research from climate scientists, business schools, negotiation experts and political scientists, the data support this hypothesis. The research cited below is rarely, if ever, considered in tandem. However, by   arranging this disparate research thematically, the power of applying a sweeping gender lens to the topic of climate change emerges. The themes are summarized below:

  • Climate Science - Project Drawdown (see) listed educating girls (combined with family planning) as the top solution to climate change. It is beyond the scope of this paper to outline how improving training, income and education levels for women leads to improved education levels (especially for girls). However, these linkages are widely recognized elsewhere

  • Innovation - Gender diverse teams demonstrate higher collective intelligence and are more innovative (see) M.I.T. Professor Thomas Malone

  • Negotiation – Including more women in negotiations improves the durability and inclusive nature of the agreement (see authors Linda Babcock1 Cecelia Ridgeway2, etc.). There are also a number of studies that have shown that denying certain groups the right to participate in negotiations, as well as the rights to use, manage and dispose of resources, can have negative implications on sustaining the resource base

  • Policy making - Women’s inclusion in decision-making improves the effectiveness3 of policy interventions; having more women ministers increases the number of climate smart policy (see) decisions, etc.

  • Corporate Environment/Social/Governance (ESG) Performance – Having more women on corporate boards has been shown to improve a company’s ESG performance4 (and as is well documented elsewhere, strong ESG performance is linked to improving a company’s bottom-line performance)

  • International Frameworks – A wide array of organizations ranging from the C40 Cities Women4Climate initiative (see) to the United Nations (2015 Sustainable Development Goals, 2017 UNFCCC Gender Action Plan, etc.) recognize the vital role that women’s leadership plays in addressing climate change

From Theory to Practice

Protecting our dwindling ability as a species to continue to live, work and do any business at all will require every bit of the science, innovation, negotiation, policymaking and commercial success that we can collectively muster. The following are but a few examples of the myriad ways that applying a gender lens makes a critical difference and they offer a practical blueprint for the way forward:

  • COP 215: The pivotal Paris Climate Agreement from COP 21 (December 2015) had a higher than average number of women leading the negotiations (notably Christiana Figueres, Anne Hidalgo, Ségolène Royal and Laurence Tubiana among others)

  • IBM: Former President, Thomas Watson, Jr., championed diversity (gender, racial, etc.) starting in the early 1950’s, notably in the famous “Policy Letter #4” on the grounds that it increased innovation (see)

  • Women in Power: Leaders across the world from Nigeria (Amina Mohammed) to St. Lucia (Gale Rigobert) are pioneering new approaches to natural resource management, renewable energy, etc.

  • Girl Power:  “Little Miss Flint” (Mari Copeny) and Greta Thunberg are showing the world just how much it matters for girls to use their voice

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Specific Recommendations for Companies and Investors

1. Increase Understanding of Intersectionality

In 2018, one in four dollars, or $12 trillion dollars under professional management in United States, was invested using an impact/socially responsible investment lens (“SRI”)6. There are  numerous intersecting financial, commercial and social implications that require companies and investors to understand just how climate change is eroding progress on the human rights compliance, rule of law, predictable product inputs, social and physical infrastructure and good governance that businesses rely on.  

2. Apply A Dual Gender and Environmental Lens Across the Board

The commodities that many global companies rely on for their commercial success (cocoa, cotton, coffee, rubber, palm oil, etc.) are largely grown in the equatorial belt that is already feeling the direct impacts of climate change. This is not news. And while companies are increasingly willing to address issues like deforestation, renewable energy, carbon disclosure, etc., there appears to be less willingness to reflect more broadly on how these impacts on raw materials intersect with human (labor, health, education, poverty) impacts. When companies, and their investors, use a narrow “environmental” lens they are precluded from benefitting from the commercial, reputational and environmental benefits to be gained from women and girl focused solutions.  
The Mara Partners (TMP) encountered one striking example of this narrow thinking when a multinational food company we work with divulged that they planned to rapidly increase their use of drought-resistant crops for all their major product inputs. However, it became clear from our discussions that they had overlooked the fact that 10 years from now there might not be many farmers left in their supply chain to harvest these crops due to extreme heat and water insecurity.  
It is therefore critical that companies and investors alike apply an environmental lens to the numerous social investments that are common throughout many global value chains today. Likewise, as we note below, the reverse is also true. Social investments, for example, in VSLAs (Village Savings and Loan Associations) to begin training women to grow and manage shade tree nurseries, can have direct environmental benefits (shade trees offer improved drought resistance for crops), while still delivering social good (increased literacy, numeracy and decision-making authority for women) as well.  

3. Set a Gender Parity Goal for all Teams

Using the example above, we assert that this strategic planning oversight could have been averted had the procurement team had more women on it. As noted elsewhere in this paper, there is a strong evidentiary basis that indicates that team intelligence, conservation oriented thinking, innovation and long-term vision are all increased when more women are on a given team. From the outset, we recommend increasing the gender parity on the teams at the beginning of value chains (procurement, resource allocation, government affairs, etc.)  

4. Integrate ESG Programming

Many of the improvements over the past decade or so related to improved crop yields, reductions in child labor, improved education levels and public health outcomes, to name but a few, are being wiped out by climate change (for example, the 2015-16 drought in the agricultural sector of West Africa). Climate change is a threat unlike all others. It is destabilizing, if not erasing, human rights and agronomy advances. Drought is wiping out productivity gains, increasing migration flows and causing major conflicts (Darfur, Syria, etc.). Desertification and extreme weather events are driving human trafficking (see). Child labor, forced or voluntary, inevitably increases under all of these conditions. For every potential successful remediation program that a company invests in, drought, crop disease, and eventually the inability to harvest crops due to extreme heat7, will erase the intended benefits of these programs, decimate human development and weaken bottom-line performance.   
In the future, a company could for example optimize its value chain investments by partnering with an environmental group to tackle deforestation, but would select the group with the best gender-aware programming.

5. Revise All Decision-Making Procedures (Internally and with Partners, Suppliers, etc.) to Achieve Gender Parity

Research from the University of Colorado – Boulder, Purdue University8, among others, notes the value of involving women in governance, resource allocation, land management decision-making and negotiations9. In our work with the World Bank, the UN, multinational corporations and NGOs, we think that ensuring that “teams10” are composed minimally of 30% women11, and ideally 50% women, may be among the best ways for companies to help address climate, while also protecting company sustainability investments and ensuring continuity of supply.

6. Collaborate

Companies increasingly recognize that environmental challenges dwarf any one company’s ability to address them alone. Thus, we recommend that companies map their respective spheres of influence, comparative advantage, appetite and budget for leadership (versus participating collectively with other companies, governments, multi-laterals, etc. and factor this in to all strategic planning.

7. Test

Consider launching a pilot to test, refine and demonstrate the case for an integrated gender and environment framework. If program evaluations are positive, the ambition would be for all future programs to use a combined gender and climate program framework.

8. Train

Internal teams across the company and any value-chain partners should be trained on any new integrated gender and climate frameworks that are developed. Likewise, monitoring and evaluation systems would need to be modified accordingly.

9. Amplify

Given the negative business impacts that companies are already facing due to climate change, now is the time for companies to recognize, publicize and amplify the message that it is critically important to empower women and girls if we are to successfully address climate change. Even companies who do not have any “environmental programming” can in fact play a vital role in addressing climate change through their education programming.  


Impacts from climate change will likely never be the only challenges facing a particular company or commodity. Taking the example of cocoa, low prices (especially in Côte d’Ivoire) are occurring simultaneously with periods of drought and crop disease. Farming communities that were already below the poverty line are falling further behind. Meanwhile, expectations of global companies are also increasing – stakeholders and shareholders alike fully expect companies to deliver social returns related to forced and child labor elimination, in addition to gender equity, deforestation, health and safety, quality education, food security, etc. As such, there is increased competition within companies for program dollars to go to one initiative (zero deforestation) versus another (eliminating child labor).  
We think that the time has come for companies to invest, whether directly and/or through partners, in only those programs that are climate smart and inclusive of women (Note: while some companies may continue to invest in programs for women only, the main idea here is to apply a gender and climate lens to all programming, not just on programs geared toward women and girls. Companies should invest in climate-smart programming for the future viability of their businesses, but they should also protect and amplify these investments by including women in every stage of the process from program inception to execution.  
Finally, most companies we have worked with are understandably reluctant to tackle alone broad societal issues like education, infrastructure, poverty, and corruption on the grounds that these are the duty of governments. We therefore tread carefully when we noted the stunning finding from Project Drawdown12 that combining the education of girls with  family planning (both under their “Women and Girls” thematic area) would be the number one solution to addressing climate change. However, translating this finding into the daily operational reality for major corporations, presents a major opportunity because many companies are already working through their supply chains to train women (on income generating activities, farming, etc.) and provide literacy and numeracy programs.
Research from the World Bank, the United Nations, Girl Effect and others has long shown that increasing women’s empowerment leads to improved educational outcomes for children (see) (and girls in particular), delays the age of motherhood and improves access to women’s health care and family planning resources.  Whether or not a company chooses to invest directly in educating girls, many companies are already working to ensure that women have opportunities to lead at all levels (headquarters and in the supply chain). Women’s empowerment programming is a natural starting point for companies who are eager to do more on the environment. As noted above, research indicates that this first step will in turn lead to better innovation, better negotiated outcomes and more effective and environmentally sound policy decisions. And these women who are now at the table for the first time? They’ll also have the resources, training and confidence to ensure that their children, should they choose to have children, go to school. Girls included. And as we’ve seen, having more girls in school is one of the top solutions to climate change.  
In conclusion, this quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky comes to mind; “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” For companies and investors, the time for greatness is here -- skate to where the “climate puck” is going to be by ensuring that more women13 -- from the farms to the ministries  -- are at each and every table. This will help secure your future commercial success, to say nothing of the planet’s ability to sustain us all.

1. Babcock, Linda and Laschever, Sara. Why Women Don’t Ask, particularly pps. 182-186

2. See generally; Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2011. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press

3. “Gender Quotas Increase the Equality and Effectiveness of Climate Policy Interventions” (see)

4.  Adj. Asst. Professor, Kellie McElhaney of the Haas Business School, UC Berkeley, “found that companies with one or more women on their boards are significantly more likely to have improved sustainability practices. “This is not a women’s or men’s issue, it’s a collective and business opportunity,”’ as quoted in (see)

5. Part Two of this series on government will explore this example in greater detail

6. The US SIF Foundation’s 2018 biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, found that sustainable, responsible and impact investing (SRI) assets now account for $12.0 trillion—or one in four dollars—of the $46.6 trillion in total assets under professional management in the United States. This represents a 38 percent increase over 2016.

7. “By 2100 for the high emission scenario RCP8.5, the combination of high temperature and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is projected to compromise normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors (high confidence).” 62 (emphasis added, UN IPCC March 25, 2014 Report)

8. (see) ;  See also: “Gender Quotas Increase the Equality and Effectiveness of Climate Policy Interventions” (see);

9. This applies to negotiations at all levels, beginning in the home, community and up to the highest levels of international treaty making)

10. Community groups, farmer field schools, child labor protection committees, Village Savings and Loan Associations, etc. are all examples of teams

11. See Jay Newton-Small’s book “Broad Influence” for more on the importance of 30% as a floor for quotas

12. “Project Drawdown’s Women and Girls Sector is deceptively small in number: its three solutions focus on the majority of humanity, and represent powerful ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (combined, educating girls and family planning are the #1 Drawdown solution). These solutions show that enhancing the rights and well-being of women and girls could improve the future of life on this planet.”

13. We did not focus here as much on the transformative role that increasing girl’s education levels plays in addressing climate change because this paper is targeted to company and investor engagement. Papers number two (governments) and three (communities) will go into greater depth on this topic. However, for those companies who do already invest in education, either through their supply chain or their philanthropy, there are direct positive
implications for you in this paper.

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