Fast-forwarding Women’s Leadership in the Green Economy


Speaking at a leadership roundtable organized by the Earth Network and UN Foundation, UN Women's Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri has stressed that empowering women, as producers and consumers, will dramatically propel the growth of a green economy.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning to all of you! It is a pleasure to join you for this breakfast roundtable on the occasion of Rio+20. I would like to thank the Earth Network and the United Nations Foundation for inviting me to speak on behalf of UN Women on the important topic of women's leadership in the green economy. As you know, the green economy is a key topic being discussed and, as we speak, delegations are still discussing what definitions and scope around this concept.

So what is a green economy?

It could be defined as an economy that results in improved human well-being and reduced inequalities, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities. A green economy seeks to bring long-term societal benefits to short-term activities aimed at mitigating environmental risks.

Green economy, understood either as a goal or a structural adjustment process to greener industrialization, agriculture, services sector and scientific and technological development, must not be seen as an end in itself, but as a pathway toward achieving the goals of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

In this context, it is clear that women's participation in inclusive, sustainable and green growth can propel the growth of a green economy. Women are consumers, they are also workers and producers, and in this context they play a crucial role in benefiting the growth of a green economy and in reaping the benefits from it.

The Harvard Business review estimated that in 2009 women controlled roughly US$20 trillion dollars of global consumer spending, with a predicted rise to US$28 trillion by 2014. Studies also showed that economically empowered women are more likely to purchase goods for their households — specifically for their children, including food, healthcare, education, clothing and personal-care products; and simultaneously they are more likely to buy recyclable, eco-labeled and energy efficient products.

So women's economic empowerment affects patterns of household spending and is likely to increase demand for sustainable services and products. This trend could lead to significant impact on green growth.

Studies also show that, if women's paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men in the US, Euro-zone and Japan, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would increase by 9 to 16 percent. Thus, economically empowered women are poised to propel a green economy.

But women are also workers and producers and the potential of their participation in a “green labour force should not be underestimated. Currently at least 80 percent of global green jobs are expected to be in the secondary sectors, such as construction, manufacturing and energy production — industries where women are currently under-represented. For example, women account for 9 percent of the workforce in construction, 12 percent in engineering, 15 percent in financial and business services, and 24 percent in manufacturing — all sectors critical to building a green economy.

To fill this shortage, training is needed. While this entails a cost; the benefits are many. On the production end, women trained in research and development for environmentally friendly products can contribute to designs that have both women and men in mind, enhancing the marketability and use of such products. Ultimately this influences sustainable consumption patterns. A 2008 report covering 15 countries by Goldman Sachs stated that “greater investments in female education could yield a ‘growth premium' that raises trend GDP by 0.2 percent per year.

Women's training in non-traditional sectors that are highly relevant for a sustainable future include agriculture, water, energy and ICT. Traditional public education and training, entrepreneurial “boot-camp, knowledge and technology hubs, women-to-women entrepreneurial training and development programmes that have leveraged the private sector are strong models to be considered for coalescing and up-scaling.

With increasing demand for professionals trained in green sectors and sustainable business practices, women provide an untapped resource for green growth. Therefore, targeted public support can ensure that girls and women have equal opportunities in education and training, leading to a stronger role in research and development on environmentally sound technologies.

Businesses have a key role to play in advancing these complementary objectives — gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community, as well as climate-smart and environmentally sound practices.

The Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs) — a joint initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact — are a set of seven principles that offer a clear, coherent and attainable vision of the contribution that business can make to advance gender equality in lock-step with sustainable economic growth. The result can mean good business for women, the environment, and the marketplace.

To fully capitalize on women's potential in a green economy, gaps in pay need to closed, women's paid employment needs to rise, and more women need to be in positions of corporate leadership. The overarching objective of Principles 1-5 is implementation of gender-sensitive workplace policies that enable women equal opportunity to advance in business. Principle 6 takes it a step further by encouraging businesses to promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy. And Principle 7 encourages the measuring and public reporting of progress. Combined, businesses can leverage their influence, lead by example, and economically empower women to propel a green economy.

WEPs Principle 4 encourages businesses to take a proactive role in helping women to fill this skills shortage by offering women training programmes, education, and professional development. In addition to helping women fill green-collar jobs, career development can help women break through the glass ceiling.

Women remain under-represented in high-level corporate leadership —accounting for 37 percent of lower-level and middle managers, and only 26 percent of vice presidents and senior managers —and lack of career development is often cited as one of the barriers for women. If business actively provides opportunities to women in non-traditional fields, they can nurture the talents of women needed to propel and sustain long-term ‘green' growth of their business and the economy overall.

WEPs Principle 5 promotes the empowerment of women through enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices. In particular it aims to remove barriers such as credit barriers for women, and foster growth of women-owned enterprises, including small businesses, by seeking them out for business. By empowering women-owned enterprises all along a sustainable supply chain, large buyers of raw materials and products can contribute to both women's equality in the business world and to sustainable economic growth.

There is also a need to invest in women-owned enterprises that use sustainable practices along the supply chain capitalizes on opportunities to help women grow their businesses and simultaneously advance green economic growth. Procurement policies that allocate a minimum proportion of budgets to women-owned sustainable enterprises are a concrete and systematic means to meet these objectives.

Supporting gender-sensitive solutions to credit and lending barriers can further empower women entrepreneurs. Micro-loans for women and similar credit methods are recognized globally as low-risk, with extremely high percentages of obligations met. Without such support, women-owned businesses across the world that aim to improve the sustainability of their value chain management are likely missing opportunities to have their business grow; and global businesses are missing the opportunity to expand the network of their global sustainable supply chain.

Of course, public policies are critical for this transition. Development of and access to green technologies should aim to close gender equality gaps, engage women ‘end-users' as stakeholders in the design process, and ensure equal opportunity for women scientists, innovators and decision-makers in their design and operations.

Concomitantly, there is a need to ensure that public policies promote gender-sensitive social protection for women, particularly those working in the informal sector, in the transition toward a green economy.

The ‘greening' of economies may also require the introduction of policy frameworks that promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production, public finance, and capacity development of local communities. Green policy instruments for moving along a sustainable growth path may require setting-up of specific incentive measures for both producers and consumers.

This may involve subsidizing sustainable methods of production and taxing harmful practices, and require ecological tax reforms that promote a shift of the tax base away from ‘good factors' of production (e.g. labour) to ‘bad factors' (e.g. pollution), therewith boosting employment for both women and men while correcting environmental externalities.

More broadly, an enabling environment must be created. Legal measures must be put in place to protect women's full and equal rights to land, property and inheritance. Gender-responsive budgeting in Ministries in charge of water, energy and agriculture is another tool to eliminate inequalities in access to basic services that simultaneously maximizes the effectiveness of development policies and contributes to the achievement of more equitable development outcomes. It was pioneered in 1994, soon after the adoption of Agenda 21, with over 40 initiatives worldwide at varying stages of implementation today.

Another successful measure has been the creation of sustainability service centres. Community centers that keep sustainability objectives front and centre can provide a user-friendly means to link individuals with government and private sector services that are needed most, especially by marginalized and poor women.

To date, models have combined various services in once place to respond to women's needs—health services, legal support, adult education and training, political mobilizing, etc.—with tremendous success. Variations of this have been shown to work in Aceh, Ghana, India, Nicaragua, Peru, Rwanda and Tajikistan, among other places. Few however proactively integrate sustainability in their support or services.

A sustainability service centre model could include: (1) basic education on eco-system health, pollution and climate change; (2) legal support for title to land or property; (3) literacy and civic education; (4) health care services, including sexual and reproductive health education; (5) physiological and legal support to navigate the justice chain and seek redress for violence, trafficking and related crimes; (6) education on women's rights and opportunities for social mobilization.

In conclusion, it has often been said that the green economy brings together the economic and environmental pillar of sustainable development. Women's participation in the green economy makes an important link to the social pillar. Their contributions are therefore not only central to sustainable development in its three dimensions, but also a key aspect of the integration of the three pillars - environmental, economic and social. Now is the time to make sure that the right policies and actions are in place to make this a reality.

Thank you.