Why We Have So Few Women Leaders

In a TED talk that has rightfully received considerable attention, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently addressed the important question of “Why we have so few women leaders.”

The statistics that she points out are rather grim for women:

  • Out of 109 world leaders, only 9 are women
  • Of all the people in parliaments around the world, only 13% are women
  • In business, women hold no more than 15-16% of C-level and Board positions

Sandberg is focused on keeping women in the workforce, particularly in corporate positions. She prescribes the following recommendations for women:

  1. Sit at the table. According to Sandberg, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting at the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success or if they don’t even understand their success.” The problem lies in women systematically underestimating their abilities and attributing their success to external factors rather than their own abilities. This results in women not reaching out for opportunities as much as men.
  2. Make your partner a real partner. Right now, the work that is done outside the home is generally viewed as more important than the work done inside the home. This makes it harder for men who may choose to stay at home while their wives work outside the home. By placing both on more equal footing, it will make it easier for women to remain in the workforce.
  3. Don’t leave before you leave. Her theory here is that many women step back at work in advance of having children…once they are thinking about having kids, they might not take on more challenging projects or go after a promotion, which results in them “leaving” their work before they’ve physically left.

Although her talk centers on helping more women get to the top in corporate America, it has important implications for women entrepreneurs as well, since taking advantage of opportunities, balancing work and family life, how successful women are perceived, and believing in your own ability to be successful are all pertinent issues for those of us who start our own businesses.

She concludes by saying that a world in which half of the countries and companies in the world are run by women will be a better world. We may have a long ways to go before women hold 50% of the leadership positions in global politics and in corporate America, but in U.S. business as a whole, women have made greater strides. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data from 2007 indicates that “businesses where women were owners or half-owners numbered 12.4 million firms, representing 45.7 percent of all firms.” This trend in women’s entrepreneurship, particularly when combined with the trend in sustainable business, is indeed a powerful combination that can move us closer to a better world.

You can view the video below and then share your thoughts about it in the comments.

Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future West Coast Summit

Last Friday, approximately 200 women attended the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future West Coast Summit. This gathering, held at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, was a forum designed to allow women to “co-create a picture of success for the next phase of sustainability development.” Attendees represented the diverse mix of women in sustainable business, from MBA students to entrepreneurs to corporate executives.

The summit proved to be both interesting and informative. In particular, five questions were posed throughout the day to frame some of the larger issues around sustainability in business:

  1. How does business develop long-term strategies to think globally and act locally in today’s environment?
  2. How does business work with different kinds of partners or even competitors to make a difference?
  3. How are customer values changing? What can companies do to keep up?
  4. What are the lessons learned from businesses creating new jobs in the expanding sustainability arena?
  5. How do engaged employees continue to help companies develop and implement their sustainability strategies? What keeps employees involved and enthusiastic?

These are all, of course, questions that businesses are grappling with – developing long-term strategies in a dynamic environment, understanding the changing market, recognizing that success requires partnerships, creating jobs, and keeping employees engaged so as to retain the best talent.

The speakers included women who represented a wealth of experience in the field of sustainable business:

  • Dr. Sharon Nunes, VP of Smart Cities Strategy & Solutions at IBM, spoke about “Sustaining Sustainability.” She outlined the major trends that businesses need to be considering, including social/demographic trends (e.g., increased urbanization), economic trends (e.g., global financial crisis), environmental (e.g., cities are seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions and increase their energy from renewable sources), and technological (e.g., emerging technologies) and explained how IBM is responding to these. In particular, she articulated one of the most important challenges for business today: to create relevant and compelling solutions that people will be willing to pay for.
  • Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, delivered the afternoon keynote. In a lively address, she explained the steps that the federal government has taken to support the clean energy economy. The GreenGov Challenge, for example, asked federal employees to identify ways in which federal agencies could reduce their environmental impact. When asked about the role of the Department of Defense in federal sustainability efforts, she remarked that the DOD has already recognized climate change as a national security threat and is quite forward-thinking in this regard. She also made it clear that we as a nation must build a clean economy if we are to continue to lead the world.
  • Kimberly Hosken, (Program Director, Green Building at Johnson Controls), Allison Taylor (VP, Sustainability for the Americas, Siemens Corporation), and Melissa O’Mara (VP, Green Building Solutions, Schneider Electric) were all part of an afternoon panel. During this wide-ranging session, they discussed topics such as the challenges of working with business units throughout the world and working with their supply chains to minimize their environmental impact. One of the more interesting themes that emerged, especially since this panel followed Nancy Sutley’s keynote about how the U.S. must lead with a clean economy, was their observation about the challenges they face with China and Europe. Coming from women who are on the ground throughout the world with international corporations, their comments about finding it hard to keep up with how quickly things were changing in China and how Europe has a clearer vision about sustainability than the U.S. were particularly provocative. At the same time, they described ways in which their businesses are seeking innovative partnerships and collaborations, sometimes even with competitors, which is a fundamental difference between the “old” way of doing business and the “new” way required by a changing world.
  • Judy Estrin, serial entrepreneur, author, and founder of JLabs LLC, delivered the final address on the topic of innovation. She provided an overview of types of innovation and described the five core values necessary for innovation: questioning/curiosity, risk, openness, patience, and trust. In a part of her talk reminiscent of what Dr. Nunes had said about changing trends, she underscored the fact that 21st century realities are creating opportunities for innovation, as we find that traditional solutions no longer work. Interestingly, she also pointed out that significant growth will only come from innovation-driven start-ups and new industries (my personal twist on this is that it is the combination of women-owned business and sustainable business that will lead the way to a healthy, thriving economy).

Why Women Business Owners & Sustainable Businesses Are a Powerful Combination

The statistics from the last few years confirm that women entrepreneurs are a force to be reckoned with. Women are starting businesses at twice the national rate, and the revenue from women-owned businesses is estimated at $2.8 trillion, according to an October 2009 report on the economic impact of women-owned businesses. If U.S.-based women-owned businesses were their own country, they would have the 5th largest GDP in the world.

At the same time, we’re seeing that many of our most common business practices are fundamentally unsustainable. For example, many businesses today are built on the use of cheap labor from third world countries to develop products full of toxins that are then shipped worldwide using fossil fuels. How long, realistically, can such a model be sustained? The rise of sustainable business is in large part due to the realization that business models dependent upon the indiscriminate use of both social and natural resources are not sustainable in the long term.

Both women-owned businesses and sustainable businesses are fairly new trends in business. Neither had an impact until perhaps the past 20 years, and weren’t even a consideration during the Industrial Revolution when many of our business practices were established. Now, however, they are both positioned to significantly change the way we do business in the 21st century.

The opportunity that we have with women-owned businesses is this: to harness that entrepreneurial activity and steer it in a sustainable direction. By doing so, we can demonstrate that businesses can be successful without depending upon the exploitation of workers in third-world countries. We can show that businesses can be successful without destroying our natural environment or exposing us to toxins in the products we bring into our homes. We can show that business has a role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. We can develop businesses that benefit the communities in which they operate.

All of this is possible through sustainable business, which shows that businesses can be financially profitable while also being ecologically sustainable and socially beneficial. And women can lead the way, because we are the ones who are currently driving much of the entrepreneurial activity. If small businesses are the engine of the economy, then women are in the driver’s seat. We can choose the path that we want to take.

What do you think? Would you like to develop your business to be sustainable? Why or why not?

Sustainability for Solo Service Professionals

When it comes to sustainability, most of the attention is focused on how large corporations can minimize their environmental impact. Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index, for example, received much fanfare when it was first announced, since the ripple effects of the world’s largest retailer greening its supply chain would be considerable. However, even solo service professionals have a supply chain and can take steps to reduce their carbon footprints. In fact, in many ways the issues are similar to those of a large corporation but on a much smaller scale. Here are some ways to reduce your impact:

  • Marketing: Despite the plethora of technological means of communication, the humble business card remains a required business product. And here lies the first choice to make. Do you order the free business card printed on virgin paper, or do you choose a green printer who uses recycled paper? I recommend using a printer like Greenerprinter, whose sustainability practices have been vetted by third-party organizations (full disclosure: I handled sustainability and marketing for Greenerprinter prior to launching Cultivating Capital).
  • Office: Whether you work at home or in an office building, you can still take steps to improve your energy efficiency. For example, many basic steps include using compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) instead of incandescent lightbulbs and installing low-flow toilets that use less water when flushing.
  • Supplies: Do you purchase disposable items like stirrers and paper napkins, or use items like spoons and cloth napkins instead? (I recently switched to cloth napkins at home, which means that I no longer have to purchase paper napkins at all.) Also, do you buy from large chains like Office Max/Office Depot or a business like Give Something Back that donates profits back to the community? Shifting your purchases away from disposable items and purchasing from businesses that operate responsibly will support the transition to a green economy.
  • Beverages: Even a home office requires a necessary cup of coffee or tea to start the day. When you choose your morning beverage, consider using fair trade coffee or tea. Fair trade ensures that the workers who grew the coffee beans or the tea plants are paid a fair wage and work under fair labor conditions. Plus, if you carry fair trade beverages in your office, you have the opportunity to educate your clients about it when you offer them a drink in your waiting room or during your appointment. And remember, when it comes to water avoid plastic bottles. Watch the “Story of Bottled Water” for more on this important topic.
  • Transportation: Of course, many solo service professionals attend networking events, conferences, client meetings, and a number of other gatherings. Fortunately, when it comes to transportation and meetings, there are many alternatives. Video conferences and webinars can eliminate the need for in-person meetings in some cases. When face-to-face meetings are necessary, you can choose meeting locations that are accessible by public transportation. Driving can then become a last resort.
  • Raising awareness: Because sustainability is not limited to a given industry but rather affects all of us in many ways, every industry is being touched in some way. For example, the American Psychological Association has begun researching psychological reasons for the denial of climate change. Sustainability is a relatively new concern for most people, so there might be an opportunity within your industry for you to raise awareness among your colleagues about the effects of sustainability on your profession.

These are just a few things to think about in terms of your environmental impact as a solo service professional. What else would you add to this list?