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Why we can't tackle the climate crisis without ending inequality

I was recently invited to give a 'TED' style talk to the board of a global packaging company, about how diversity and inclusion can be a driver for business growth.

Now, the last thing I planned on doing was to defend the importance of having a diverse workforce in purely economic terms. Not my bag. And, my hunch was right that one of the other speakers was going to have more McKinsey and Deloitte reports you can shake a stick out, to show that yes, D&I is pretty much guaranteed to improve business performance.

So I chose to focus instead on interrelated challenges of inequality and climate change. I spent my allotted ten minutes argued that a) all businesses are under threat from climate change and b) we're not going to be able to deal with climate change without tackling inequality. Here's the one minute version if you're pressed for time:

  • Every business is threatened by climate change–there's no growth on a dead planet

  • A very narrow bunch of people are making decisions about how we tackle it, people most insulated from the problem

  • To implement the radical and creative solutions we'll need to stand a chance of succeeding, we need to change the faces around the table, and look at many facets beyond gender inequality

  • Organisations need to be safe, diverse and inclusive places to work (as a MINIMUM) so that voices typically left out get to be heard

If you've got another five minutes then grab a cuppa, settle in, and have a read of the full version:

We cannot tackle the climate crisis without addressing the global inequality crisis

A fundamental threat to every single business on this planet is the climate crisis. This makes the business case for climate action irrefutable. Yet our investments in climate change mitigation have accomplished little, and our efforts to limit its impact have fallen short.

Mark Carney - firms  ignoring the climate crisis will go bankrupt
Image: The Guardian

While climate change is a global crisis that affects us all and knows no boundaries or borders, it disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable in our national and global societies. We cannot tackle the climate crisis without addressing the global inequality crisis.

Inequality is pervasive and growing. The Covid crisis has laid bare structural inequality even more starkly:

  • Black indigenous and ppl of colour are disproporationately dying of COVID

  • Millions of garment workers, mainly women, were left destitute when global brands failed to honour their orders

  • Economic disruption from the coronavirus outbreak has disproportionately burdened women with unpaid care for children, the elderly and the sick. Far more women lost their jobs than men

The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 revealed that gender parity will not be attained for another 99.5 years. None of us will see gender equality in our lifetimes.

From Covid, to the climate crisis and global poverty, we need to rebuild systems and societies that offer justice and safety to everyone.

The hidden figures of the climate movement

Most people today are familiar in some capacity with Greta Thunberg. She’s done an excellent job as a campaigner on the climate crisis. But the intense media focus on a charismatic Swedish school girl obscures

the faces of the people that are most affected and fighting hardest for environmental justice, something that Greta herself has often pointed out.

I found a photo series on Instagram profiling the hidden figures of the climate movement, using mocked up Time magazine covers. From the people campaigning against water being contaminated by lead in Flint in the USA, to indigenous environmental defenders in Ecuador that are being murdered in horrifying numbers.

For far too long the most affected people in the areas most affected by climate change (women, refugees, young people, older people, the sick, poor people) are left out, even erased from decision making about how we tackle this existential crisis. That lack of representation of how the world really looks today extends to the business world, the NGO sector and government departments.

A recent report by the B. Corp Climate Collective calls for the global business community to make a fundamental shift in mindset and behavior, to evolve from extractive and exploitative to regenerative and equity-driven, putting those who are most impacted by climate change at the forefront of driving solutions.

What is the result of having such a homogenous group of people in decision making roles?

  • Framing climate change, or the climate crisis primarily as an environmental issue that will be resolved via ‘rapid decarbonisation’ of industry

  • Keeping ‘environmental issues’ (water scarcity, pollution, biodiversity ‘loss’) in a separate category from ‘social issues’ (low incomes, abuses of land rights, gender inequality). Which gives the false impression that these issues are often, if not always, wholly intertwined

  • Any many more unhealthy consequences, which I had a stab at listing in this article

Who bears the brunt of climate change?

We know that women are far more vulnerable to the climate crisis than men; some 80% of ppl displaced in 2015 by climate change were women. Why is this?

Women have less access to basic human rights and are poorer. There are many barriers to their economic independence, from less access to education and financing compared to their male counterparts that would help them build resilience to a changing climate. They are responsible for looking after children and the elderly and can't easily move to safer areas when disaster strikes.

So what about people living in richer countries? You'd be forgiven for assuming that the most vulnerable to environmental threats would be people living in coastal areas threatened by sea level rise. However the people most affected by environmental issues are poorer (overwhelmingly ethnic minorities) who are forced to live close to polluted roads and power plants, in areas where parks and tree planting doesn't happen, who end up contracting health issues from polluted air and water. A report found that 78% of all African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal fired power plant.

Power plant in Houston

Yet the most affected people globally are not represented at global climate talks, or in board rooms making decisions about how to respond to the climate crisis. Conventional climate leadership has centered the voices and ideas of white men, an imbalance that falls short in both fairness and efficacy.

The climate crisis is both a human rights crisis and the result of a failure of leadership.

A seat at the table

My fundamental belief is that the people experiencing the impacts and most affected MUST be in rooms where decisions are made. Which brings us to diversity and inclusion, and why it is essential for any organisation that intends to adequately respond to today’s global challenges.

So, what is to be done?

Many companies have targets around achieving equal, or at least less unequal gender balance at board level. This is needed, but there are pitfalls here. Gender is not, by any means, the only metric we should be looking at.

Some of you will be familiar with the term intersectionality–“a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other." The term was coined in 1989 by pioneering American Law Professor Kimberlee Crenshaw.

What does paying attention to intersectionality mean in practice? It means that my experiences as an able-bodied, white, middle class, English speaking, cis woman is totally different from, say, a black woman with a physical disability whose parents came to the UK as refugees.

And our ability to access positions of influence is undoubtedly unequal because of our different life chances and identities. Yes there is a glaring gender pay gap, but there is also an ethnic pay gap which is just as important - and of course the two overlap.

Falling off the glass cliff

What happens if more diverse people attain leadership roles? An important phenomenon that I recently heard of in a Ted Talk by Sophie Williams about the idea of the glass cliff.

Sophie explains how, unlike the glass ceiling, where women and racially marginalised people struggle to reach the top echelons of companies, the glass cliff about how, if a woman for example gets to a board level position that they are often set up for failure.

She goes on to cite various studies that illustrate the phenomemon. The University of Utah studied the appointment of women and racially marginalised men in Fortune 500 companies over 15 years. They found that these leaders often get appointed when a company is experiencing poor performance. This results in a narrative that it is there fault when the business fails to quickly thrive, that they are not the right person to be running it, leading to another white man being brought in to replace her and get things back on track

There is also evidence from the Universities of Texas and Michigan showing that when predominantly white male managers have a leader in whom they do not see themselves directly mirrored back (white and male) they lose a sense of personal connection to the business and investment in the job. This means their work suffers, and serves to further undermine their leader. They also tend to neglect any team members that do not also look like them, thus discouraging a new cohort of leaders from rising.

Banishing the imposter

The term imposter syndrome is often brought up as something an individual should strive to overcome. The feeling you are a fraud and bound to fail at your job. Let me be honest with you, speaking at a board meeting like the one I gave this talk to is a recipe for imposter syndrome, and I certainly needed to fight it off (and told them as much!).

When you are in workplace where you look, think and act differently from your peers, and in a society where racism, sexism and ableism (to name a few) are rife, then it’s no wonder that people can not reach their full potential.

This is backed up by evidence. A huge study by Google found that psychological safety (the feeling you can make a mistake and not get in trouble) was the key factor linking all high-performing teams. This feeling of safety allows people to try out new things and take risks at work. And it encourages divergent thinking, which is essential to creativity and innovation.

Woman staring out of high rise window
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

Different leadership for a different future

So, it’s not just about changing the faces. To achieve diversity, far more people need to feel welcome and be set up for success. They need adequate support. Coaching and mentoring. Flexible working. Proper maternity policies. Equal pay and equal representation. Safe ways to report discrimination and abuse.

And the people that are already overrepresented in organisations will probably need to go through a process of education and change themselves, as we are seeing with many companies undertaking long overdue antiracism and unconscious bias training.

So, what does this all mean?

Diversity and inclusion are important goals in themselves. But they are also essential if companies are serious about attacking global challenges effectively.

We are living in an age where our entire socioeconomic system needs to be redesigned. From energy, to agriculture and finance and healthcare. We need to be harnessing diversity of thought and creativity from people with varied experiences of life.

Finally we must be looking beyond simple metrics of percentages of women on boards and taking a truly intersectional approach. Taking the time to listen to people’s experiences, to listen to what they think needs to happen within an organisation to feel included and to attract and retain a diverse group of talented people.

It won’t be easy. We have a long way to go. But it is vital we try.


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