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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Women Leading Change

4 January 2022 - In our first blog of the new year, Zoë Arden, CISL Fellow and Head Tutor of the Women Leading Change: Shaping Our Future online course, explores how we can harness our resolve to tackle environmental and social injustice to ensure 2022 is a year of significant progress. 

 A New Year often means new resolutions. But despite new goals, we carry over the old problems. Still on our list from 2021 are challenges like climate change, the pandemic, and hyper-polarisation on so many issues as public discourse is reduced to social media sound bites. By January 12th, despite our best intentions, most people will have dropped their resolutions according to a survey by Strava that analysed 31.5m online global activities. However, unlike committing to an extra workout, we must maintain our resolve to tackle environmental and social injustice. 
If our shared New Year’s Resolution for humanity is a world in which humankind and the planet can flourish, how can we support ourselves and others to lead change? We all know the definition of insanity is doing the same thing - with the same types of people - and expecting a different result. If we are to achieve the radical collaboration required to get innovative solutions at scale, we must ensure all voices are included. 
Experts say that to keep commitments you first need to clarify why you want to make the change. One big why is because we have the opportunity to shape solutions in a way that is systemic and inclusive. And a first step to achieving inclusion is to address gender inequalities.   
Systemic inequality is deep coded in traditions, religions and societies. It intersects with everything from human rights, conflict, the economy to healthcare, technology and education.  The evidence is that women are disproportionately affected by disruptive transitions. For example, according to the UN, women often face greater risk and burdens from the effects of climate change because they have limited access to resources and justice.  
The case for addressing gender inequality is clear: Equality brings benefits not just to women, but to society as a whole. The involvement of women can promote a healthier, more peaceful, prosperous and just transition to a carbon positive future.   
Creating inclusive cultures starts with equal representation and role models. After 16 years as the most visible woman on the world stage, Angela Merkel may have stepped down but, some suggest, with the announcement of a gender-equal Cabinet, new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has stepped up. “Women and men account for half the population each, so women should also get half the power,” he declared. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern’s ‘incredibly diverse’ cabinet in 2019 included nearly 50% women including Maori Nanaia Mahuta as foreign minister.  
As we know, recent climate negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow were less inclusive. As the co-founder of SHE Changes Climate campaign, Antoinette Vermilye, observed, “Lack of female leadership in climate decisions affects our economy, our social structure, our ability to innovate and create solutions”.  Also missing were marginalised communities and youth. The action, optimism and innovation of younger generations is going to be critical in delivering our resolutions on climate long-term. Young activists like Greta Thunberg and Kenya’s Wanjiru Wathuti continue to challenge world leaders for their lack of action.   
Progress can be fragile and, in some parts of the world, women still face unimaginable hurdles to achieving equality. Consider Afghanistan, where in a matter of days last summer the Taliban reversed two decades of positive progress for women in leadership as ministers, ambassadors, governors, judges and police. With shocking speed, the Women’s Affairs Ministry was replaced with the ‘Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’. A recent UN Gender Alert highlighted ‘the rapid reversal in the fundamental rights and freedoms for women and girls including education and employment’. As one Afghan woman wrote, “I did not expect that we would be deprived of all our basic rights again and travel back to 20 years ago. That after 20 years of fighting for our rights and freedom, we should be hunting for burqas and hiding our identity.”   
Alongside making progress in global politics, we need women to lean on other levers of change like finance and business.  There remain real challenges in women having equal access to power and influence. Women who are most vulnerable are not at the decision-making table and need to be.  We need to remove the barriers for these voices to be heard and harnessed. This includes representation in business and on boards, creating a visible path for others to follow.  
Also essential for commitment keeping are measurable goals and action steps. According to research from World Economic Forum, the earliest that parity on corporate boards will be reached is 2039 and potentially as late as 2070. In 2021, women accounted for only 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs and only 6% of the US-based S&P 500. Of the Fortune 500 companies, only two of the CEOs are African American women. Meanwhile the global gender pay gap will take an extra 36 years to close after the pandemic (WEF 2021 Global Gender Gap Report). It is important that we raise awareness of these chasms and establish proactive programmes, policies and targets to address them.  
On strengthening our resolve, the next factors are mindset and support. As well as structural hurdles, we can consider cultural changes that foster inclusivity. This includes embracing leadership qualities that have traditionally been gendered as ‘feminine’ such as empathy, humility and nurturing. There is a need to support women and men to equip themselves to not just navigate ‘corridors of power’ but to create new working environments where everyone, regardless of their identity, can be themselves and adopt new narratives. To speak the language of learning, not failing; collaboration as well as competition; and of growth - not just in terms of GDP - but the flourishing and well-being of all peoples and the planet. We need to nurture our nature not battle it.  
Finally, to keep our resolutions, we can celebrate success and share our stories as US vice president Kamala Harris has done. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities” she said on election night and those ripples of possibility extend beyond US borders.  
In 2022, let’s strengthen our commitment to build inclusive communities. Let’s equip ourselves with the capability, confidence, and courage to lead change through radical inclusion and radical collaboration that includes all voices. Now that sounds like a New Year’s resolution that’s worth keeping. 

Find out more about CISL's online short course 'Women Leading Change: Shaping Our Future'. For more information on our position and work on leadership, visit the leadership hub.

About the author


Zoë Arden is a CISL fellow and the co-convenor of Women Leading Change: Shaping Our Future, the latest online short course from CISL which starts on March 2nd 2022.  The course will support women who want to focus their energies on addressing inequalities as part of strategic and systemic transformations; and who want to achieve change in their own context including tackling the barriers they and others face.  


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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