ESG investors may be the key to achieving true gender parity

Pressure from these sustainability-conscious investors have made gender equality a true business imperative

The business world as we know it just feels like it has reached a crossroads, or a chapter ending. Whether as a result of sustained economic stagnation globally, depressed markets, rising unemployment or global geopolitical tensions (or combinations thereof) theres a sense that things are falling apart so that a new stronger foundatio can be built. The buzz around the Future of Work is catching a lot of momentum and it’s no secret that it’s here to stay.

In the never-ending quest for economic growth, companies are today under pressure to consider changes that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Remember the days when all that investors cared about were financial returns? Today, there is a new breed of investor who is using their shareholder status to positively influence corporate sustainability in the areas of corporate social responsibility and governance. Termed ESG (Environmental Social Governance) Investors, they work with other influential investors and companies to tackle business sustainability challenges including climate change, water scarcity and pollution, human rights abuses, and inequitable workplaces including gender parity and mainstreaming.

These were the types of issues that earned people labels as “tree huggers” but today ESG investing is serious business. This is music to the ears of a CHRO who can now get buy in from investors who care about the gender mainstreaming agenda. 

Today, we know that a sustainable global economy benefits both people and our planet. And we know that investors and companies that integrate sustainability into decision-making outperform their peers. 

While most discussions around sustainability tend to centre on environment, the potential power of having greater workplace equity is starting to bubble and boil as well. And with good reason. 

Adding to the above, research has shown that this makes business sense and improves productivity.  

Women in almost every society around the world are revered within families, cultures and communities - we even call our continent “Mother Africa”. Yet, with Maria Ramos shortly due to step down from her role as ABSA CEO, there will be no woman CEO in any of the top 40 companies listed on the JSE. At the same time, we are witness to case after case of audacious corporate corruption and greed rise to the surface.

This may be convenient for my generalisation, but most people who work for a woman manager find the work experience to be no less pressured than with a male manager, but with a different flavour. The feedback I’ve received from my own previous teams is that I was one the the toughest person they had worked under. Then they ask me to rehire them.

In this digital age of online everything, relationships matter. Probably as much as likes or followers depending on the context, but the ability to connect on human levels with our fellow people is going to be crucial as work evolves and competition with machines and AI for jobs becomes real. 

Collaboration is after all a key skill in the Future of Work.  

In simple terms, we cannot beat them at their own game, just as they cannot beat us at ours – being human. 

As HR professionals, we are racing towards adopting diversity and inclusion policies and practices in our workplaces, for all sorts of reasons, including investor pressure. Sometimes the best of intentions needs to be prodded into action after all.

I wish that we worked in places that didn’t need such a fundamental concept to be regulated or policed, in order to exist. Yet, I also understand that without such interventions, there would be no real gender representation along societal lines in businesses. 

There is great vibrancy of corporate social contribution in South Africa as a result of businesses seeking BBEEE compliance. Unfortunately, the management of underlying programs within companies, including those focussed at graduate development, diversity and inclusion, and community partnerships are typically, run by HR and separated from those business areas focussed on future of work and digital transformation themes.

I see true empowerment (I’m not a fan of that word, but that’s a conversation for another day) of women happening beyond the traditional workplace as well. In the very homes where they already rule, the platform economy throws up the relishing proposition for our women to have greater autonomy over their work. Not just to showcase or market home-produced items, but to work on freelancer bases for companies on projects, assignments or gigs.

In my version of the future of work, permanent workforces will shrink, and companies will use on-demand skills through the platform economy to infuse specialised talent into projects. In such a scenario, current obstacles preventing women from traditional work (e.g. long commutes, family responsibility, unconscious workplace bias etc) are shattered. 

The crossroad is here, and the page needs turning. It is time to stop treating gender equality as an issue or an initiative but rather as a fundamental business reality that creates value.