News & Insights Blog & Insights Role models, defining gender equality, coping in tough times and words of advice: Rita Clifton and Dr Sally Uren mark International Women’s Day We know that gender equality and universal respect for human rights regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age and more is key to creating a just and regenerative future. To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, Forum’s Chair, Rita Clifton CBE, and Chief Executive, Dr Sally Uren OBE, share personal reflections on their role models, what it means to advance gender equality in the context of multiple sustainability crises, what advice they would give to younger female voices in the sector, and how they balance the many competing demands of work and home life. Firstly, who is your female role model and why? Rita Clifton: I am slightly struggling between Jacinda Ardern and Michelle Obama! Jacinda because she manages to run a country, deal with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, terrorist attacks and pandemics whilst holding a baby and being a thoroughly decent human being. She refuses to accept that you cannot be strong and kind, and I totally agree with her. Michelle because she is so warm, witty and brilliant. Her book ‘Becoming’ makes you want to laugh, cry and admire her even more. Both have also talked honestly about experiencing imposter syndrome and how you can even turn it into a positive, which was actually the subject of my book ‘Love Your Imposter’. Oh yes, and both say they love dancing, which I too find very therapeutic on all levels. Sally Uren: I’m going to stick with the first person that popped into my mind, which is my dad’s lovely mum who was known as Nanna to us and Laura Uren to everyone else. She was one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met, and taught me a lot about being a good human being. With her lilting Welsh accent - which after decades in the flatlands of the East Midlands she never lost - she would help anyone. She was endlessly patient, particularly with my dad, who always had some enterprise hatching, and her unconditional love shone through. I’m reminded of her more these days, as my 18-year-old son stumbles from one scrape to another, and I look at him with a mixture of disbelief and love. What does gender equality look like for you and why is it important as we work to tackle global environmental and social challenges? Rita: To me, gender equality is obviously about making sure that we can all live our lives freely, without any physical or emotional fear, and to have truly equal opportunities to be all we can be throughout our lives. The power in the world today is currently ridiculously skewed towards one gender. Over 90 percent of all the world’s public and private institutions are run by men, and the same dynamic applies for the nations of the world. This kind of imbalance at the top of organisations and nations is inhuman and, unsurprisingly, can lead to unbalanced decisions about economies, people and planet. We need to ensure that women get equal access to education and economic opportunities at every level, and we need many, many more women at the very top of organisations to lead, epitomise and enforce that balance. I don’t just mean being senior, I mean as Chief Executives, Chairs, Director Generals, Presidents and Prime Ministers making the final decisions on what affects humanity and our priorities. This is not to say that men cannot be empathetic and make good decisions, but that things work better when they’re balanced. There’s a lot of profound research into this, and if women are supposed to ‘hold up half the sky’, we’ve got to be up there in equal balance. We need to ensure that women get equal access to education and economic opportunities at every level, and we need many, many more women at the very top of organisations to lead, epitomise and enforce that balance. Sally: For me, gender equality is about all girls and women having equal and fair access to all that they need. Like Rita, it staggers me that this isn’t the case in 2022. The private and public sector are still dominated by men, and in some parts of the world, entire societies. This matters as our global environmental and social challenges are systemic challenges, requiring systems change. A key enabler of systems change is harnessing the power and agency of all actors in a given system, which is hard to do when some girls and women don’t even have a voice. How does gender equality connect to other areas of inclusivity and to just transitions (through which no one is left behind) more broadly? Rita: The whole concept of fairness and balance directly relates to the balance we see between gender in society. For example, we know that when women are able to continue in education, it transforms the broader community as well as their own lives. Also, a better gender balance encourages a more balanced perspective when it comes to family and working life. Equally, giving women fairer access to funding means greater gender equality all round. For example, research into a range of developing nations observed that an increase in the proportion of women accessing microfinance services by just 15 percent could potentially reduce gender inequality by half in the average developing nation. Research also suggests that female investors and entrepreneurs tend to view sustainability as more important. According to a 2020 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report, 54 percent of women entrepreneurs say that beyond financial returns, reducing their carbon footprint is their top measure of success in investing; compared to 41 percent of men. Sally: Gender equality is a central plank of inclusivity, and as such, is a cornerstone of the notion of a ‘just transition’. A just transition to a zero carbon future that leaves no one behind as a milestone towards a just and regenerative future is one of the most important transitions we need to pay attention to right now. It is also a transition that will require the rewiring and reconfiguring of all our underlying systems, from food to energy to health, driven by a shift in the goals of these systems towards equity, justice and regeneration. The universal respect of human rights is a critical component of this deep transformation. Without due attention to all aspects of equality and equity, including gender, we are more likely to see a transition that is shallow, and a long way from just. Gender equality is a central plank of inclusivity, and as such, is a cornerstone of the notion of a ‘just transition’. A just transition to a zero carbon future that leaves no one behind as a milestone towards a just and regenerative future is one of the most important transitions we need to pay attention to right now. Forum for the Future’s latest Future of Sustainability campaign, Looking Back to Go Forward, is exploring lessons learned from 25+ years of sustainable development efforts. Over that time, how have you seen approaches to gender equality shift? Where has the world succeeded in securing greater equality and where have we failed? Rita: 25 years ago I would almost always be the only senior female executive in the boardroom. Today, in many economies, just under 20 percent of boardrooms around the world are made up of women. Encouragingly, it’s closer to 40 percent in many European markets. When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I was the first senior woman in my company to have a baby and come back to work full-time. Even so, I always felt I had to pretend that nothing had changed. I came back to work only 10 weeks after she was born and it was honestly agony to leave her. Historically, the workplace has been so geared to presenteeism that it made the choice between work and family life stark and inhuman. If there has been any human benefit from the pandemic, it is that the trends towards flexible working and shared family care have accelerated. Let’s see how we can make even more progress. Sally: Like Rita, I have seen seismic shifts in gender equality over my 30 years in sustainability. Gone are the days where I would be the only female in the room, digging deep into internal reserves to find the confidence and bravado to voice and own my views. I also felt huge pressure to come back to work soon after my first child, not from my employer, but from an inner voice that was telling me I would lose the space I had created in which I could lead a team. I just thought, ‘Poof! If I’m not there everything I’ve created might disappear’. It was definitely the case that, as a woman, it took twice as much effort to get noticed. We’ve made huge progress in sustainability, in STEM subjects, and in many other parts of our society and economy. There is still a way to go though. Patriarchal systems have deep roots in power and privilege, and may bend, but then ping back to their default settings. It’s up to all of us to keep pushing at the edges and to keep shifting the status quo. Where is gender equality failing? No surprise, it is usually where democracy has failed. Democracy is fundamental to sustainable development. It’s also pretty useful for gender equality. The sustainability movement is seeing young people raise their voices more than ever before. What advice would you give to young women looking to work in the sustainability sector? And what do you feel are the most prevalent barriers or challenges they face? Rita: It is just so exciting to see the passion and commitment so many young people now have towards the environment and sustainability. I have been involved with the environmental movement for over 40 years and, for so long, it was such a frustrating endeavour. Trying to persuade people of the urgency and scale of change needed was often greeted with disbelief and apathy. Young people have inspired me, not only with their energy but also in the way that young men and women are working together so unselfconsciously. Having said that, we still see so few women at the head of organisations; just 6.7 percent of board chairs globally are women, with female CEOs even rarer at 5 percent in 2021. There are still structural barriers and unconscious – as well as conscious – biases when it comes to female progress. We need to keep up the pressure on organisations when it comes to flexible working, shared parental leave, and unbiased selection processes. However, in conversations with many talented young women, they have often expressed a lack of confidence to see themselves in the top roles, a difficulty in believing in themselves and putting themselves forward. That’s one of the other reasons I wrote ‘Love Your Imposter’, which is about how to help tackle the imposter feelings that around 70 percent of people feel, and which can get in the way of progressing.Sally: First, recognise your agency and power. It is real and it means you can make a difference. Second, dream big. If you shoot for the moon, you might reach a few stars on the way. Third, be persistent. And lastly, be kind to yourself. First, recognise your agency and power. It is real and it means you can make a difference. Second, dream big. If you shoot for the moon, you might reach a few stars on the way. Third, be persistent. And lastly, be kind to yourself. Finally, as a woman balancing many demands both at home and at work - and in a rapidly changing world - what are your coping mechanisms? Rita: In theory, I try to use yoga-type breathing and visualisation techniques to keep me calm and effective. I have learned many of these from personal development programmes and would recommend these courses. Having a clear purpose is helpful to give you energy. But honestly, when I was working full time and the children were small, it was all I could do to stay awake sometimes. In dire straits, I must confess that I have occasionally ‘coped’ with unhealthy snacks and escapist television! However, I really do find that walking in nature and dancing of all kinds is incredibly therapeutic and releases the soul. Failing that, I am a regular user of Bach’s Rescue Remedy. Sally: After having spectacularly difficult moments where I can only have been described as demonstrating the opposite of coping (tears, harrumphing, borderline rudeness), my first coping strategy is to be very alert to those signs of being overwhelmed and to do something about it. Take time out, go for a walk, a run, find a new book to read, and sometimes, just stop completely - and breathe. I’ve also tried to train myself, with mixed success, to step back from difficult situations and figure out what is really going on: what is the root cause of the behaviours and the context I am in? Sometimes, understanding this means you can find ways of addressing the situation. If none of the above works, and things are going truly pear shaped, I find a glass of wine can be very helpful! Rita Clifton CBE is a portfolio chair and non-executive director of leading businesses and in the non-profit sector. She is also a writer, speaker and mentor. In the 2014 New Year’s Honours List, Rita was awarded a CBE for services to the creative industries and in 2020, became Chair of Forum for the Future - supporting overall strategic direction for the organisation. As Forum’s Chief Executive, Dr Sally Uren has overall responsibility for delivering Forum’s mission to accelerate a big shift towards a just and regenerative future by catalysing transformational change in global systems. In 2017, Sally received an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to sustainability in business.