What “sustainability” Barbie tells us about the rise of the women chief sustainability Officer

Is this a newsletter for Barbies? It may sound bizarre, but that was a question on my mind over the holidays, and the surprising answer may be yes.

Let me explain. Just before the holidays, Kate Brandt, the chief sustainability officer of Google, shared a photo of a brunette Barbie in corporate attire on LinkedIn, branded by Mattel as their “Chief Sustainability Officer” Barbie. The photo, to be clear, was not a gimmick, but part of a four-set Barbie “Eco-leadership team” the toymaker launched with naturalist Jane Goodall earlier in 2022. The set also includes a conservation scientist, renewable energy engineer, and environmental advocate Barbie.

For Mattel, it may be just one of the hundreds of Barbies they produce. But for many career women, sustainability Barbie struck a sensitive chord. “In the 80s it was Malibu Beach Barbie. In 2022, it’s Chief Sustainability Officer Barbie,” Brandt wrote. “I guess this is one measure of progress.” Thousands of her followers agreed.

In my feed, too, many people reacted positively to the reincarnation of Barbie as a sustainability-minded corporate executive. To Fortune’s own managing editor, Holly Epstein Ojalvo, it recalled the saying, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” “Barbie’s come a long way since I played with her myself as a girl,” she wrote.

But is there a more structural reason why a CSO Barbie speaks so much to the imagination, more perhaps than doctor Barbie or astronaut Barbie, which also exist?

It seems so. When I ascend to the Swiss mountain town of Davos later this month for the annual meeting of my former employer, the World Economic Forum, there will be more chief sustainability officers in attendance than ever before, and crucially, a majority will be women.

According to official numbers provided to me by the organization, the CSO presence at Davos tripled from 20 to 60 in the past five years. Remarkably, a full 60% of them will be women. It suggests both that companies are taking sustainability more seriously, and that most among them see women as the ideal executive to take on this challenge.

The percentage of women CSOs is even more surprising considering that across all business leaders, women never represented more than 25% of participants in Davos. The same is true in the American C-suite at large. According to McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace” report, only one in three vice presidents in corporate Americas are women, and in the C-suite, only one in four.

What explains this phenomenon? According to Gim Huay Neo, the managing director in charge of nature and climate at the World Economic Forum, there are two possible factors.

First, she told me, “[sustainability] is a cross-cutting role where you need to communicate with the external world, as well as within the business.” Women have traditionally been more interested and trained in this function, according to Neo.

Second, “when you think of sustainability, there is a high need for a systemic, holistic approach, and for partnerships within and across business. I hate to stereotype, but one could hazard a guess that the collaboration model is more intuitive to the female gender.”

Even so, isn’t this rise of the woman chief sustainability officer perhaps a new cul-de-sac for women, like chief HR officer or chief communications officer used to be?

Here too, the data is encouraging. In many companies, the chief sustainability officer is either a standalone role in the executive committee or combined with the role of chief strategy officer. It makes CSO a good step up to CEO. One prominent example is that of Helena Helmersson at H&M. Helmersson worked for five years in a sustainability role at the clothing giant before cracking the C-suite and ultimately making it to CEO.

The rise of the woman CSO is a reality across sectors, too. Women are in charge of sustainability at big tech firms such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce, at finance companies such as Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, and Bridgewater, and at commodity firms such as BP, Trafigura, and Anglo American.

Even at companies hailing from very conservative countries, such as Japan, the female CSO is on the rise, as evidenced by female CSOs at companies such as Hitachi, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, and Dentsu.

So, will sustainability be the vessel that allows more women to crack the C-suite? And does having women as CSO mean that companies become more aware of the need to become more sustainable?

Huay Neo certainly thinks so. “CSOs are already part of the C-suite bench strength and will take on a much more strategic role going forward given their importance for a company’s ‘license to operate’,” she said. Hence, “CSOs will be proactively considered for the ultimate leadership role in the company.”

With that, will Mattel someday have to bring to life another type of corporate Barbie: the CEO Barbie?

Let’s see.

Peter Vanham
Executive Editor, Fortune Impact and Connect

Also on our radar:

Republican voters support ESG policies more than their elected representatives

“Republicans could easily overextend themselves by going after corporations’ commitments in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies,” Lindsay Singleton, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan public affairs firm ROKK Solutions wrote in a commentary piece for Fortune this week. “Right off the bat, most voters (76%) feel companies play a vital role in society and should be held accountable to make a positive impact on the communities in which they operate. This finding is consistent across political lines, with both the majority of Republicans (69%) and Democrats (82%) in agreement–reflecting bipartisan common ground.”

SEC’s climate disclosures take effect even before their publication

“At least 10 companies including General Dynamics, Halliburton and EOG Resources have added climate change risks to their regulatory disclosures following demands from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which could use this information to defend its climate rule in court next year,” according to Financial Times’s Patrick Temple-West. He writes: “As [the SEC finalizes] its [proposed climate disclosures] rule, it has also been quietly stress-testing companies on their current climate risk disclosures. Starting in 2021, the agency sent letters to dozens of companies asking for more information on their climate risks.”


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