All the sustainable ladies: 10 women who will inspire you

As the effort to achieve equality for all women and girls continues this International Women’s Day, here are 10 women who are leading the global push towards climate action, gender equality, and social justice for all.

woman greenhouse uzbekistan
A woman tends to her greenhouse in Uzbekistan. The United Nations observes International Women's Day every 8 March. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong’s popular saying proclaims that women hold up half the sky. But as the skies grow ever more unpredictable with increasingly intense rains, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts, women also shoulder a disproportionate share of the impact of climate change.

Whether it is access to food and water in times of resource scarcity, land ownership, or even being able to swim in areas prone to flooding, research by academics and NGOs shows that women are significantly disadvantaged compared to men

At the same time, they are marginalised in the economic and political spheres where the decisions about climate and environmental policy, finance, and sustainable business are made. This is despite the view of many experts that women’s skills, knowledge, and leadership are critical for solving challenges such as hunger and malnutrition, climate mitigation and resilience, and inclusive policymaking.

This International Women’s Day, on March 8, the call for a future where all women and girls have equal opportunities and rights remains unchanged. But for now, here are 10 inspiring women (in alphabetical order) who are already leading the movement for climate action, sustainable business, and social change today. 

1. Lise Kingo, executive director, United Nations Global Compact

Image: UNGC Flickr

Business operations don’t always align with environmental protection, human rights, and fighting corruption, but as the executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, it is Lise Kingo’s mission to get the corporate sector to do business responsibly. 

A former executive at healthcare giant Novo Nordisk, Kingo joined UNGC in 2015. She leads the UNGC’s efforts to work with its 13,500 signatories from 170 countries to use UNGC’s 10 principles for business to guide their operations. 

A key initiative UNGC has launched under her leadership is its Making Global Goals Local Business strategy last year, an effort to get businesses to align their work with the Sustainable Development Goals and develop innovation solutions to advance the global agenda.


2. Mary Robinson, president, Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice

Image: City of Sydney

The first female president of Ireland, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a member of The Elders, an exclusive group tasked with tackling global challenges, Mary Robinson has championed equality, justice, and human rights for several decades. 

Her latest initiative, the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, identifies seven principles for climate justice and aims to amplify the voices of poor and vulnerable communities. It aims to provide thought leadership on climate change and human rights issues, forge connections between sustainable developments and human rights disciplines, and tap on Robinson’s influence to convene events that bring diverse stakeholders together to tackle climate justice issues.


3. May Boeve, executive director,

May Boeve, executive director,, is arrested outside the White House at a protest urging then-President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Image: Tar Sands Action

May Boeve has overseen the North America operations of environmental group since 2011, when she was just 27 years old.

She is one of few women in the United States environmental sector, which she says has a structural sexism problem. But she has nevertheless been a key force in initiatives such as urging investors to divest from fossil fuel companies, persuading more than 400,000 people to attend the People’s Climate March in New York in September 2015, and opposing controversial projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Boeve has even been arrested at a protest against the pipeline. 

As one of Boeve’s staff at puts it: “May is the best kind of leader: clear-eyed in her vision for the world we’re building and the work we’re doing, yet also deeply committed to real collaboration with her colleagues and comrades.”


4. Naomi Klein, journalist and activist

Image: Sydney Peace Foundation Facebook page

Naomi Klein has built her career on exposing the ugly side of globalisation and capitalism, from her 1999 book No Logo, which exposed how consumer brands were gathering economic and cultural clout globally to Shock Doctrine, which was published in 2007 and explores how corporations and governments prey on communities weakened by disasters such as extreme weather events and war to gain and consolidate economic and political power.

Most recently, Klein has championed climate action and justice issues. Her 2015 book This Changes Everything highlights the role of global capitalism in causing the climate crisis and preventing action to fight climate change. A firm supporter of indigenous rights and a vocal feminist, Klein is the recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize 2016 and one of the organisers of Canada’s Leap Manifesto, a blueprint for a just, inclusive and low-carbon society.


5. Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Image: UNFCCC Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A career diplomat and politician, Mexico’s Patricia Espinosa is the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Espinosa, who has been described as an “excellent leader of negotiations” by her peers, took over the reins from her predecessor Cristiana Figueres soon after the signing of the Paris Agreement in December 2015. She must now steer policymakers through practical issues such as climate financing, the fairest way to compensate poor nations for losses caused by climate change, and mechanisms to monitor the pledges countries have made to curb emissions.

She has a tough fight ahead, thanks to the threat that a Donald Trump presidency poses to global climate efforts: The president has threatened to pull the United States out of Paris Agreement, and more recently, the United States Department of State, led by former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson, ignored her request for a meeting.


6. Rachel Kyte, chief executive officer, Sustainable Energy for All

Image: CIFOR, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

A staunch advocate of sustainable development, Rachel Kyte spent more than a decade at the World Bank before assuming her current role as chief executive officer of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative in January 2016. Kyte was previously the World Bank’s group vice president and special envoy for climate change.

She was selected from more than 100 candidates to lead the SE4All programme, which aims to secure affordable, clean, and safe energy for the world’s population, 1.1 billion of whom live without electricity today.

To achieve this, Kyte must navigate challenges such as limited financial resources and the complex and differing expectations of policymakers, business leaders and civil society representatives from developed and developing countries. But as former SE4All head Kandeh Yumkella says: ” Rachel is a strong and persuasive advocate who knows where we are and where we want to go.”


7. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Canadian Inuit activist

Image: The Right Livelihood Award

Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier raises awareness about the impacts of climate change on a region that is remote and unknown to many, but essential to the planet’s survival: the Arctic.

She has been a political representative for the rights of Inuit people throughout her career, including in her role as the International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents the interests of Inuit people from Canada, Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and other polar regions. 

In 2015, she published The Right to be Cold, a book which describes how global warming is eroding the livelihoods and culture of the Inuit people in her native Nunavuk, and makes the argument that protection from climate change is a human right.


8. Terri Wills, chief executive officer, World Green Building Council

Image: Global Initiatives

As the chief executive officer of the World Green Building Council, it is Terri Wills’s job to lead the global building and construction sector—a heavily male dominated industry—towards sustainable, low-carbon practices.

Buildings produce as much as a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and in a bid to make the sector more sustainable, more than 70 countries have set up industry associations—known as green building councils—where government and business representatives collaborate to drive sustainable building practices in their countries.

WGBC oversees and coordinates the work of councils in individual countries; as its head since June 2015, Wills is focused on fostering partnerships and collaborations to achieve a global transformation in the building sector.

“I plan to increase WGBC’s influence and impact to green all buildings so that we can reduce their carbon footprint and conserve natural resources, while also creating better lives for people and a stronger economy”, she says.


9. Vandana Shiva, founder, Navdanya

Image: Fronteiras Web, CC BY-SA 2.0

With her trademark sari and large bindi, Vandana Shiva was one of the earliest thinkers to point out that environmental and climate problems disproportionately affect women, and that engaging and empowering women in subsistence economies would lead to better agricultural and conservation outcomes.

She also campaigns against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and biotechnology giants like Monsanto that make and market these products. She champions organic farming and seed sharing as strategies to improve crop health and diversity. In 1991, she founded Navdanya, a national movement to promote these methods. 

Her work has not been without controversy, with some questioning the scientific basis for her absolute opposition to GMOs and others criticising her steep fees for speaking engagements as contrary to her pro-poor politics. Nevertheless, the attention she has drawn to the need for women and rural communities to control their own agricultural resources has been essential to global efforts to alleviate poverty and improve food security. 


10. Winnie Byanyima, executive director, Oxfam International

Photo: International Monetary Fund, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With a decades long career in peace-building, championing women’s rights, and sustainable development, Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima is an important voice in the global push towards gender equality, poverty relief, and fighting climate change.

Byanyima has helmed Oxfam International since 2013, and oversees the organisation’s work on humanitarian, equality, and justice-based campaigns.

Before that, she served as a diplomat and parliamentarian in her native Uganda, before founding a national NGO to support women’s participation in decision-making. She also co-founded a 60-member Global Gender and Climate Alliance of civil society, international organisations, as well as headed a task-force considering the gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals.

“I feel that we’re part of challenging and changing times,” says Byanyima. “But I am also excited by all the new opportunities that civil society can seize to support poor people to claim their rights, and to finally escape poverty, hunger and injustice.”

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year’s theme is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”. Who are your role models for women leaders in sustainability and responsible business? Tell us in the comments below!

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