ESG: Women make a difference when it comes to sustainability agenda performance

Considering that women occupy 11.5% of the seats on the boards of directors of Brazil’s publicly traded companies, against a world average of 20.6%, it is important to understand how the presence of women in senior leadership can benefit companies’ ESG re

Are women more sensitive to environmental, social and governance issues? This question guided a study carried out by Monique Cardoso, who has a master’s in management for competitiveness from Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Sao Paulo School of Business Administration (FGV EAESP), and Gustavo Andrey de Almeida Lopes Fernandes, a professor at the school. The study, published in GV-Executive, presents unprecedented results in Brazil, demonstrating a positive relationship between high environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) performance and the presence of women in leadership.

Considering that women occupy 11.5% of the seats on the boards of directors of Brazil’s publicly traded companies, against a world average of 20.6%, it is important to understand how the presence of women in senior leadership can benefit companies’ ESG results.

Sustainability and gender equity are still distant global challenges, but they are now being discussed actively by major economic players. Analyzing overall ESG performance, it was found that high-performing companies tend to have more women on their boards, while companies with no female board members tend to be poor performers.

Women’s links to sustainability

During the study, female executives in senior posts were interviewed and the following points were identified:

- Personal and leadership characteristics related to good performance in corporate sustainability;

- Understanding of performance in ESG assessments;

- Most relevant indicators and perceptions of the relationship between sustainability performance and the gender of senior leaders;

- Powers and barriers in being a female executive at the top of organizations.

Women’s personal and leadership characteristics

When talking about their own careers, female executives at companies with strong ESG performance stressed the importance of leadership that is democratic and open to dialogue, and the need to be resilient, adaptable and very political. On the other hand, female executives at companies with the lowest scores spoke of the need to value and promote teams, to have good examples to follow, and to build good relationships, in order to help their companies to improve their ESG performance.

Three points were commonly found in the interviewees’ narratives:

- The need for constant learning;

- The need for women to prove themselves and be visible in management, beating expectations;

- The role of maternity in relation to personal or professional qualities.

These three points were deemed significant by women, but the last one was surprising, given that in the past, this issue has been considered a barrier rather than an advantage for women in management positions. Thus, female executives in both groups, at companies with high and low ESG performance, seem to contradict the stereotype of women who become masculinized by climbing the career ladder.

Gender equity

In the study, gender bias was a fundamental point observed in the higher spheres of corporations. Therefore, equity is not the central priority of companies. All the female interviewees noted the burden of typically being the only woman present at different types of meetings and events, as well as the need to respond to men and educate them to avoid machismo.

Women face gender prejudice on a daily basis, but discrimination is, statistically speaking, the biggest obstacle to career progression and the full exercise of leadership by women. The same thing applies to underrepresentation. According to Cardoso, it is not enough for women to hold positions if they are the only ones, as a critical mass capable of changing the situation is required.

Thus, high corporate sustainability performance is not a sufficient condition for less discrimination and more gender equity. “Being at the top of organizations does not shield female executives from machismo, disbelief in their abilities and lack of recognition,” the researcher says.


The study recommends that companies undertake to increase the diversity of top management and/or set a concrete target for the number of women on their boards. The authors believe that these factors ought to be incorporated into companies’ ESG scores, given the demonstrated impact on organizational performance.

“If companies want to prosper in the future, they must deal with this issue now. Companies are being urged to take measures to include more women. If they don’t do this out of conviction, they should do so because of convenience or to avoid embarrassment,” Cardoso says.

To see the complete study, click here.

Any opinions expressed by Fundação Getulio Vargas’s staff members, duly identified as such, in articles and interviews published in any media, merely represent the opinions of these individuals and do not necessarily represent the institutional viewpoints or opinions of FGV. FGV Directive No. 19 / 2018.