Gender and the Sweet Spot of Sustainable Business

06/17/2010 01:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Andrea Learned Thought Leadership Strategist and Sustainable Business Writer

Hanna Rosin's insightful cover story in the July/August 2010 issue of The Atlantic got me thinking.  At first glance, the title, "The End of Men," made me hear that ridiculous, booming voice-over for Armageddon-type blockbuster movies.  As in: The END...of MEN!  But, Rosin has a deserved reputation for knowing her stuff, and this piece reflects that.  She takes a sweeping look at how our culture has evolved from a universal preference for sons and an organizing principle of patriarchy -- still going strong as recently as the early 1980s -- to pretty much the exact opposite.  As she puts it, the reasons are fairly obvious.  "As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest."

If you are a man, this is by no means an affront -- but a shift to adjust to.  I'm betting that the majority of women do not literally want it to be anywhere near the end of men.  Instead, the time has come to equally value what men and women contribute, and encourage them to do so using their own unique styles.  The patriarchal world has been putting this off, but -- time's up.  To me, this sense of an extreme pendulum swing has implications for how our culture and economy function, generally, but also, for sustainable business, in particular.  Let me explain...

First, visualize how pendulums start their movement with an extreme pull or push from one end, with the resulting swings being very dramatic.  But, given just a little time, the swing relaxes into a comfortable center.  If you're a kid playing with a toy pendulum, when it slows down it is REALLY boring and you quickly launch it back to its extremes.  However, if you are past that need for drama, as many adults are, the center is a pretty natural place to reside.  Most of us have relatively gender-balanced, flextime and shared-role lives -- and wouldn't think to have it otherwise. 

The media may now be banging the "women's era" drum, because it makes for lots of buzz.  But, the way things have shifted have really just opened up the opportunity for men to learn as much about "feminine" ways of thinking as women have already had to learn about "masculine" ways of thinking.  The world may seem to be becoming a woman's place, but we are swinging closer to the center of that pendulum. The guys will be just fine figuring out their strengths and places (give them credit). After all, many women manage to work things through in male-dominated environments. Humans adapt.

With regard to sustainable business, I see a similar pendulum shift: from a hardcore, take no prisoners, solely bottom line-oriented drive, to a more inspired "people, planet and profit" perspective.  The conventional business minds may be hunkering down because the scary "touchy feely" types are trying to take over.  But, what's really happening is that the pendulum swing is slowing toward center. And, that shouldn't be scary.

Sustainability has a bad rap with some, for being overly emotional and other-focused. But instead, in a more sustainability-focused business, efficiency, quality and innovation are still "king."  There's just unimaginable added value to boot. In other words, sustainable business is not necessarily something new, it's just the highest standard.

My recent experience at Sustainable Brands 2010 (SB2010) reflected the settling to center pendulum effect.  That event had the likes of Ford and Coca Cola sharing their sustainability-oriented developments.  Let's remember that a few years ago that would have sounded like a dream.  To be clear, no one is saying that the big, traditional brands are fully into their likely very long sustainable journeys. However, these beginnings do reflect the pendulum heading toward center.  Alternatively, the many smaller, less "known" companies at SB2010, like H2O (boxed water) and Nature's Path, are also doing amazing good by making sustainable steps more accessible to consumers. Such brands are by no means out in some sort of green la-la land (i.e. at an extreme pendulum swing).  Rather, they've figured out how to do business with the big boys, and are even teaching them a few things along the way. 

Back to Rosin's article, and one of her points: "A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge."  Similarly, I'd argue that both conventional and sustainable businesses have the core business part down, but the sustainable enterprises likely have an edge in understanding, and serving, the social side.  That's the "people and planet" part.

Finally, I'll pull that darned gender card and say -- go on a women-hiring spree, my sustainable business friends!  But, don't forget to give your entire staff better communication and social intelligence training.  We can tap everyone's strength better when we get to more common ground, near the pendulum sweet spot.