Business Models Are Changing. Why It’s Good For Women

Published 1 year ago
Working Late. Young woman, architect working late in office

By Colin Iles

I was recently asked to comment on how the opportunities for women leaders have changed since I started work. And then, I was asked to share some thoughts about what changes we can expect over the
next decade.

To the first question, my answer was simple. Not much. According to the World Economic Forum, only 15% of the Fortune 500 are run by women. In South Africa where I’m located, this drops to only 7% for Johannesburg Stock Exchangelisted companies.


And that’s despite billions being spent on diversity training, new hiring models and anti-bias algorithms.

Having lived through and led many cultural change programs, I’m not surprised. It is ridiculously hard to try and change human behavior.

And HR-led diversity initiatives are trying to fix behaviors that have become systemic and entrenched over decades. I don’t know if these behaviors were created by genetics or the persistent pre-teen brainwashing about what our respective roles in society should be.

I do know that unwinding behaviors, that have developed with 20-plus years of application prior to even entering the workforce, is always going to be a tough ask for any HR team, no matter how right, how passionate, and how resourced.


Depressing as this may be, I am still incredibly upbeat about the possibilities opening up for female leaders to do incredible things over the next decade.

But this change will not come because the incumbent male leaders have an epiphany about the benefits of diversity. It will be driven by organizations changing in a way that aligns better to diversified leadership.

And the good news is this transformation has already started.

Over the last decade, we have seen more and more examples of companies that focus on “doing good”,
outperforming their profit-at-all-cost competitors. Case study after case study has shown how purpose-led companies have happier customers, more engaged employees and better support from their investors.


Patagonia, as one example, has cemented its place as a premium outdoor brand by focusing on using business to save the planet.

Thousands of other companies are now seeking accreditation from organizations like the US Based B-Corp, to showcase how they are using business to benefit people, communities and the planet.n(If you know Ben & Jerry’s or Lemonade, they are both registered B-Corps.)

And listed companies are also facing more pressure from institutional investors to apply the United Nations-led Sustainable Development Goals. BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink has written regularly about how he is more likely to invest in businesses that make “a positive contribution to society”.

So the shift from “for-profit” looks to have momentum. This will obviously challenge those incumbents that have a symbiotic relationship between the CEO’s bonuses and shareholder returns, as purposeful organizations have more complex and ambiguous environments to manage.


This might mean taking the hard decisions not to operate in oppressive jurisdictions, accelerating the switch to renewables or doubling junior pay.

Bad for bonuses. Good for the planet.

Managing these trade-offs will require conviction, courage and curiosity, because there is no playbook for this new model.

And that is precisely why the opportunity for female leaders is better than ever before.


This new-styled leadership model is not male-dominated and females are already trailblazing in these somewhat unchartered waters.

Take Indra Nooyi for example. As PepsiCo’s CEO prior to 2018, she introduced “performance with purpose”, sold off a profitable set of food brands that didn’t align with her vision and made significant inroads in rebalancing the portfolio towards healthier, more sustainable food and drink offerings.

Transformation stories from leaders like Nooyi demonstrate why purpose is a more powerful motivator than profit, and how curious and courageous female leaders can drive transformation programs that benefit society as a whole. So, there is real opportunity for women in this new leadership paradigm. And we, as in society as a whole, really need them now to help transform business into a force for good, that can improve lives and save our planet.

This requires radical change. And diversity will be a critical step in achieving this.


The writer curates thought leadership events that help executive teams transform their organizations; visit