why climate work needs gender equity

High profile women from the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson to Jane Fonda are among the growing chorus making the case for viewing climate change as a gender issue. What’s less often discussed is how current levels of gender inequality can actually block successful climate action.

Some of the mechanics are similar to the work around racial justice because many forces that oppress women also abuse the planet and require the forms and structures of racism to maintain themselves. This essay focuses on gender, and the term women refers to those that the society labels as women.

In reality, humans are collections of roles and identities, and these layers intersect. For instance, when it comes to the gender pay gap, women on average earn $0.81 for every dollar a man makes. This picture changes when layered with the variable of race, where the figure for American Indian, black or African American and Hispanic women is $0.75 to a dollar. This goes to show that a simplistic and reductionist thinking is both inaccurate and impossible if the goal is clarity.

DISTINCTION: equality refers to a practice of treating everyone the same way, whereas equity emphasises an equal outcome while meeting individualised needs. I am using the word equity deliberately to highlight the fact that diversity in life circumstances requires diversity in responses, while still keeping equal outcomes as the goal.

So, what does this all mean for the work in the intersection of gender and climate?

We know that women are the net sufferers of climate change and its entourage of negative impacts while being underrepresented in climate policy making. Reducing the disproportionate harm on women is understandably the most prominent argument for climate action. While this should absolutely remain in the centre of the work, there are reasons beyond climate justice for why gender equity should be high on the agenda if we are serious of achieving the ambitious climate goals laid out in The Paris Agreement. Combining climate action and work on gender equity not only is the right thing to do, it’s also the most effective way forward.

WE WON’T SUCCEED WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING WOMEN

Think of the metaphor of renovating a house. You don’t first paint the walls and install shelves and then blow up a hole between the kitchen and a living room for an open plan room. It’s the same case with climate action and gender equity: the messy and difficult structural work has to happen before the painting and the polishing of the surfaces. When it’s the same forces holding the planet and women hostage, we can’t treat gender equity as an afterthought or a luxury problem once we fix the more urgent seeming problem of climate change.

Let’s take an example of urban planning. Cities produce about 70% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs) and house over half of the world’s population, and growing. We know that the majority of this GHG pollution is human caused. But the way we live in urban environments are gendered in many ways. For instance,

  • women are more likely to use public transport and walk, men more likely to drive a car and cycle
  • men travel more often to and from workplace, women make multiple shorter trips to the daycare, grocery store, work place, relative’s house
  • women make most of the everyday household purchasing decisions (groceries, clothes) while men are in charge of bigger purchases such as cars
  • women are still overrepresented in low-paid sectors and in part-time and temporary jobs
  • the majority of single-parent households are women, and these households are overrepresented in poverty figures

Many of these patterns have been temporarily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic but if anything, research shows that this crisis amplifies existing gender inequalities. That means we are unlikely to emerge from this pandemic more equal that we entered it.

At the moment a lot of cities are preparing or have prepared ambitious climate action plans to respond to the challenges they know climate change will bring (the more recent responses to ‘build back better’ after coronavirus fall under the same category of public, economic and social policy). They are redesigning public transport networks, enabling renewable energy installations in communities or blocking entire neighbourhoods from cars to create more liveable spaces for residents.

Understanding gendered differences in behaviour and life circumstances is the prerequisite for designing climate and urban policy that can decarbonise the activities that produce GHGs in the first place.

Take the push to get everyone cycling as a way to bring down transport emissions. This is only successful if it understands and corrects for the reasons why women don’t cycle. What do they need: safer cycling lanes, more options for transporting children and groceries or financial support to buying bikes? Better access to showers at the workplace or demolishing the sexist standards that guilt us for sweating in the first place?

When it comes to energy upgrade, the policies have to understand why men are more inclined to install solar roofs or heat pumps for renewable energy and what’s keeping women from taking part. Is it interest, technical understanding, purchasing power or decision making power that keeps women out? This knowledge has to then inform the communication and design of support for the single-parent, mainly women-led households to bring them along to this transformation.

LET’S NOT GO BACKWARDS

This brings us to the second part of why the dialogue between gender inequity and climate policy is so important. Not properly addressing the impacts of climate policies on different sub-groups of the population, be it women, BIBOC, the elderly, lower income — basically anything non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-ablebodied and non-upper middle class, risks cementing existing inequalities or reinforcing them and confining these groups into cycles of increasing marginalisation.

To build on the earlier example of household energy transformation, we saw that without targeted and gender-specific actions women-led households can fall behind. This not only jeopardises achieving the GHG reduction goals, but can also lead to growing inequities in the future when the price of renewables comes down compared to fossil fuels. It’s then the marginalised households that are stuck paying higher energy bills and being plunged into increasing economic disadvantage. This is absolutely the reverse of the trend that’s required to smoothen the income gap between genders.

In the case of food, especially in developing countries women are responsible for the majority of food production as small holder farmers. This makes them more reliant on the natural world for their livelihoods. At the same time they often have less access to resources and information, be it new drought resisting crops or learning about farming practices required in the heating world. Without that, it becomes harder for women to feed their families, potentially escalating the malnutrition cycle.

On the flip side this can turn women into powerful change agents. Moving away from destructive industrial farming practices is an important climate action which simply can’t succeed without meeting the needs of women farmers and correcting for their unequal access to resources.

MAXIMISING HUMAN POTENTIAL

Which brings us to the third reason for why having a gender perspective in climate policy making is important: its ability to accelerate climate action. Currently, women are grossly underrepresented in national and international climate policy, holding between 7–25% of influential financial, environmental or leading positions. This is literally excluding a large proportion of the best minds and hearts from change making, from the work that we know is needed. I can’t think of a better example of a wasted resource.

Lack of representation and exclusion of women’s voices has the potential to lead to maldevelopment. The current Western development paradigm is based on male-oriented values such as economic growth, technological advances and increase in productivity, which are expected to lead to successful climate action and the realisation of other sustainable development goals. This can create a situation where the responses to climate change are overly focused on scientific and economic solutions, rather than on the significant human and gender dimensions. Market based responses are more likely to lead to the further exclusion of poor and landless people, often women, whereas putting people instead of economy or science as the centre of climate action has greater potential for inclusivity and social justice in all its forms.

This is hard work and requires seeing things through absence and positive discrimination: anything that’s non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-ablebodied and non-upper middle class needs to be protected, centred and elevated in order to rectify the decades of invisibility, oppression, exclusion and erasure.

The climate fight is the gender fight, and we are fighting for our lives. But we are also fighting for futures that now feel like utopias but in reality are well within our reach.

There are working frameworks and check lists to help organisations, companies and governments be more inclusive. Even more than that, it is the work of mindsets, of listening, of making space to those who still are excluded. In the end, those whose aren’t in the room, whose voices aren’t being heard continue to not exist when future is being made.

Climate activist and a feminist. Writing to make sense of the 🌍