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How gender equality can save the planet

What does climate change have to do with domestic violence?

Or being a mother?

Or being able to swim?

Next question:

Hands up if you’re used to seeing ‘climate change’ and ‘D&I’ boxed off into separate chapters in the average sustainability report…

As if the two had nothing to do with each other.

Yet, 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women. And women are dying as a consequence.

I’m jotting this down because I think a lot of us sustainability professionals struggle to integrate gender and climate change in our work. It can seem a bit abstract. And that’s not good enough.

Women are disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis. AND they are at the heart of creating solutions that are effective and help a much wider range of people.

So, here are some of the key points, wholly drawn (stolen?) from the excellent A Matter of Degrees podcast I listened to this morning to clarify why gender should be at the top of our thoughts in all climate work...

Women experience climate change far more harshly

Women, generally the poorest people globally, suffer far more due to the climate crisis for a number of reasons. Here are a few striking examples:

  • Following a cyclone in 1991 in Bangladesh, 90% of the people who died were women and children. Why? In large part due to cultural norms around women’s modesty - making it harder for women to escape wearing long saris, having to stay put and look after children and elders, and because they never got the chance to learn to swim.

  • Rates of domestic or ‘climate’ male violence against women rocketing in the wake of the Australian bush fires, New Zealand floods and Hurricane Katrina in the US. Why? Because men weren't able to do what is traditionally expected of them - to protect the home and their families - stoking anger, causing them to lash out at those closest to them.

Women perceive climate risk more strongly

Women tend to think that climate change is a bigger risk than men do, and act accordingly.

A 2020 study highlighted how women perceive climate risk in many different ways in the US - from women ranchers in Nevada perceiving risks to their business, to feeling personally vulnerable to climate-related health risks in Maryland, to hurricanes in Florida, to homes being at risk from floods in New Orleans - climate risk was top of mind for women.

On the other hand, studies have shown that white men tend to perceive risk less, leaving everyone else vulnerable to the consequences of climate risk:

“White males perceive the risks of health and technology hazards as low compared to white females and people of colour, a phenomenon termed the 'white male' effect. White males' low risk perceptions are associated with individualist and hierarchist worldviews as opposed to an egalitarian worldview.”

And it's not just climate change that is risky - so are the solutions. A lot of solutions - e.g. complex geoengineering projects - leave the causes of the crisis untouched. Meaning ‘business as usual’ can carry on, and the people most affected stay in the same dangerous position. The 'white male effect' affects all of us.

More women in power = better climate solutions

There is a large body of research showing the link between women's representation in politics and more progressive environmental legislation. Increasing women’s representation in national parliaments leads to the adoption of more stringent climate change policies, resulting in lower emissions. And yet, at all political levels, men are overrepresented.

The Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 had the greatest participation of women to date, led by Christina Figueres, and was the only conference in many years to lead to a decisive global agreement on tackling the climate crisis. Contrast that with the lame duck COP26 in Glasgow where, at one stage, the entire UK climate delegation was set to be male (until met with opposition).

Youth and environmental justice movements are led disproportionately by women, in particular Black, Indigneous and other women of colour. These are vital forms of organising that include stopping new fossil fuel expansion, fighting for clean water, and implementing climate solutions at the local level. Horrifyingly, the number of environmental defenders being murdered is rising year on year, with the proportion of women and transgender people killed also increasing.

And yet, if we look at where money is flowing, women are being left out yet again when it comes to the climate and ecological crisis. A 2018 study showed that only 0.2% of foundation funding globally went to projects expicitly focusing on women and the environment. Whereas 90% went to organisations led by white people, and 80% to organisations led by men.

Time to bring it up

Gender must be central to how we tackle the climate crisis. The majority of people on the planet are already experiencing the horrors of climate change, and yet are excluded from decision making and cut off from resources to implement solutions.

Women hold the key to making our future a liveable one - be it through indigenous knowledge of 'nature-based solutions' (gosh I dislike that term), sharing wealth with families and community, or establishing networks that can rapidly respond to climate crises.

It's on ALL of us to bring up gender in our climate work (special shout out to the menfolk).

Some questions to finish on...

(How) is your organisation taking gender into account in your climate work?

How might we bring climate into D&I discussions, and vice versa?

To what extent are women and non binary people involved in making decisions in your organisation about (climate) policy and investment decisions?

I'd love to know what you're seeing (and doing)...


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