Ironically it’s Donald Trump of all people who is highlighting the connection between climate change and women’s and gender issues. As President-Elect, preparing to silence concern about climate change, gender inequality, and women’s rights, he attempted to solicit names of Energy Department employees who worked on climate change initiatives as well as State Department officials who worked on women’s and gender issues.
In the UK, one of Theresa May’s first actions on being appointed Prime Minister was to close the Department of Energy and Climate Change; climate change is now considered under the umbrella of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Nor is Brexit likely to create a more sympathetic environment for climate concerns. What we must realise, if we haven’t already, is that progress in raising concern about climate change is not linear – it rises and falls…and falls some more. The same can be said for an understanding of – and care about - how gender inequality is intimately linked to climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) failed to address gender equality as integral to its work on climate change until it adopted the 2014 Lima Programme for Action on Women, requiring equal representation of women on all its decision making bodies. This is only due to actions on the part of women’s groups internationally, who called for gender equality to be fundamental to the work of the UNFCCC in Bali in 2007. But this path is not smooth and the number of women in some UNFCCC delegations has dropped during the last four years.
It is common to hear calls for gender equality on the basis that it makes ‘good business sense’: companies who have greater representation of women on their governing boards perform better and more responsibly in the long term. This has led to calls from the EU and individual nation states for more women on governing boards (see, for example, the UK’s Davies Report). If that is the case for public companies, then think of the difference that more equal gender representation could make to addressing climate change. But there are a few problems with this. Firstly, it allows for the possibility of closing the door to women if performance was not judged to be better (on what criteria and over what time frame?), when ‘natural justice’ should demand that women have as much a right, and the opportunity, to serve on these bodies as men. And then there is the case of the ‘right kind of women’. Evidence from a project undertaken by Dorceta Taylor, the African American environmental justice researcher and writer, suggests that the US environmental organisations she surveyed ticked their diversity box by hiring and promoting white women, leaving executives and boards of these bodies bereft of black, Latina, Native American, and other ethnic minority female representation.
Research in Sweden has found that despite having more than thirty per cent of women in climate change decision making posts in municipalities, the policy making mindset has seen little change. The authors – Magnusdottir and Kronsell - argue that this is because the women who are promoted to these posts have been trained and institutionalised in masculinist departments, universities and professions and have absorbed the same values as their male colleagues. Those women who make it through to senior positions in climate change related fields have survived the ‘leaky pipeline’ through which many of those with caring responsibilities have been lost. And this does not only apply to government departments: research into British environmental NGOs found a culture of long hours, weekend working, travel away from home, and a lack of flexibility in allowing employees to work from home which discouraged women from continuing to work in these organisations once they have caring responsibilities. Workplaces must become more flexible for both men and women so that care work, domestic and community responsibilities can be equally shared. Only then can women enjoy equal opportunity to progress in their careers in the same way as men.
For all these reasons, we need to be refining our understanding of gender to ensure real gender equality is achieved as part of a world in which we try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hence climate change. Often ‘gender’ is seen as synonymous with ‘women’; an opportunity for men to leave the room and talk about something else. But it is gender in the form of hyper-masculinity (whether practiced by men or women) which develops carbon extensive technologies, widespread extraction of irreplaceable resources, and the uncontrolled consumption and waste which pollutes our environment and kills our non-human partners on Planet Earth. By definition, gender is a relationship, and one inflected with power. It is important to make masculinity as visible as the feminine. We need to be honing our understanding of gender as multiple and nuanced, and that achieving gender equality requires an understanding of intersectionality, by which other vectors of disadvantage (such as age, ethnicity, parenting/caring responsibilities, religion, sexuality) come together with gender to produce particular experiences.
There is an increasing amount of research and expert knowledge produced on gender and climate change, and a legal framework to promote gender equality in climate change policy. What is missing is an institutional commitment to put all this into practice. There are some notable positive exceptions: the City of Vienna has a ‘gender+’ programme which considers how age, ethnicity, cultural background and so on intersect with gender to create barriers to mobility, informing spatial planning by mainstreaming ‘gender+’ into its design. But too often claims of gender awareness do not stand up to scrutiny. These and other issues are the substance of a forthcoming book ‘Understanding Climate Change through Gender Relations’ to be published by Routledge in May, 2017. Contributors explore many of the issues identified above as well as a range of attempts to address climate change, including the ‘eco-modern’ masculinity of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the irony of the hydrogen fueled SUV, the paradox of claims of – and even awards for - gender sensitivity in the face of persistent gender inequality, and the potential of co-housing schemes to contribute to greater energy efficiency while also offering opportunities for more gender-equal ways of living.
The book argues, as I do here, that current global gender relations, in which most women are considered to be of less value than men, are a fundamental cause of climate change. Failing to acknowledge this, and other intersecting inequalities, can only erode our attempts to address this major catastrophe, which has so many implications for the health, well- being and survival of all life on Earth. The alternative - a world governed by increasingly defensive and parochial interests, which fail to grasp its inherent interconnectivity – must be resisted.