Let’s choose to challenge the climate crisis with a gender lens

By Sigita Strumskyte, Dimitra Xynou, Amelia Smith and Shanda Moorghen, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Shutterstock / sdecoret

On 8 March, the world will observe International Women’s Day under the theme #ChooseToChallenge. It is a day to recognise achievements, spread awareness and strengthen commitments to creating more inclusive societies, but also an opportunity to call out gender inequalities and take action. This year, it is being celebrated amidst dual health and environmental crises that have economic ramifications for all, but whose interconnected impacts risk undermining recent progress towards gender equality.

Women represent a vast share of the health care workforce, the sector most exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a group, they have been severely affected by a sharp contraction in the services sector and job losses in the informal sector, while managing increased family and household responsibilities during periods of lock-down and restricted mobility. Studies show that women experience an increased occurrence of violence, exploitation, abuse and harassment during times of crisis and quarantine.

Meanwhile, the environmental crisis continues to drain livelihoods. Biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change drive ecosystem degradation, threatening economic opportunities and increasing transmission risk of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. Health issues are more likely to emerge among communities that lack access to clean water, or are exposed to high levels of air pollution. Differentiated impacts of the climate crisis on women and men are related to engrained gender inequalities and discrimination.

Therefore a gender lens is essential to understand the differences in environmental impact among the different components of society. As countries attempt to recover from the pandemic, it is more important than ever to address the gender and environment nexus in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) and deliver on Agenda 2030. Yet, gender mainstreaming in environmental policies remains limited due to a lack of disaggregated data, unequal representation and access to decision making, as well as the constantly evolving nature of environmental challenges.

Better data, better progress

When gender and environmental degradation intersect, existing risks and inequalities worsen. For example, a 2015 Australian study found that extended periods of drought in certain rural areas led to an increase in domestic violence. When Malawi was ravaged by Cyclone Idai in 2019, an investigative project found that up to 1.5 million girls were at risk of child marriage as a result of climate change. Indigenous women forced to migrate to urban areas to seek opportunities to replace agricultural work – in some cases lost as a result of climate change – are concentrated in sectors prone to precarious working conditions. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) warning of increased frequency of natural disasters, it is extremely likely that such gender-based inequalities will persist. While the environmental crisis will have a bearing on everyone, it is urgent for decision makers to account for these differentiated impacts.

A lack of sex-disaggregated data and statistics is hindering efforts to work towards gender equality. It is difficult to bring about efficient change in policy when there is no data to back up the process. Without gender data, statistics often fail to capture a range of differences between women and men, such as the use of time, exposure to violence, intra-household inequalities, use of natural resources, and specific health concerns. The OECD considers gender equality a priority and continues to work towards bridging the data gap.

The OECD Gender Initiative monitors progress made by OECD and non-OECD countries on gender equality, while also providing reliable analytical tools and data. The OECD has identified three new indicators that could be disaggregated by sex: mortality rates from air pollution, development of green technologies based on patenting activity, and exposure to environmental risks. While this is a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to gather appropriate and statistically significant data. A recent survey of the OECD Environmental Policy Committee showed that while awareness of the gender-environment nexus is high, it does not always translate into specific action. Only a few OECD countries systematically take into account the gender aspects of environmental policies and measures.

A place at the table

In dealing with differentiated environmental impacts, it is essential to look at the decision makers shaping policies around the world. The issue of equal gender representation in decision making persists in both developing and developed countries. At the beginning of 2020, in 117 countries only 25% of parliamentarians were women, and in 122 countries, women held less than 25% of ministerial positions. Even if women’s representation is relatively high in environment ministries (41% of environment ministers in OECD countries were women in June 2020), key decisions with an impact on the environment and gender equality are being taken in finance, economics, energy, industry, transport and trade ministries, which are often dominated by men. In June 2020, only 4 out of 37 OECD countries had women heading their government’s finance portfolio. That is less than 11% among OECD members.

Likewise, the “glass ceiling” persists in important international climate negotiations. At the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid, women accounted for only 27% of heads of delegation, and 40% of national delegates overall. Women assuming a larger role at higher levels of decision making could help accelerate climate action and the broader environmental agenda. According to research on policy making in the European Parliament, women MEPs are more likely than their male colleagues to advance environmental protection initiatives. National-level studies also indicate that women parliamentarians address environment-related topics more often than their male counterparts do.

Women in the Green Economy

To effect positive change in decision making at national and international levels, policy makers need to tackle pervasive gender inequalities in key areas such as education and labour. On average, two times more men than women graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) across the EU. Even when girls perform well in science and engineering subjects in school, there is little encouragement to continue down the same path towards a career. Across OECD countries, only 14% of girls who are top performers in science and mathematics expected to have a career in science or engineering, as opposed to 26% for top-performing boys. With fewer young women pursuing STEM-based careers, an inevitable concern is that women may end up even more excluded from the medium- and high‑skilled green jobs of the future, despite current empirical evidence showing greater presence of women in “greener” parts of economic sectors such as renewable energy. Ignoring the gender equality deficit may hamper the ability of countries to achieve a just transition that takes into account differentiated impacts, even more so following the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an era defined by moving away from the status quo, and on the occasion of International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on gender equality as an integral part of environmental action and policy making. As challenges grow more difficult, the intersection of gender and the environment must not be downplayed. 

Further reading

OECD (2020), Gender and environmental statistics: Exploring available data and developing new evidence, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2020), Applying a gender lens on the SDGs: How are women & girls doing?, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2019), Sustainable connectivity: Closing the gender gap in infrastructure, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD’s EPOC Survey on Integrating Gender in Environmental Policies: Reporting on Key Findings.

Women at the Core of the Fight Against COVID-19 Crisis, OECD Policy Responses to COVID-19.

Empowering women as clean energy entrepreneurs , OECD Environment Focus Blog.

OECD work on Gender, inclusiveness and the SDGs.

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