Why women are central to climate action

There is a wealth of evidence to show that existing inequalities worsen the effects of climate change for many marginalised and vulnerable people across the globe. For many women, their adaptive capacity is hindered by factors including access to education, restricted land ownership, or added risks associated with displacement. Of the 26 million people displaced by climate change globally, 20 million are women [1]. Displacement increases women's vulnerability to violence; in Northeastern Nigeria, terrorist group Boko Haram has targeted women who have been displaced from their land by drought [2]. In other contexts, women's movements may be restricted without a male chaperone and prevent them from seeking shelter or safety with an unknown male if displaced. The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed five times more women than men largely due to the fact that women in the area were not taught to swim and many left their homes too late because they were waiting to be accompanied by a male relative [3].


This evidence is alarming and has been widely used by activists and policy-makers calling for improved gender mainstreaming in climate action. Yet gender mainstreaming is only effective if we also recognise women's position beyond victims; women are at the heart of climate action as leaders, activists and innovators and have been pushing the climate response forward with great success for decades. In 2021, Gina McCarthy was convened as the US' first national climate advisor, Greta Thunberg has established herself as the face of global climate activism, and the 2010 Cancun Agreements were spearheaded by Patricia Espinosa, who successfully established a $100 billion fund to help developing nations address climate change. Greater attention needs to be given to the women-led solutions that are happening on the ground too, to improve resource management, food production and infrastructure. In the páramo ecosystem of Ecuadorian Andes, Indigenous women are restoring the local ecosystem after years of desertification and overgrazing through sustainable agricultural methods and landscape management [4]. In Uganda, the Slum Women's Initiative for Development (SWID), a grassroots women-led organisation, successfully negotiated with local authorities in Jinja leading to improvements in infrastructure of informal settlements to protect from urban flooding [5]. These are just a few examples of countless informal projects and missions spearheaded by women across the globe to build communities that are more resilient to the effects of climate change and achieve a sustainable future.


Women in Development


Despite the obvious success and commitment of women across the globe, glaring inequalities in leadership, opportunities and funding persist to such an extent that gender parity in climate leadership is not estimated to be fulfilled until 2068 [6]. The obvious institution to look to to narrow this gap is the UNFCCC and the annual global climate negotiations, the COPs. A joint statement released by the Scottish Government and UN Women at COP26 in November last year made a promising commitment to the full and equal participation of women in climate policy and decision-making. Yet the first three women to sign the statement -- leaders of Estonia, Tanzania and Bangladesh -- represented nearly one-third of all female leaders at the conference [7].


Achieving a gender balance is just the first step. Data published by the UNFCCC revealed that men spoke 74 percent of the time in plenary meetings between May and June last year, revealing a worrying gap between gender representation and participation [8]. The structure of the COPs makes this difficult. The negotiations have a carefully pre-set agenda of which a large number of topics need to be covered and there are strict regulations on who can speak in important decision-making meetings, often leading experts of niche fields on the periphery [9]. However, a failure to address the structures that prevent women from meaningfully participating in decision-making at the highest levels only limits the extent to which a gender balance can be felt on the ground and in communities policy-makers are looking to serve. Greater diversity in voices and perspectives at the highest levels of climate negotiations is essential for effective policy-making that considers the complexity of the climate crisis from both an ecological and sociological perspective.


Climate finance mechanisms can also commit to greater nuance in gender mainstreaming efforts to ensure that women-led solutions are sufficiently and equitably funded. Many women's community organisations and projects are at a small, informal scale which can hinder accreditation and therefore access to large funding pools. The UNDP reports that just 0.01 percent of all worldwide funding supports projects that address both climate change and women's rights [10]. The Green Climate Fund has attempted to address this gap by becoming the first climate finance mechanism to successfully mainstream gender into operations. The GCF Board adopted the Gender Policy and Action Plan in March 2015 to commit to equitable resource allocation, address and mitigate the unequal effects of climate change and create leadership opportunities for women.


Examples of successful projects include the SEED project in Jordan, which supports local communities' transition to sustainable energy by training women to install solar water heaters and photovoltaic systems, therefore also challenging gender stereotypes in communities [11]. Aeloi Technologies has also helped to bridge the finance gap for 700,000 climate entrepreneurs by helping women access affordable financing through a digital token loan system, and Solar Age supports Syrian women refugees in Turkey by training them to build solar batteries, designed for the needs of refugees and can be sold on the local market for revenue [12]. Gender mainstreaming in climate financing offers more opportunities like this for innovative, multilateral solutions. From a global development perspective, investing in gender-focused climate solutions strengthens their impacts and yields returns across at least three of the sustainable development goals; climate action, poverty alleviation and gender equality.


Solar Age program, conducted by Imece Initiative, teaches Syrian women to produce solar-powered, rechargeable batteries to help them earn a livelihood. Images accessed via AA website.



Women at Work


The growing urgency of the climate crisis no longer renders it an issue for the experts -- addressing climate change requires collective action from the global community and businesses alike. Therefore, create equal opportunities for all women across sectors is a must to ensure that vital insights, experiences and knowledge to build a sustainable world are not missed.


Improving gender equality has been shown to improve climate response actions across sectors. In politics, a 2019 study found that greater gender balance in national parliaments correlates with the adoption of more stringent climate change policies and therefore lower emissions [13]. Gender diversity at senior levels of companies is also associated with a reduction in climate impacts. Research published by the Bank of International Settlements analysed 1,951 companies across 24 industrialised economies between 2009-2019 and found that a 1 percent increase in the number of female managers within a firm led to a 0.5 percent decrease in the firm's emissions [14]. Similarly, higher percentages of women in leadership roles and on boards is associated with increased transparency on the disclosure of carbon emissions information [15]. Considering that just 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions [16], the opportunities posed by creating equal opportunities and safer, more supportive workplaces for women are immense. Those in senior positions of corporations can also consider incorporating a gendered approach to climate action as part of their ESG agenda, whether this is supporting organisations around the world through charitable donations and fundraisers, involvement in activism, or ensuring equal gender participation in sustainability teams and on climate advisory boards.


Creating equal, fair opportunities for women in STEM careers to participate in climate solutions should also be a priority on the climate agenda. Many women are already leading on fascinating, sustainable innovation; Joanne Chory is a biologist whose research focuses on how the genetic codes of plants can be adapted to store more carbon dioxide. Kate Nguyen is credited with the development of a spray-on coating, made from industrial waste, designed to protect rural buildings against bushfires. Rumaitha Al Busaidi is a marine scientist from Oman who developed the concept of integrated aquaculture systems for more sustainable fishing that increases food security. In her TED talk, "Women and Girls: You Are Part of the Climate Solution", Al Busaidi highlights the importance of creating more opportunities for women and girls,


"Other approaches are necessary, which have to do with how our societies are structured. The most important of them is educating women and girls."

Rumaitha Al Busaidi speaks at World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2018. Image by World Economic Forum / Ben Hider. Accessed here.


UNESCO reports that women account for 28 percent of engineering graduates [17], a field central to the transition to a low-carbon economy, and just 30 percent of scientific research positions are held by women [18]. Alarmingly, there are just 122 women on Reuters Hot list of 1,000 top climate scientists [19]. Efforts cannot stop at encouraging women to enter STEM careers, companies need to take action to ensure that women thrive in these industries too. Women in STEM have less success winning grant funding, hold fewer positions in academic publishing and author papers less often [20]. According to a 2020 study, 24 percent of 263 female scientists polled had faced workplace sexual harassment [21]. The complexity of the climate crisis requires diverse perspectives and solutions, and more efforts need to be taken by companies in STEM to ensure equal gender participation and thus strengthen climate strategies.


What next?


There is a funnelling effect that occurs when gender theory is translated into practice. Policy needs single narratives, and understandably so. They make complex issues digestible and create clear targets that translate into actionable steps. We know that existing gender inequalities impact how climate change is experienced across the globe, often leaving women more vulnerable to its effects. This fact must be integrated into climate projects and disaster relief efforts. However, the ‘women-as-victims’ narrative should also be used with caution so that women are not overlooked as agents of change in the climate crisis. We have seen many examples of women pushing the sustainability agenda forward with great success, however they are still considerably underrepresented at senior levels of international institutions and negotiations, politics, and executive teams and board members. A longstanding institutional failure to create gender balance at the highest levels is holding global efforts back and limits what progress can be made.


But leadership is not the only way to incite change, although it is an important one. Financing women-led, grassroots climate solutions, addressing gender imbalance in industries where women are significantly underrepresented, tackling issues within workplaces such as sexual harassment and unequal pay, and incorporating a gender perspective into ESG strategies are all examples of actions that ensure diverse perspectives and ideas are heard at all levels. Outside of the workplace, equal access to education, land ownership and healthcare create more resilient societies and strengthen their ability to respond to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.


Ultimately, change starts by transitioning away from single narratives to an in-depth understanding of the relationship between gender inequality and climate change. Doing so opens up opportunities for people across all areas of society to create meaningful change and participate in tackling some of the most pressing challenges faced across the globe today.



By Ruby Brooks, Thrive Research Executive