Empowering women will put us on a faster track to sustainability

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This post is by Jenny Hawley,  freelance consultant and the editor of Why women will save the planet

Sexism and gender equality are hot topics in business, the media and politics, and women’s empowerment is widely recognised as critical to international development. So why don’t we hear more environmentalists talking about it?

As part of its Big Ideas Change The World project, Friends of the Earth asked whether women’s empowerment could put us on a faster track to sustainability. We gathered evidence and arguments from more than 30 prominent women, including Juliet Davenport of Good Energy, ecofeminist Vandana Shiva and Somali activist Fatima Jibrell. The results have been published in Why women will save the planet which clearly shows that we can’t achieve environmental goals without gender equality, and vice versa.

Women as agents of change
“The twenty-first century challenge is not the technical question of sustainability but the human one,” says Fiona Reynolds, chair of Green Alliance and a contributor to the book.

It’s not that women are closer to nature and have all the answers (despite the book title). It’s because, to achieve green goals, we need to shift society towards different values and ambitions. We measure success in terms of GDP, net profit and growth, and so the unpaid work of women in homes and communities, and the ‘free’ ecosystem services provided by nature, become almost invisible. Treated as economic externalities, they are taken for granted, undervalued and often exploited, yet, in reality, they are fundamental to our well-being, society and economy.

Women and girls around the world are still held back from participating fully, by discrimination, injustice and violence. They are also disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. When supplies of clean water, food and fuel become harder to find, the daily task of collecting them – which is still overwhelmingly done by women – takes more and more time and effort. Women are likely to spend more time in the home than men, and to be responsible for children and other family members, leaving them more exposed to pollution, poor housing, disease and extreme weather events.

As the climate movement’s slogan goes: to change everything, we need everyone.

Women’s empowerment in the environmental sphere is a question of fairness but also effectiveness. As the climate movement’s slogan goes: to change everything, we need everyone. In the book, Wangari Maathai’s daughter Wanjira shows how the Green Belt Movement in Kenya has empowered women as community leaders in planting millions of trees and using energy efficient stoves and solar lights.

Involving women more equally in decision making will help to highlight different priorities, introduce new approaches and alternative solutions. It can help to change the nature of the debate, broadening the focus to other values, not just profit and power. This applies from households to FTSE 100 companies. Emma Howard Boyd, acting chair of the Environment Agency, sets out evidence in the book that: “Businesses with more women on their board of directors are more likely to: manage and improve their energy efficiency; measure and reduce their carbon emissions; reduce their packaging impacts; and invest in renewable power. […]Those companies which ‘get’ this [gender] issue also tend to be more forward-looking on other aspects of good governance, including sustainability.”

In education, more girls studying science and technology will help to achieve more sustainable environmental solutions in key sectors. Geographer Susan Buckingham writes: “Nowhere is decision making more male dominated than in the industries which crucially affect our environment: architecture, transport, energy, water and waste management.”

Starting in our own backyard
This all applies equally in the environmental movement which has been largely blind in the past to gender issues. Friends of the Earth’s CEO, Craig Bennett, has recently committed to mainstream gender equality throughout the organisation’s work, but what will this mean in practice?

An obvious starting point is making sure that equality is embedded in the organisation’s employment practices, and demonstrated at board and senior management levels in particular. Yet it’s also about integrating gender analysis into Friends of the Earth’s strategy and planning, thinking about the issues it chooses to work on, and changing the way it makes decisions and runs meetings.

More visible role models in the media will encourage people from diverse backgrounds to get involved and play their part. The environment sector needs to re-examine the language it uses and how it engages with its audiences, and look at the impacts of its work through a gender lens.

Finally, it means working more closely with the women’s movement and others working for social justice. We can learn so much from other practitioners, academics and campaigners who have understood for decades that, to have any chance of success, we must be fair, inclusive and equitable, as well as green.

Image: DFID via Flickr, CC2.o

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