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Gender and the Environment

Friday, June 7, 2019

Lynn L. Bergeson

Managing Partner, Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.

Lorentz Hansen

Legal Assistant/Paralegal, Acta Group

Many have argued that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential to advancement in many areas of life, such as business, health, and education.  This brief blog post posits that the field of sustainable development and environmental protection are no different.  Gender equality and, more particularly, women’s empowerment, are critical to achieving sustainable development across the globe.  It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and the gender differences and deeply rooted policies that perpetuate inequality differ from region to region.

Research has shown that globally, environmental policies are not gender neutral.  The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has been studying the relationship between gender roles and the environment for years.  From its research, UNEP has found that normative international policy has established distinct roles for women and men with respect to access to and control over natural resources, and thus women and men derive differing benefits from these resources.  Many international policy frameworks acknowledge this fact.  Importantly, goal five (Gender Equality) of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is both a stand-alone goal and a cross-cutting theme across the 17 SDGs.  To assist in measuring gender-environment linkages, the UN and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have developed 18 gender-environment indicators to generate data that will help crystalize the relationship between gender and the environment.

These data will be useful in identifying and addressing differences in experience between men and women that continue to hinder and prevent gender equality.  A few examples include:

  • Despite international mandates designed to ensure gender equality, in six out of nine decision-making processes analyzed by UNEP and IUCN, women represent less than one-third of decision-makers.
  • Out of 160 countries surveyed, women have equal land rights by law in only 37 percent of them; and in more than half, legal land rights are not followed in practice as custom, traditions, and/or religious practices disallow access and control for women.
  •  The impacts of climate change are expected to affect disproportionally women, who rely on agriculture and natural resources more than men.

  • Similarly, women will experience more adverse health effects than men in regions where malaria and other water-borne diseases are especially impactful on vulnerable populations, including pregnant and lactating women.

These are merely a few of the many examples of global gender inequality.  The degree to which countries have recognized the root causes of gender inequality varies greatly.  Similarly, the degree to which countries have figured out how to maintain traditional national identity while also ensuring equal rights for all varies greatly.  Many more developed economies are in general further along the spectrum in recognizing and addressing the official policies and practices that perpetuate inequality and in establishing social and environmental policies that empower women and assure sustainable development.  Many of those countries also deny women equal rights in different ways. 

Although women in developed countries may be more likely to rely upon blue or white collar work for income than farming, which is a more common source of income for women in developing countries, those women working blue or white collar jobs still do not receive equal pay for equal work.  It is not, therefore, only developing countries that need to work harder to treat women as equal citizens.

Women are also promoted far less often than men.  Women make up less than five percent of Chief Executive Officers (CEO) and less than ten percent of women are top wage earners in the Standard and Poors (S&P) 500.  Women of color are significantly worse off and less represented in positions of power.  This regrettable conclusion aligns with the UNEP/IUCN finding that decision-making bodies and leadership positions all around the world continue to be heavily dominated by men, and therefore are often blind to the experiences, needs, and issues that are mostly faced by women.

Environmental issues are a global issue, and those who experience the worst environmental harm are often not the same people who have caused it.  Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to determine on an international scale who should be held responsible and be required to provide assistance to economies and women affected by climate change.

While distressing, none of this is especially revelatory.  Indeed, given renewed interest in re-litigating reproductive rights, the Sisyphus nature of the public discourse in this regard is downright depressing.  That said, just as women are striving to have their voices heard in debates about reproductive rights and finding more seats at the decision-making tables in politics and business, it is essential in addressing environmental challenges to consider the issues that women in particular will face as a result of climate change and to understand that not everyone will experience environmental issues in the same way.