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Why the Climate Needs Gender Equity
Short of time-travelling back to our hunter-gatherer past, a woman is unlikely to find a better time in human society’s history than today to try to live a free and fulfilled life. In most countries, we can drive, work, open a bank account, go to university, vote in elections, start a business and more.
But looked at carefully, this progress only highlights just how far there is left to go. Gender inequality is evident in every area of our lives. We can get a job, sure – but we won’t get paid as much as men. We can pursue a meaningful career – but we’ll also spend more time than men doing unpaid domestic and care work. We can cast a vote – but most of the leaders we’re choosing from are men.
And in a world where we are still fighting for the same rights as men, it’s not just women who lose out. So does our planet.
The links aren’t obvious until you see them. Let me join the dots.
Let’s start with education. In some countries, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys. When girls have access to a proper education and family planning, they are empowered to choose when and how many children they have – curbing population growth while also supporting their health and employment opportunities. This has many knock-on effects, not least a greater capacity for women to learn and engage in more sustainable agricultural practices. Combined with family planning, girls’ education could avoid almost 70 gigatons of carbon emissions by 2050 and has been identified as one of the top three solutions to climate change.
Similarly, the UN has found that when environmental initiatives relating to energy, water and land use are approached through a gender lens, they are longer-lasting and more transformative. For example, a conservation initiative in a biodiverse region of Kyrgyzstan aimed to reduce poaching that resulted from a lack of economic opportunities in the area. The initiative engaged women directly, offering them training as rangers and providing them with micro-credit programmes so they could start businesses. The result has been a new wave of women-led conservation efforts in the area, with women discouraging their husbands from poaching and driving a major drop in poaching activity.
These Kurdish women echo a trend we’re seeing on our TV screens and social media feeds. It’s no coincidence that Greta Thunberg is a girl: most climate activists are young and female.
Luckily, we’re just beginning to get the chance to see what happens when women reach positions of power. We might be outnumbered by men, but our environmental impact far outweighs that of our male-identifying counterparts. Women in government are more likely to support environmental legislation and spend more time addressing environment-related topics. And when there are more women on corporate boards, there is also more investment in environmental initiatives.
How to be a Solutionist (who happens to be a woman)
Women are the Solutionists we need to fix the climate. Solutionists – as I outline in my book The Solutionists – are solvers of problems, curious folk on a quest to discover new things and find new answers. Women can’t get to work on these problems, can’t indulge their curiosity or pursue new discoveries until they have the rights that they deserve.
Anyone working in business has the power to make the changes needed so that women can do their world-changing thing. Here are just some of the ways you can take action to drive the gender equality that everyone’s future depends on – whether you’re a CEO, an HR manager or pretty much anyone’s boss:
- Hire women. Promote women. Pay women fairly. Take gender equity and diversity seriously in your organization, and ask difficult questions of those in a position to make change – including yourself.
- There’s really no other way to say this: listen to the women you work with. Give them a platform, ask their opinion and invite them to speak.
- Interrogate your company’s supply chain. Do your partners and suppliers embrace gender diversity and pay women properly? If that’s not your remit, speak to people in the relevant department. Be the one to start the conversation.
- Offer mentorship for women at the beginning of their careers. If you’re not the right person to support someone, matchmake them with someone who is.
- Challenge your board. Why aren’t there more women around this table?
- Welcome the diversity of genders and identities the world encompasses.
- In case you need persuading (you shouldn’t) – companies with genuine gender diversity have been found to be 9% more likely to have better business outcomes.
And if you’re a woman (cis/trans/fluid), who wants to make a difference on climate, your battle is an uphill one – but there are ways you can support and protect yourself as you pursue your mission.
- Your ambition to make change is a powerful, inspirational, future-shaping thing. Nurture it, protect it. Find your tribe of likeminded women to share challenges and successes with, and know that you’re never doing this work alone.
- Ask for help. Climate change, poverty, equality, circularity and more: all these issues affect every human being. This stuff is HUGE, and will take a huge team to solve. Grow your network, build strong connections, and don’t shy away from asking for help.
- Remember that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. The world can expect women to be agreeable, and in sustainability, we also try to do everything. But you have every right to simply say ‘no’ to anything that’s wrong, unfair or too much.
- Take up space. Finish your sentence if you’re spoken over, start the meeting, own your ideas and take your space at the table. If you can’t do that for yourself, do it for sustainability.
- Practice being a leader. Look people in the eye, learn to negotiate. Remember networking is just working – you're not required to enjoy it. Join an amateur dramatics club (cheaper than a public speaking course and guaranteed to work). Offer to Chair the Board of your local school, sports club, or office party committee. If you're going to be a leader, find as many ways as possible to learn about leadership. Whether you're 15 or 50, start now, because the world needs leaders like you.
- Say: “What she said.” Did a female colleague come up with a brilliant idea or insight? Make sure she gets credit for it.
- Know that not everyone will like you – and that’s OK. Pushing for positive change ruffles feathers. That’s easy to accept in principle but harder in reality!
Taking action to move the needle on gender equity really is a no-brainer. Who doesn’t love a win-win? Any investment in gender equity is also an investment in Earth’s future. We can’t save the planet without women.