Gender and Climate Change

What are the ways in which women are affected differently (and more) by climate change around the world? What needs to be done about that?
What are the reasons behind the persistent and sometimes huge gender imbalance in audiences at any meeting labelled “Climate Change” in Manchester? What needs to be done about that?

These are just some of the questions that will be tackled at the next Manchester Climate Forum, on Wednesday 17th March. The event takes place at the Friends Meeting House, (6 Mount St, behind the Central Library), at 7.30pm sharp (come earlier for mingling and networking).

To kick off the discussion, here’s a reprint of an article written for “Only Planet“, the 2008 book about Manchester and Climate Change.

Invisible Power

It’s always hard to talk about the gender, race and class dynamics in activism without descending into massive generalisations. Every person has a whole range of cross-cutting identities as well as their own integral personal traits and characteristics, and there will always be individuals who buck every one of the trends I’m about to describe.

Despite this, there are some general issues with how power dynamics within groups and movements can be talked about in terms of these issues. The area I’m most familiar with from personal experience and study is gender, but many of these points are about the way that power imbalances work and discriminate more generally, so some of them will be applicable to other marginalised groups too.

Most of these ‘characteristics’ of men and women are largely, if not all, socially constructed. Men and women aren’t ‘naturally’ made one way or the other, society constructs us in these ways through the millions of ways we’re unconsciously taught to behave from babyhood onwards. You only have to look at the massive diversity of what is seen as ‘male’ or ‘female’ behaviour in societies around the world to realise that there’s nothing intrinsic about gendered behaviour.

Some schools of eco-feminist thought would disagree with this, arguing that there are natural, intrinsic links between women, nurturing and nature; I would argue that this position, as well as countered by so many examples from around the world, opens us up to other arguments about the fundamental nature of women – that they are less intelligent, inferior and made only for ‘women’s’ duties such as childbearing or homemaking. However, some deep ecology and eco-feminism books do have useful things to say about the way in which women are differentially impacted on by environmental change and crisis.

So, having said this, what are the kind of gender dynamics that might affect the extent to which women get involved in certain types of causes and campaigning?

Firstly, there are the power dynamics in how people behave – at meetings, in demonstrations, when planning activities and actions. It’s a generalisation, but women are still often brought up to be quieter, less argumentative and less assertive than men. In meetings and discussions – especially ones which are not well facilitated and where people aren’t given space and confidence to talk – this can easily translate into women not having the confidence to raise their voices in the din, to put up their hand or to challenge views they don’t agree with.

Studies on workplaces have shown that men and often far more confident in their knowledge and right to express opinions and assert facts, even over and above the expertise of women who might be far better informed or qualified. This isn’t just off-putting for women, but disadvantages the entire group or movement, which may well be missing out on valuable knowledge and experience just because less well-informed men have more confidence about talking publicly and asserting their own ideas. And in many cases it can be easily rectified, by making sure that facilitators in meetings and campaign planners are aware of the need to do things like use go-rounds that include everyone rather than free-for-all discussions, to ask direct questions to individuals rather than always picking the first people to raise their hands, and if necessary to use anonymising tools such as slips of paper instead of insisting that everyone has to put their point publicly.

As well as the amount that women speak and participate (or are put off doing so), these issues of confidence and assertiveness can often influence the roles and jobs that the genders take on, with men assuming that they have the right and abilities to put themselves forward for public or leadership roles, while women enter equally important but less acknowledged and respected support positions. And in movements where direct action is frequently used, it’s important to be aware of how much this valuable tactic can often overlap with macho behaviour and prioritisation of physical strength which can again discriminate against some women.

Secondly, there is the issue of when and where meetings take place. Most large public meetings happen in the evenings so that working people can access them, which is fair enough – but which can discriminate against people- most often women- who have to use paid childcare in the evenings but would be able to meet while their children are at schools or nurseries. Late night meetings, especially in winter, can be threatening for women subjected to socially inculcated fear of being out on their own after dark and when there is poor public transport (even if statistics show that we’re in much more danger from the men in our family than from shadowy murderers and rapists on the streets).

Using rooms in pubs can also exclude women, especially those from non-drinking cultures and religions. The tendency for the ‘real’ decision-making and bond-forging to go on in the pub after a meeting is also a big source of discrimination, especially against those who need to use paid childcare or have early starts for work, or who can’t afford to get involved in a culture of buying rounds and hanging out regularly after meetings.

Simple ways to address some of these issues are

  • to ensure that meetings are run efficiently and on time, so that if people need to keep babysitting costs down they can get home quickly and predict how long might be needed.

  • using sub-groups to plan specific tasks can sometimes make meeting times more flexible and allow people to get together during the daytime or at weekends. Or are there venues which might even offer creche facilities?

  • and make sure that if important decisions and plans are made, it’s done in a transparent way and in proper meetings, not over beers afterwards.

Thirdly, and depressingly enough in the 21st century, there are still some heavily gendered roles that women are expected to fall into, or which they find themselves entering by default – perhaps because they can. Cooking, cleaning up after meetings, helping other people’s projects to happen rather than advancing their own. It’s useful for groups to consider doing gender audits, looking at which roles and activities are being done by whom, and finding out if there are unmet ambitions and training needs amongst members. This can benefit the entire membership and help to retain members and volunteers who feel valued and respected.

Useful resources

For puncturing macho egos: any of the cartoon books of Jackie Fleming

For a detailed look at how informal power structures affect women: Beyond Hierarchy: Gender, Sexuality, and the Social Economy – Sarah Oerton (Taylor & Francis)

For discussions of how women experience environmental change:

Women and the Environment: A Reader – Sally Sontheimer (Monthly Review Press) or any of the writings of Vandana Shiva

One response to “Gender and Climate Change

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Gender and Climate Change | Arwa's Freelance Site --

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