Why women are key to solving the climate crisis

Two farming women in Rupandehi District, Nepal. Image credit: Creative Commons, Neil Palmer

Why women are key to solving the climate crisis

Essential to limiting global warming to 1.5°C is the leadership and participation of women. Making up 51% of the Earth’s population, women and girls in every society are responding more effectively in times of crisis and actively working towards the creation of a more just and sustainable world. Yet, large structural gaps in inequality remain. By acknowledging the benefits women bring to the table, we can start to close these gaps and accelerate action to solve the climate crisis. Below are eight major reasons why we need to target resources to women climate leaders, summarizing recent research findings on the topic.

Local woman harvesting cultivated seaweed in the shallow, clear coastal waters of Zanzibar island, near Jambiani village. 

1. Women are the most impacted by climate change

Studies have found that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women [1]. The economic and health impacts of more prolonged droughts, reduced food production, and severe weather events are disproportionately felt by women. The world’s poorest countries are the most vulnerable, with women making up the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on less than $1 per day [2]. Worldwide, women aged 25-34 are 25% more likely than men to live in extreme poverty [3].

Women also face more adverse effects of natural disasters and pollution. After floods, monsoons, and landslides, women face higher rates of both sexual violence and health problems. Over the period 1981–2002, a sample of 141 countries found that in unequal gender societies, more women die from disaster events than men [4]. In addition, women and children are generally more susceptible to the harmful effects of coal-fired power plants. One in six women of childbearing age now have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, and it is estimated that between 300,000 and 600,000 children are at serious risk of neurological impairment due to mercury exposure [5].

Gendered roles in much of the world also make women more susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change. Women are the primary gatherers of water, food, and fuel, and they dominate subsistence farming, caregiving, and cleaning. These duties are more prone to feel the effects of environmental degradation and rising global temperatures as they rely heavily upon natural resources. In the future, this can drive a negative feedback loop of increasing poverty. However, research shows that empowering women within these roles can reverse poverty and unlock effective climate change solutions. 

Women delivering food supplies after Hurricane Ike and Tropical Storm Hanna in Gonaives, Haiti.

2. Women are better leaders in times of crisis

As the effects of climate change are felt, examples of women stepping up to act have been demonstrated around the world. In Bangladesh, women developed wind and flood-resistant housing foundations for their communities [6]. A group of women in rural Sudan formed the first-ever Women’s Farmers Union to improve food security in their communities facing drought and famine [7]. As hurricanes become more severe and prevalent, Indigenous women in Nicaragua were motivated to create seed banks to protect biodiversity, creating sustainable livelihoods that are not dependent upon industrialized agriculture [8]. After Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, architect Carla Gautier partnered with her friend Maria Gabriela Velasco to rebuild the more than 300,000 homes left severely damaged across the island by repurposing shipping containers [9]. And local women around the Pacific Islands have established media networks and monitoring groups to broadcast the impacts of climate change in Fiji to the world [10]. When empowered to actively participate in disaster planning and emergency response, women showcase a unique knowledge and skillset that allows communities to recover more quickly and more effectively.

Covid-19 also shed light on the power women can have in leadership. A study comprised of 194 countries found that pandemic responses were systematically better in countries led by women [11]. Data also shows that Covid-19 deaths were lower in states with a female governor [12].  During the first quarter of the pandemic, an assessment of managers in corporate America also found that women leaders scored significantly higher on 13 of 19 competencies [13]. Female managers scored higher in motivating employees, taking initiative, developing others, and communicating powerfully.

Research has also shown that women adopt innovative and preventative measures at a faster rate than men. In a review of 17 studies from around the world, the presence of women in conservation and natural resource management resulted in stricter and more sustainable extraction rules, greater compliance, more transparency and accountability, and better conflict resolution [14]. This research has also shown that women tend to think for the collective whole rather than themselves. Women are shown to make more decisions that support the public good, provide fair pay and benefits, and encourage honest and ethical behavior.

Nemonte Nenquimo, Indigenous activist and member of the Waorani nation from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador. Image credit: Courtesy of Amazon Frontlines

3. Women are powerful organizers

In some ways, the environmental movement as we know it today was started by women. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, inspired a generation of grassroots action for the Earth, ultimately leading to the founding of Earth Day and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency [15]. Through 60 years of groundbreaking work in the field, Jane Goodall introduced the world to the complex family interactions of wild chimpanzees and inspired a new level of public awareness about the need to protect primates and their vitally important habitats [16]. As a marine biologist, oceanographer, and explorer, Sylvia Earle was the first female chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and continues to inspire action to end overfishing and pollution in our oceans [17]. Each of these women are influential organizers in the conservation of our planet and hundreds more have joined their ranks. According to the Goldman Environmental Prize, what some call the “Nobel Prize” for the environment, approximately 60% of more than 200 hundred prize winners are women.  

Women also have taken the initiative as key leaders in social and environmental movements. When Ecuador’s government was about to sell off seven million acres of Indigenous land in the Amazon to oil companies, an Indigenous woman, Nemonte Nenquimo, led a community action lawsuit. The court ruled in favor of the Waorani people, protecting the land from oil extraction and requiring informed consent from the tribe before any further auctioning. Wangari Maathai created 6,000 tree nurseries to block desertification in Kenya and empowered women in her community. Her work led to the Great Green Wall initiative, which is an African-led movement that aims to grow an 8,000 km belt of trees across the Sahel to transform millions of lives while providing vast amounts of carbon sequestration.

When the Dakota Access Pipeline was set to be laid across her people’s lands, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard ignited a global movement opposing its construction. In July 2020, a federal judge sided with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and ordered a full environmental analysis, and in 2021 the pipeline was officially scrapped. In Honduras, the world’s largest dam developer, Auga Zarca, was set to build on the Gualcarque River. Sacred to the Lenca people, the dam would have cut off their supply of water, food, and medicine and negatively altered the environment. Berta Cáceres waged a grassroots campaign that successfully halted the project, proving that it was in violation of international treaties governing Indigenous peoples’ rights [18].

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Image credit: Courtesy of Governor-General of New Zealand

4. Women have the solutions 

Studies show that worldwide, when women are uplifted, there are immense benefits to communities and societies overall. Sustainable and local economies grow, populations stabilize, and children’s health and education levels improve – all of which are foundations for a sustainable economy of the future. Research shows that where women have higher social and political status, their countries have 12% lower CO2 emissions [19]. In many countries, women lead get-out-the-vote efforts and vote more often. They also have led on environmental and social legislation when elected to public office. After winning reelection, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet consisting of 40% women declared a "Climate Emergency" and set in motion a plan to make the country’s public sector carbon neutral by 2025. Additionally, it has been shown that women are vital actors in peacemaking, and when involved in negotiations, increase the probability of ending violence by up to 24% [20]. 

Women farmers feed the world. Managing 70% of smallholder farms in Africa, women provide more than half of all nutrition to people living on the continent [21]. Their agricultural systems are rooted in ancient history, passed from mother to daughter for centuries, inherently adapted to specific variations in land and climate. Long before the advent of industrialized agriculture, women farmers were using regenerative agricultural practices to return nutrients to the soil, building resilience and fertility over time without chemicals. According to the UN, when provided the same resources as men, women can increase agricultural yields by 20-30%, reducing hunger by 12-17% [22]. Instead of expanding industrialized agriculture, which is typically run by male-led companies and often heavily dependent upon expensive chemical imports, governments could choose to support the millions of women farmers practicing regenerative agriculture today, helping to close the hunger gap in their countries.

In almost two-thirds of households in developing countries, women and girls are responsible for collecting water, holding vital knowledge of local water systems and stewardship practices [23]. Repeatedly, the UN has recognized that the success of sustainable water resource management largely depends on engaging women at all levels of decision-making and implementation. The exclusion of women from the planning of water supply and sanitation practices has proven to be a major factor in their high rate of failure. Fuel collection is also primarily led by women in the Global South, especially for lighting and cooking, where 90% of women take the lead in feeding and running their homes [24]. When given the resources, women are more likely to choose sustainable fuel options that reduce emissions globally.

Farmer planting in haze of smoke in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image credit: Creative Commons, Aulia Erlangga, CIFOR

5. Women turn knowledge into action

Indigenous women and women in the Global South have vast knowledge and skills gleaned through their traditional roles as healers, culture shapers, and caretakers of water and land. Over 80% of remaining biodiversity is within the lands of Indigenous peoples who have protected them for generations, many of which have matriarchal structures [25]. Due to their close relationship with the land, Indigenous women hold unique and invaluable traditional ecological knowledge, as well as a spiritual and philosophical approach to healing the Earth and its climate. This can contribute greatly to building resilience, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and scaling environmental preservation on a global level. Their traditional knowledge provides natural solutions to energy, waste management, and agriculture.

It has been shown that significantly greater improvements in forest conditions and conservation happen when women are involved in management and decision-making. A study in India found that with a high proportion of women in leadership, regeneration rates and canopy growth increased even when established in smaller and more degraded forests [26]. Women are also the keepers of native seed banks and nurseries, and lead replanting and conservation efforts that prevent forest degradation, increase carbon sequestration and protect biodiversity.

Recently, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) celebrated 16 female leaders who have worked to protect and restore natural capital. For example, Sumarni Laman’s tree planting program is helping restore biodiversity across Indonesia. In India, Vandana Shiva created one of the first community seed banks. Now with 150 community seed banks across 22 states, Navdanya is a freely sharing, saving, and breeding program for native crop species. It was founded in the belief that there is no separation between humans and nature, and many more seed banks like it have now been created in both northern and southern countries [27].

Papua New Guinea attorney Anne Kajir wins a lawsuit against a global timber company that must pay back Indigenous landowners. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Prize

6. Women are economic dynamos

Increasing employment and leadership opportunities for women greatly benefit companies and the economy writ large. It is estimated that businesses with three or more women in senior management positions score higher on all dimensions of organizational performance [28]. Female founded companies in a major VC portfolio outperformed companies founded by men by 63%, delivering significantly higher revenue [29]. In a study of over 350 startups, women’s companies gained more than 2 times as much per dollar invested [30]. After appointing a female CEO, data has shown that the stock price for a woman-led company outperformed those with male CEOs by an average of 20% after two years [31].

In the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, it was found that if all countries in a region match the rate of the fastest-improving country in gender equality, as much as $12 trillion, or 11%, in annual GDP could be added by to the global economy 2025. The scenario where women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men in all countries showed that as much as $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025 [32].

In developed countries, women are more likely to recycle, buy organic food and eco-labeled products, and endorse energy efficiency measures. Research in Europe shows that women express more concern about climate change and are more willing to make sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions than men. In the United States, women are 5% more likely to believe in climate science [33]. Women in North America start 70% of new businesses [34] and now control over half of the wealth. It is also estimated that women make 70-80% of all consumer purchases [35]. This potential can be leveraged to transition more rapidly to a sustainable, clean energy economy.  

Food hero Margaret Nakato speaks passionately about boosting women’s role in food production. Image credit: ©Katosi Women Development Trust

7. The world needs equality 

In much of the world, women are still considered the “second sex.” Lack of resources, education, financial resources, and political representation keep women trapped in their current economic state. Although agriculture is the most common source of work for women in developing regions, only 20% of landholders are women, and their property accumulation is much smaller than those of their male counterparts [36]. Even in countries with some social reforms in place, culture often overpowers the law. Kenya amended their constitution to allow more women to own property as more than three-quarters of the country’s farms are run by women. But currently, less than 2% of title deeds issued in Kenya have gone to women since 2013 [37].

Gender differences in laws affect women in both developing and developed countries. Across the globe, over 2.7 billion women are legally prevented from having the same choice of jobs as men. In 2018, 104 out of 189 economies studied still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs; 59 economies had no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and in 18 economies husbands could legally prevent their wives from working. Labor force participation rates for women aged 25-54 is 63% compared to 94 % for men, and once working, the gender wage gap is estimated to be 23%. Women also are disproportionately responsible for unpaid care and domestic work, spending around 2.5 times more time on these duties than men [38].

Women also face inequality in health services. Over 250 million women in low-income countries say they want to be able to have the right to choose their family planning, but don’t have access to contraceptives [39]. This results in approximately 74 million unplanned pregnancies each year. Freedom to choose is a fundamental human right and additionally reduces the pressure on natural resources. Investing more in female health services and overall education is critical to giving women power over their own bodies and minds.

Insufficient education also impacts females as half a billion women and girls aged 15 years and over are illiterate [40]. The good news, based on estimates from the UN, is that the educational gender gap can be fully closed in 12 years on the current trajectory. This is due to rapid advancements in some developing countries. By increasing women’s access to education, their participation in the labor force goes up, vulnerabilities to violence go down, and fewer children are born. The difference between 0 years of schooling and 12 years is almost 4 to 5 children per woman [41]. Slowing population growth is one of the most effective strategies for curbing global carbon emissions [42].

Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres. Image credit: Creative Commons,  UNFCCC

8. Women are the visionaries

The link between gender inequality and climate change is undeniable but resources are still lacking. Right now, only 2% of all philanthropic dollars are directed to environmental causes, and this sector is second-to-last in equity rankings -- with women’s organizations receiving only 0.2% of donations [43]. Despite this lack of funding, female-led initiatives are still taking the lead in grassroots action around the world. One Earth recognized five such female-led networks who are making a difference in the fight against the climate crisis -- WECAN International, Women for Wildlife, Indigenous Women's Biodiversity Network, Women for Conservation, and Women in Nature Network. Their visionary and collaborative approaches to action are now organically scaling through peer-to-peer networks around the world.

It also must be noted that without women, the Paris Climate Agreement would not be what it is today. A legendary group of women called the “lionesses” including Farhana Yamin, Christiana Figueres, and Tessa Tennant met in the countryside of Scotland and came up with the guiding principle of ‘net zero emissions’ at a time when many parties to the climate convention were at loggerheads. There are many mothers of the goal as they expanded into a group of more than 30 female lawyers, diplomats, financiers, and activists with the mission to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. It was with these precise targets and clear language that allowed global leaders to finally understand the urgency and, with a clear objective, begin to cooperate to create actionable policy [44]. It has been found that women in leadership positions create and improve climate change policy more often than men. A study of 130 countries showed that countries with a high representation of women in their administrations are more likely to ratify international environment treaties [45].

It is time for policymakers, investors, and philanthropists to understand that women can act as an immense force for change by leading their communities and the world towards a more sustainable future. Numerous research studies show that gender inequality in resources, health services, and education must be addressed if we are to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. This is why a new campaign,  SHE Changes Climate, is now calling for more female representation in multilateral climate negotiations. Women are already disproportionately facing the effects of global warming, and they are also disproportionately delivering the solutions. Thus, we must dramatically increase efforts to empower women by funding them accordingly, and positioning them as the rightful leaders of the movement to solve the climate crisis.

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