In March 2020, the OECD Global Forum on Environment focused on "Mainstreaming Gender and Empowering Women for Environmental Sustainability". As claimed, it wanted to identify and propose ways to capitalise on synergies between environmental policies on the one hand and economic and social goals – specifically achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment – on the other. This summary report on the OECD-Forum highlights selected environment-related sectors and policies, and how they should be discussed from a gender-responsive perspective.
The environmental crisis calls for a gender-specific action plan. (Former OECD Secretary general, Angel Gurría)
The two-day forum brought together policy makers and experts from OECD Member and Partner countries, as well as representatives from business, inter-governmental organisations, research centres and civil society organisations. They presented their respective approaches and a wide range of local projects, demonstrating how a gender lens (or rather a focus on women’s empowerment) could reduce the environmental footprint.
An unsatisfactory point remained the difficulty of moving the discussion beyond “conventional” gender and women’s empowerment approaches that describe women primarily as victims of unjust and unhealthy global developments. Given the very striking data that clearly demonstrate how women’s bodies – due to biological facts regarding their sex (toxic substances and pollutants accumulate in female bodies to a higher degree, due to women’s relatively higher percentage of body fat) – are disproportionately affected by chemicals in the environment compared to men, this renewed debate should also include social factors that determine differences in men’s and women’s exposure to hazardous chemicals and should develop a holistic and systemic analysis of all genders and their varying societal roles – also beyond averages and stereotypes (see report below on the session on environmental impacts on health).
The stakeholders present covered a wide range from “beginners” open to and interested in the challenging nexus of environment and gender, to gender-responsive “frontrunners” from mainly Nordic states (e.g., Sweden and Iceland). These representatives – whether governmental or non-governmental – also mentioned ‘LGBTIQ’ and ‘masculinity’ as issues to be strategically considered. However, ‘intersectionality’ in a wider sense, i.e., social and socio-political exclusion by multiple and interrelated forms of discrimination, was referred to often throughout the conference. By pinpointing the need to equally include youth, the poor and indigenous people, many stakeholders took class, racism and age into account as important categories for gender-sensitive data collection and analysis as well as the need for action.
The session topics were selected thoroughly along environment-related sectors and policies, and covered crucial issues that are high on the agenda of the Heinrich Böll-Foundation’s (hbs) gender-responsive environmental expertise. They were prepared in depth by excellent issue notes that encompass important facts and data from the OECD. Considering all the sources that the OECD provides institution-wide, the complex and discipline-specific links between ‘gender’ and ‘environment’ (i.e., in the health, transport, energy sectors) were conveyed in a useful way.
Environmental impacts on health and well-being
Around 25 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by damage to the environment. As mentioned above, the focus of this panel was on women’s vulnerability to pollutants and the negative health impacts on women by chemical hazards. Although the gender approach to this important topic seemed partly limited and dualistic, solid and generally unknown data on the links between gender and air, water and soil pollution were provided. In addition, attention was drawn to the gendered impacts of hazardous chemicals, an issue that has come up only recently. It turns our attention to gender-segregated labour in value and supply chains, e.g. in the textile and footwear industries where women form the majority of the workforce and are exposed to many chemical substances. Evidence was also given of the curious fact that women are highly exposed to chemical hazards on account of beauty standards. Yet the WHO, although alarmed by women’s contact to an average of over 200 hazardous chemical substances a day, wants to avoid “blaming the victim” (“we do not want women feeling guilty because of using cosmetics”) and stresses the need for implementing a “polluter pays principle”, i.e. taxes on the production of harmful chemicals. Regarding the debate on well-being and the links between social inequality and environmental degradation, OECD studies have shown that gender is not the most relevant category for an assessment of inclusive growth and well-being. According to the OECD coordinator of the Inclusive Growth Initiative, Romina Boarini, it is important to apply different (intersectional) parameters, first and foremost social class and age (of children).
Consumption patterns, circular economy and waste management
The need to zoom in on people’s agency as consumers and show how women and men behave differently in this role was the focus of the session on gender-specific consumption patterns, behavioural insights and the circular economy. Projects were presented primarily from Southeast Asia and the waste management sector. Evidence-based and closely linked to critical global gender analyses of roles and responsibilities, the debate highlighted women’s engagement in waste management. This engagement has been institutionalized in Indonesia’s Waste Bank Management System (about 60.000 waste banks), around 80 percent of which are managed by women. Applying a specific environmental 3R model of reduce – reuse – recycle, plastic waste in particular has been significantly reduced, while many women have found sustainable workplaces and jobs in these self-sustaining projects.
The non-profit oriented Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Network highlighted new aspects of the circular economy topic. As stated above, the social and gender impacts of worldwide business models will be crucial for the future of global factories. The global resale fashion market has the potential outgrow the current fast fashion market, and will be accompanied by gains and losses in both the conventional and new branches. The shift in jobs resulting from the circular economy can therefore have a disproportionate effect on women. Are women and gender experts prepared for this and the resulting consequences?
In connection with the impacts on health, the Swedish Chemicals Agency applies a three-pronged approach to working for a gender-just and chemical-free environment by analysing each of the following three categories: 1) exposure; 2) reaction; and 3) contribution (to alternatives) for women and men respectively. The plenary discussion added another important aspect to the debate, namely the need for women to be visible as decision-makers in all these branches, as opposed to sticking to the stereotype of women as consumers only.
Infrastructure development, including transport, city and settlement design
The panel on urban and infrastructural developments was particularly interesting. The concentration of gender-committed high-level representatives and diverse technical experts both male and female from governmental and intergovernmental institutions and think tanks contributed to crucial aspects of this sectoral issue. From the particular to the general, some of these incentives should be followed up by hbs and gender experts on urban development:
The gendered-landscape approach implemented by the City of Umeå, Sweden. Based on a holistic principle, it seeks to understand the living conditions of marginalized groups that are usually underrepresented in communal decision-making by a regular “citizens’ dialogue”. It tries to reach a gender balance in communal commitments. The European URBACT Working Group enhances the gendered-landscape method by integrating a holistic understanding of gendered inequality on local levels due to the built environment.
Transport sector and mobility: Sexual harassment and violence against women in public transport need to be addressed immediately and comprehensively. Women as a focal group need to be involved in planning and designing, because “when men plan mobility, men plan for men”. The Transformative Mobility Initiative, TUMI, is using five principles to strengthen gender-inclusive approaches in the transport sector. However, honest discussion is needed on these approaches in order to prevent women being “utilized” for sustainability goals because women account for two thirds of public transport users although not necessarily “voluntarily”, i.e., women turn their backs on the more sustainable option of public transport as soon as they acquire access to individual motorized vehicles.
A huge EU project in Lisbon (EU capital 2020) links the aim of safer cities for women and girls (by enhancing their agency as planners) with moving away from cars as a focus (and vice versa). A representative of the PTV Group, the world’s leading transport software company, reports that as a side effect, the gender-sensitive approaches of the company’s work have changed its culture too. Reasonably although not surprisingly in this forum, all speakers strongly urged closer cooperation with the private sector in order to move gender equality forward.
Regarding the issue of mobility, housing and urbanization on a wider scale, the OECD representative of Urban Policies and Sustainable Development strongly called for a territorial approach to the SDGs and the need to rethink politics from the ground up. A gender approach needs to be applied in transverse form to all other urban policies. The primary focus should be on education, health and infrastructure. Data on social resilience and vulnerability are crucial if housing is to be turned into social housing: Who are the most vulnerable people (e.g., single working mothers)? Where do they live? On the other hand, speakers urged stakeholders to no longer hide behind the data gap. Governments need a clear agenda and need to act on inequality in rapid urbanisation processes (“Most of the social problems will occur in cities that haven’t been built yet!”). (Gender-just) decentralisation is key to these processes, and decentralizing basic social and infrastructural services must be considered for inclusive planning processes. It is important for the voices of the suburban areas to reach the cities and the decision-makers (“Cities are more vocal than regions”).
The starting panel and concluding panel alike set the tone for more comprehensive commitment by all stakeholders with the aim of collective empowerment of women and youth. Civil society actors raised awareness of the following issues from a number of different angles:
Evident and gender-disaggregated data have not yet been collected and processed sufficiently.
Business as usual is not adequate for the purpose of advancing gender equality and overcoming the environmental crisis.
The space for civil society organizations is shrinking, and governments must counteract that.
Active youth (e.g., the Friday for Future movement) need to be supported with capacity building.
But education and awareness (especially for getting women into ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics’) are crucial.
We need to make sure that money is not only pledged but also in fact reaches the grassroots level and women’s grassroots organisations.
Three items the OECD committed itself to for future work:
Producing data and peer reviews to assess and analyse gender inequalities in environmental topics. That includes a profound review of and meaningful supplement to (qualitative) indicators for the SDGs.
Mainstreaming gender into different sectors, especially infrastructure-related and technical sectors. Applying a whole-of-government and whole-of-society-approach. Overcoming working in “silos”.
Tackling the environmental crisis in joint efforts by including generational and gender equality. There is no time to waste!
Further resources and links (selection)
OECD and gender:
OECD and environment:
Water and “water footprint”
Waste and circular economy
EBRD and women bus drivers’ initiative:
“3 CE International” or “Equal by 30 campaign”: www.equalby30.org