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Women's leadership and empowerment: reinforcing or challenging inequality?


Despite global progress, in various national and local contexts the literacy and education gap between women and men continues to be high. The technical, environmental and financial sectors invested in developing solutions for a low-emission future continue to be dominated by men. And while more and more women have entered employment over the past decades, their share of widely unrewarded reproductive, i.e. household, child care and health care work, has barely gone down. And there is still a long way to go before a head of state or the CEO of a company will be anywhere near as likely to be a woman as a man. Against these global trends, global action on climate change requires serious efforts for equality if it is going to be representative of, and achieve fair outcomes for both men and women.

From victimhood to empowerment

Since the earliest efforts to take on a gender perspective in policies and action addressing climate change, the trend has been to draw on generalisations of women’s and girls’ victimhood (see Impacts and Research section). For example, climate adaptation projects often treat women as a 'special' group of vulnerable beneficiaries, rather than rights-holding citizens who need to be fully recognised for their skills, contributions and priorities as much as anyone else. In recent years the climate arena has seen a push toward more focus on women’s empowerment and leadership.

Women’s leadership became a true buzzword around the Rio+20 sustainable development conference in 2012. Later initiatives, such as the 'Women for Results' challenge were created to give gender a more positive image and achieve broader buy-in. Approaches supporting women in breaking through traditional gender barriers as they take action on climate change are also emerging in various local initiatives across the world.

Challenging or reinforcing inequality?

Critical voices for example from among women’s rights activists and critics of mainstream development thinking, claim that the idea of women’s empowerment that has gained such popularity among global leaders has little to do with tackling inequality by its roots and resolving the underlying global power imbalances - between rich and poor, and between men and women:

“The underlying causes and consequences of unsustainability and gender inequality are deeply intertwined and rooted in the dominant economic models. [...] These involve economic liberalization and the concentration of productive and financial activity geared to short-term profits; unrestrained material consumption; unparalleled levels of militarism; and the privatization of public goods and services, all at the expense of state regulation and redistribution.” (UN Women 2014, p.22)

One example of gender inequality within this dominant economic model that remains vastly unchallenged by mainstream women’s empowerment approaches within the climate arena is the distribution and valuing of reproductive work, i.e. the, largely unpaid, child care, household and care work mostly shouldered by women. If women’s empowerment only means their increasing participation in the public domain and formal economy, without rethinking the distribution and recognising the value of reproductive work, 'women’s empowerment' can quickly become 'overburdening women' (on this topic see for example Genanet’s brochure on “Sustainable Economy and Green Growth - Who Cares?”).

Image Credit: Fintrac Inc, USAID | Flickr

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