by Emily Folk5 minute read
Climate change is often labelled as an environmental issue, but it isn’t only that. It’s an issue that affects people, and it doesn’t affect all people in the same way. Whilst its impacts are discriminatory in a variety of ways – for example, hitting poorer countries and island communities harder than richer ones with larger hinterlands – the disparity in its gender impacts is perhaps less obvious, though no less real.
Women already face discrimination in many fields. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the UK, women in full time employment are paid 9% less than men, a figure that has changed little in a decade. Across all employees, the gap is 17.3% and while this has been closing, it is because the number of women in full time jobs has been increasing faster than the number of men. Women are under-represented in senior roles, and are paid less when in them. The gender pay gap for 2019 in the ‘Managers, directors and senior officials’ category is 15.9%, and increased compared with previous years. These economic inequalities extend into retirement, with single men’s weekly income of £233 exceeding single women’s by £27.
These inequalities are in part driven by inequalities in how child care is shared. It’s common for women to forgo employment opportunities to lead a more maternal lifestyle. Government statistics show that, in families with children under five, 94% of men are employed, compared with less than 70% of women.
Women also do far more unpaid work than men. Women spend around twice as many hours per week on tasks like cooking, childcare and housework, and six times as many hours doing laundry.
Inequality is not limited to work. Women are also more often the victims of violence – both in the domestic setting, where women are more than twice as likely as men to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months (6.3% compared with 2.7%); and in the wider world, where women are more than three times as likely as men to have experienced sexual assault in the last year (3.1% compared with 0.8%).
The unfairer sex
These problems are serious enough in countries such as the UK, where gender equality is backed by law. Elsewhere, they are even more severe. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that:
“men in many parts of the world exercise power over women, making decisions on their behalf, regulating and constraining their access to resources and personal agency, and sanctioning and policing their behaviour through socially condoned violence or the threat of violence.”
This can lead to women having worse access to many services, including healthcare, as a result of having less control of resources. As a result of this inequality, the problems found in a context like the UK are considerably worse in countries without formal equalities legislation. And around the world, inequality is likely to be worsened by climate change.
For example, one of the consequences of climate change is an increase in extreme weather events. Whether you’re in a western country or in the developing world, the destruction caused by extreme weather can take a lead to major resource setbacks. Women generally control fewer resources than men, and are in a less good position to weather the storm, as it were.
Whether the impact is that a woman has to suddenly find a way to pay for a new roof, or an unexpected medical bill it’s harder for women to fund these expenses. It’s also more likely that, if a family is affected by a sudden economic setback, women will suffer from the more of the consequences of having to go without, as their needs are often given lower priority. When there is disruption, the time women spend on providing care and meeting basic needs is likely to increase.
In more extreme circumstances, climate-related issues may displace people from their homes altogether. In resource-poor nations, women form more than 75% of the people displaced by disasters, and bear the brunt of the impact. Removed from their established networks and sources of help, women have less access to medication (for which they, on average, have greater need) and to medical care. A particular area of concern is prenatal care – it’s much riskier to give birth when hospitals are inaccessible, or stretched thin.
After a natural disaster, women are more likely to experience violent situations — both nonsexual and sexual. This may occur due to being trapped with an abusive partner, or being placed in a vulnerable position where they are exploited – including in refugee camps.
A substantial share of the climate-changing CO2 that is emitted around the world is a product of fuel combustion, which often also leads to poor air quality. According to Public Health England, pregnant women are at particular risk from poor air quality, as are children. If a child develops an illness such as asthma due to poor air quality, the mother – especially a single mother – is likely to bear the greater part of any additional caring duties that might become necessary.
Particularly in poorer countries, women suffer greater exposure to smoke from combustion due to their role in food preparation. According to the WHO, around four million people each year die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting solid fuel and kerosene stoves. Women and small children suffer the worst health impacts due to spending the most time near the domestic hearth. Enabling these polluting stoves to be replaced with cleaner, greener alternatives would have a substantial impact on both CO2 emissions and women’s health.
Yet in other respects, women contribute less to the production of emissions than do men. Car transport is a major source of CO2 and air pollution, and in the UK, significantly fewer women than men hold driving licenses, while women travel 13% fewer miles by car each year. Another major source of CO2 emissions is food production, and women require 20% fewer calories each day than men.
In short, women are disproportionately affected by climate change, and by the poor air quality that often goes along with the generation of CO2. They are also likely to be responsible for fewer emissions per capita than men. Measures to reduce emissions, like the UK’s recent net-zero emissions law, are therefore likely to have an egalitarian impact, inconveniencing women less and delivering greater benefits for them. In the end, tackling the climate emergency might be a feminist issue, not just an environmental one.
Featured image: FLASHFLOOD® (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.