Climate Change is a Women’s Issue

Women are underrepresented in climate science and decision-making, although being powerful agents of change.

At a global scale, women are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change than men. Studies have shown that women are disproportionately exposed to risk, increased loss of livelihoods, security, and even lives, during and in the aftermath of disasters. This is due to their high dependence on local natural resources, the inequitable distribution of resources and land, social and cultural norms as well as limited access to decision-making and economic assets[1][2]. It is not a surprise that these gender disparities also affect climate migration flows: There is growing evidence of women’s over-representation among climate change migrants[3].

Climate change impacts are not limited to rural women of the global south but affect women worldwide, especially those with low incomes. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, African American women were among the worst affected by flooding in Louisiana. It is estimated that two‑thirds of jobs lost after Hurricane Katrina were lost by women[4].

Gender unbalanced climate science ?

Although affected most by climate change, women are substantially underrepresented in key disciplines of climate science. A study from 2018 reveals that of all doctorates awarded from 1973 to 2016 in all geosciences in the U.S. only 27% of them were women. A severe gender gap can be also recognised for the DEEDS scientific expert database: Of all the experts who registered for the database until 13 April, only 16.4% indicated they were female. An overwhelming 80.3% male and 3.3% chose to not disclose their gender.

Gender distribution of participating experts until 13th April

The world’s leading climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also has to meet the challenge of the underrepresentation of women. A recent study analysed trends in IPCC female participation. The results of the study indicate that in 2013, when the IPCC’s fifth report was published, only about 22% of authors were female – a total of 182. Although this is an increase by 20% compared to the 2% of female authors in 1990 for the first report, there is still a long way to go until gender balance is reached. A similar trend can be seen, when analysing the number of women holding the highest positions of the IPCC – that of Chair and Vice-Chair of a working group. Currently, 8 out of 32 Chairs and Vice-Chairs are women. The highest number so far.

Ko Barrett, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the only current female Vice-Chair of the IPCC highlighted the need to increase the number of woman authors and authors from the global south to make the IPCC reports more robust and less biased.

Gender unbalanced climate decision-making

In addition to an underrepresentation of women in the climate scientific field, women’s unequal participation in decision-making processes and labour markets compound inequalities and often prevent women from fully contributing to climate-related planning, policy-making and implementation[5].

While women are great at connecting the dots between climate change and its effects on health and the environment, they are largely left out in official climate change decision-making. A report by UN Women and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice reveals weak participation of women as delegates in the annually held Conference of the Parties (COP) and other meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The proportion of women in the composition of party delegations declined from 36% during both COP 19 and COP 20 to 32% during COP 21. Furthermore, only 20% women participated as heads of delegations for COP 21.

Women add value to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts

A powerful statement for women as change agents (credit: Nancy Pelosi / Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, women can (and do) play a critical role in response to climate change due to their local knowledge of and leadership in climate related issues. Women’s participation at the political level has resulted in greater responsiveness to citizen’s needs, often increasing cooperation across party and ethnic lines and delivering more sustainable peace. For example, those countries with more women in parliament were more likely to ratify environmental treates, reflecting higher support for environmental protection, according to a study of 130 countries.

Gender equality in science and decision-making in the European Union

Within this general context, it is reassuring to see that the European Union has long been aiming to promote gender equality. Since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, it has adopted 13 directives in the field of gender equality. Horizon 2020 – to which DEEDS belongs – states in Article 16 of its Framework Regulation that it “shall ensure the effective promotion of gender equality and the integration of a gender dimension in research and innovation content”. Ultimately, Horizon 2020 aims to foster equal opportunities in project teams, ensuring gender balance in decision-making, integrate the gender dimension in research and innovation (R&I) content. [6]

However, the need to promote gender equality in European science and decision-making clearly remains. The ex-post evaluation of the Framework Programme 7 (FP7) showed that gender equality in research and innovation is advancing very slowly. During FP7, the percentage of women project coordinators only slightly increased from 16-17% in 2006, to 19.2% in 2012. Women represented 38% of the total reported workforce of the projects whilst only 29% of work packages leaders and 34% of the experienced researchers were women.[7] A first step towards gender balance is to call on women to participate in local, national and international (climate) knowledge creation and decision-making processes.

Thus, we encourage all female scientists and advocates against climate change to register as stakeholders for decarbonisation in the EU.

~ By Elena Verdolini (RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment), Anna Skowron (WFC), Nele Kress (WFC) ~


[1] http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/

[2] European Parliament 2015: Gender equality and climate justice http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2015/536478/IPOL_IDA(2015)536478_EN.pdf

[3] Abebe, M. A. (2014). Climate Change, Gender Inequality and Migration in East Africa, Washington Journal of Environmenatl Law & Policy. Available at: https://digital.lib.washington.edu/dspace-law/bitstream/handle/1773.1/1359/4WJELP104.pdf;sequence=1

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43294221

[5] https://unfccc.int/topics/gender/the-big-picture/introduction-to-gender-and-climate-change

[6] https://ec.europa.eu/research/swafs/pdf/pub_gender_equality/interim_evaluation_gender_long_final.pdf

[7] http://ec.europa.eu/research/evaluations/index_en.cfm?pg=fp7