Gender and climate—the importance of women’s leadership in climate action in Singapore and Hong Kong

Carbon Care Asia’s John Sayer reflects on the importance of having stronger women’s authority in climate action planning by government and companies in prosperous urban settings.

women health workers hong kong
Women nurses assist in surgery at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong. As women are the majority of health care workers, they are more vulnerable to infection in the workplace from pandemics. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-SA 3.0

At the most recent UN climate talks in Madrid in December 2019, one positive outcome was the approval of a new Gender Action Plan that strengthens gender perspectives and women’s participation in climate action.

In 2016, at the COP 22 climate talks in Marrakech, countries also extended the work programme on climate and gender. This underscored the importance of aligning gender-responsive climate policies with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – also known as the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Marrakech decision laid out some climate-specific action points for countries:

  • Appoint and provide support for a national gender focal point for climate negotiations, implementation and monitoring 
  • Increase the representation and active participation of women in the bodies established under the (climate) convention
  • Mainstream a gender perspective in the enhancement of climate technology development and transfer 

Gender representation and climate action planning

Why is gender representation, gendered analysis and gender disaggregated data important for climate change action planning?

In developing countries, it is vitally important to listen to women who are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, often having less access to information, less education and less control over economic resources and decision making.

But even in places like Hong Kong and Singapore – with more affluence and relatively more (but far from complete) gender equality – there is a strong case that women are affected differently by climate change and therefore, women hold important perspectives which should be a core part of planning climate mitigation and adaptation by both government and within companies.

Women’s perspectives and participation in climate leadership are ends in themselves, but are also important components of climate planning and action which will address the needs of women, and raise awareness of the needs of children and family.

There is a danger that women in government are left with the ‘soft’ portfolios related to welfare, health, education and the environment while the men control the powerful ministries of finance, foreign affairs and security.

Here are some examples:

  1. Some studies make the case that women have a higher risk perception than men, and recognise climate change as a more serious problem. Women tend to emphasise stronger lifestyle and behaviour changes, while men look to technical solutions.
  2. As women are the majority of health care workers, they are more vulnerable to infection in the workplace from pandemics. 
  3. In developed cities, women still have more primary responsibility for the ‘unpaid’ essential aspects of the economy, caring not only for infants and young children, but also the sick, the elderly and people with disabilities. These are all groups which are more vulnerable to heatwaves and new diseases brought on by higher average temperatures.
  4. In addition to heatwaves, extreme weather events such as typhoons will affect men and women differently in terms of responsibility for preparation, protection and post-event recovery. Men and women may, for example, have a very different perspective of what constitute ‘essential supplies’ in both the household and the workplace.
  5. Women are disproportionately responsible for the household economy, including hygiene and health in the family; early child nutrition, and securing supplies of food and toiletries.
  6. Women’s health and hygiene needs can be different, often related to their reproductive capacity. This is not always taken into account at a time of resource constraints.
  7. With commonly differentiated roles in family life, women’s travel needs are often more complicated, requiring circular transport routes linking schools, shops, work and home. Most transport systems are more ‘radial,’ simply linking residential areas to city centres for commuting workers like the spokes of a wheel.
  8. In developed societies, women are responsible for much lower emissions than men. In Sweden, for example, studies show average emissions for men are twice those of women. This is mostly the result of gendered patterns of car use.

While we need more women in high level decision making roles on climate issues, the authority needs to be real. There is a danger that women in government are left with the ‘soft’ portfolios related to welfare, health, education and the environment while the men control the powerful ministries of finance, foreign affairs and security.

In many countries it is still true that environment ministries are not powerful. This may be changing, as many come to believe that environmental ministries should no longer be second rank within the cabinet.

Climate impacts differ on men and women

In the developing world, the case is already clearer still that climate impacts affect women and men differently.

  1. Women are more vulnerable to sexual assault in refugee and crisis. There are often inadequate hygiene and toilet facilities in emergency shelters. Safe lighting is another issue in temporary shelters.
  2. There is evidence that rape, sexual violence and domestic violence increase during times of stress and displacement.
  3. In many socially conservative societies girls are not encouraged to learn to swim compared to boys. The same would go for climbing trees, which may be important survival skills in the case of floods.
  4. In some societies, men are more likely to sleep outside or on the roofs of houses, while women remain If disaster strikes, it is easier for men to escape.
  5. At times of food or water shortage, men may be more likely to secure and consume supplies.
  6. Post-disaster recovery plans, whether government or corporate, are often dominated by male planners, who prioritise work-related infrastructure rather than domestic needs, school, health and child care facilities. 

  7. Maternal mortality increases in post-disaster situations. 
  8. Emergency warnings are often broadcast in public spaces like markets, temples or in some societies, women frequent these spaces less, and so can miss the warnings.
  9. Male guards, male police and military and male aid and relief workers in positions of power amidst vulnerable communities represent a range of challenges for women.

The studies of gender differentiation related to climate change mitigation and adaptation in East Asian cities are so few that more research is still needed on important distinctions between men’s and women’s perspectives, priorities and needs in work to combat climate change.

This gap in knowledge is yet another reason why women’s representation in climate governance, planning and research needs to be recognised and improved. This needs to happen not only in local and national government, but also within business in terms of disaster and climate readiness, business continuity planning, and in many aspects of personnel planning and policy.

John Sayer is director of Carbon Care Asia, a consultancy in carbon strategy, sustainability innovation and green finance.



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