Gender assumptions harm progress on climate adaption and resilience, new study finds

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New research suggests breaking down stereotypes and prejudices about gender is necessary to create environments to enable all people to exercise their agency to cope, change and adapt to climate change. Photo by Kate Bevitt.

Outdated assumptions around gender continue to hinder effective and fair policymaking and action for climate mitigation and adaptation, a new study published in Nature Climate Change has found.  

Gender—alongside other identities like race, class and age—has a powerful influence on people’s experience of, and resilience to, climate change, said the lead author of the study Dr. Jacqueline Lau, a post-doctoral research fellow working with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU) and WorldFish 

 The research found the four most common and interlinked assumptions found are: women are innately caring and connected to the environment; women are a homogenous and vulnerable group; gender equality is a women’s issue and; gender equality is a numbers game. 

 “Although there is a global mandate to work towards gender equality in climate change mitigation and adaptation, efforts are hindered by a set of assumptions about gender, long critiqued in development studies,” Dr. Lau said.  

 The study draws on post-2014 gender and climate change literature, to give an overview of how the gender assumptions manifest across recent work in adaptation, mitigation and broader climate change policy, practice and research. 

 The review of the literature takes a closer look at how these assumptions narrowly diagnose the causes of gender inequality. 

 “As a result, we see too many strategies that have unintended—and even counterproductive—consequences,” said co-author Dr. Pip Cohen, WorldFish’s program leader for resilient small-scale fisheries. “For instance, strategies that target women only may overburden them, cause a backlash, or obscure the vulnerabilities of other groups.” 

 “These assumptions are key barriers to making and operationalizing effective climate investments from local to a global scale,” said WorldFish’s Gender Leader Dr. Cynthia McDougall. “This makes them very timely as the world is moving towards the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).”  

The study offers lessons for a more informed pursuit of gender equality in climate change research, policy and practice.   

 The authors said progressing gender equality means breaking down stereotypes and prejudices about gender—creating environments to enable all people to exercise their agency to cope, change and adapt.  

 Lau said she was surprised to find so many examples of gender assumptions in climate change practice. She explained that a first step in disrupting these assumptions is to lay them bare and explain why development research has found them to be problematic.   

 “The social and cultural expectations about what it is to be a woman or a man in any given society will shape people’s wellbeing,” she explained. 

Alongside efforts to dismantle broader barriers to gender equality, better and more coordinated efforts are needed from practitioners and researchers to disrupt and counteract unhelpful assumptions, the researcher suggests. 

 “Pursuing gender equality in climate change policy and practice is critical, and decades of experience in development offer lessons for how to do it well,” Dr. Lau said. 

“Ultimately, we want to see equitable opportunities for all people to realize their full potential. Where no one is left behind.” 

Read the publication ‘Gender equality in climate policy and practice hindered by assumptions.’

Read an opinion piece by the authors ‘4 assumptions about gender that distort how we think about climate change (and 3 ways to do better).’

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