Oct 31 2021

Recently, a wide variety of governments and international organisations have identified gender equality as a priority en route to achieving goals from security to sustainability. Despite that prioritisation, there is precious little agreement on what it would mean to find gender equality and what if any progress has been made, writes Laura Sjoberg.

Across issue areas, women and gender tend to be simultaneously instrumentalised and sidelined. In the area of climate change, for example, it is almost ubiquitous to say that gender equality and environmental justice go hand-in-hand. At the same time, that has not (so far) led to the recognition that every Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is necessarily linked to considerations of gender. For example, if SDG 6 – access to clean water and sanitation – is not met, then it is often women and girls who are disproportionately affected by a lack of clean and safe access to water, and gender-responsive water and sanitation projects are more effective at providing clean water than gender-blind projects.

Gender Day

Much like COP24 and COP25, COP26 will host Gender Day on Tuesday, 9 November 2021. Both the official agenda and the official discussions around this Gender Day look strikingly like those of the events two and three years ago – highlighting the importance of empowering women for the environment, highlighting the importance of gender-responsive climate policy, and pairing gender-responsiveness with technological innovation. Pre-planning shows a lot of ideas, like a virtual gender marketplace, and a number of detailed policy proposals. School children in Scotland are participating in a Solutions Are Feminist conference to discuss how the interests and wishes of girls and women are accounted for.

Demands for an inclusive gender-responsive approach to climate change are considered by expert bodies and accompanying policy frameworks such as the Enhanced Lima Work Programme on Gender (established in 2014) to be integral to more effective forms of climate adaption and mitigation. The Lima work programme on gender commits parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement to work to achieve gender-responsive climate policies, with five priority areas identified, including ‘the empowerment of women in the implementation’ of the Paris Agreement.

These look like good things – women and gender are being discussed again as a key topic at COP26 – what more could a feminist want?

Problems with the COP26 approach to gender

Looking closer, though, suggests several significant problems with the COP26 approach to gender equality that might be revisited either as COP26 proceeds or looking forward to COP27 and beyond. I’ll discuss three briefly here, as they speak to ongoing research interests of Royal Holloway’s Gender Institute: representation of women, diversity among women, and integration of gender concerns.

The first issue is the representation of women in the leadership of COP26 and among its delegations. While there is significant debate about whether women leaders represent women, it seems to me intuitive either way that women should be represented in leadership. Whether or not women leaders would do better analysis and make better policy, the absence of women leaders communicates that women, and the things associated with them, are valued less. #SheChangesClimate is among the movements starkly criticising a lack of female representation in the British COP26 leadership, and more broadly among attendees and the research underlying the gathering. During Gender Day and across COP26, the overwhelming majority of those participating in high-level negotiations will be men, despite women being half of the world’s population. And this issue of representation speaks moreover to concerns that any form of climate justice cannot in addition exclude or neglect indigenous and minority communities.

Including the voices of black and global majority women is key

The second, and related, issue is the narrow nature of what is considered important in thinking about gender and gender equality in climate policy, stemming from narrow notions of what gender is and which women are to be included. For example, the Women and Gender Constituency to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently called for the postponement of COP26 on the basis of nationality-, race- and gender-based inequities in the ability to attend. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed only too clearly that some citizens in some countries enjoy far greater mobility than others, including international travel.

Others have suggested that those most affected by climate change might also be those least realistically able to attend COP26 (due to costs and pandemic restrictions), despite being on the frontlines. The Global Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice suggests that women of colour’s continued marginalisation in climate policy generally and COP26 specifically. A wide variety of groups have a similar campaign: including the voices of black and global majority women is key for progress on gender-responsive climate justice, and these voices remain severely underrepresented on the agenda for COP26.

SDG5 2

These two issues relate to a third, overarching issue with the ways that gender is being treated at COP26. At first glance, Gender Day represents important progress – the recognition that gender is a key facet of the agenda responding to climate change. But, looking deeper, it seems to be part of the problem. In addition to replicating some of the unrepresentativeness characteristic of COP26 and major international summits in general, Gender Day suggests that the category of gender is separable from the other categories of analysis that feature on the COP26 agenda. While gender-specific planning does bring about important developments in woman-led climate action, gender-just climate solutions, and green and feminist political economy, it treats gender analysis as if it can be separated from climate analysis. The two must be interdependent.

At the same time, suggesting that gender analysis and climate analysis must be interdependent is not the same as conflating gender justice and climate justice. It would be a mistake to believe that ‘solving’ gender equality will ‘solve’ climate problems, or that climate justice will bring about gender justice. Instead, the role of gender in climate analysis needs to be as fundamental, but more complicated, where COP26 (and other climate policy negotiations) need to think about the gender implications of both the problems being considered and the ways that they will be addressed – not only on Gender Day, but across thinking about climate policy.

When and only when women – all women – are represented at a COP that forefronts gender considerations will the promise of a partnership between gender and climate justice be fulfilled.

Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of genders and sexualities and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexualities in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security.