Gender equality for a sustainable future

20 March 2022
This International Women’s Day, we hear from University of Sydney researchers on why gender equality is essential to securing a sustainable world.

This year, the United Nations theme for International Women’s Day advocates for “equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. It acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of a changing climate, and recognises the significant contribution of the women and girls leading the response against climate change globally.

Here, we hear from SEI researchers on the connections between gender and the environment, and why achieving gender equality is essential for sustainability.

Recognising the vital contribution of all women, the harms of inequality, and moving forward

“Ensuring gender equality today is essential to a sustainable tomorrow because it can help us recognise, celebrate and support the vital contributions of women and girls to diverse facets of human society, including cultural creativity, economic livelihoods, familial continuity, and the intergenerational transmission of knowledge.” – Dr Sophie Chao, Department of Anthropology

“Gender equality needs to have an intersectional approach when thinking of the category, ‘woman’. There is much diversity, heterogeneity and multiplicity when thinking through women in different contexts. Indigenous women, for example, share a deep-rooted connection to land and waters and a legacy of dispossession, racism and sexism. Understanding and advocating for Indigenous women’s perspectives and aspirations is an important step to take towards a sustainable tomorrow.” – Dr June Rubis, School of Geosciences

“Gender binaries are really problematic, and I don’t like reinforcing them. But they exert significant influence on how people are socialised, and in turn, the ways different people respond to environmental issues. For example, unlike the climate ‘sad bois’ as Kate Aronoff, Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt call them (also known as doomers, who are typically but not exclusively privileged white men), many women know that climate change threatens so much and that therefore there is no time to lose taking action. See for example the fantastic book, All We Can Save, which brings together women from around the world to focus on justice-oriented, hope-inspiring solutions to climate change. This is why feminist voices, ideas and approaches need to be centred and promoted: we are getting on with the job of making social change happen.” – Dr Blanche Verlie, Department of Government and International Relations 

“Gender equality is essential to a sustainable tomorrow because we know that inclusive deliberations help society make better decisions. From Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai to Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, women’s voices are critical to challenging the status quo of the ongoing destruction of our planet.” – Professor Susan Park, Department of Government and International Relations

“Usually I avoid ‘we’ and ‘our’: each reeks of smothering, homogenising, whitening, denying, deliberate elitism. And still I must say: sustainability is slipping from our grasp. Baby girls, baby boys, intersex babies, non-binary babies, babies from the north, south, east and west — babies — need every adult’s energy, commitment, skill, imagination for change. Only unconditional equality today can ensure undivided attention is focused on ‘our’ sustainable future.” – Dr Christine Winter, Department of Government and International Relations

“As a feminist queer cultural theorist who has published on sexuality, subjectivity and identity, people are sometimes taken aback by my turn to researching fish and oceans. Driven by interest in the sustainable production of food, the issues are too multifaceted and complexly gendered to ignore. To take one instance, the figure of the fisherman is always masculine yet 90% of the processing of fish especially in the global south is women’s work. Food sovereignty weighs on their shoulders. Understanding why and how this is remains crucial for how and whether the world can be fed equably today and tomorrow.” – Professor Elspeth Probyn, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies

“Women’s health is more likely to be affected by climate change, and the impacts can be exacerbated by gender inequity and social injustice. Women’s physiological and social roles can determine the health and wellbeing of future generations. Meanwhile, engaging and empowering women could assist in implementing climate policies and bring opportunities to build resilience to climate change.” – Associate Professor Ying Zhang, Sydney School of Public Health

“This International Women’s Day I will be looking back in time to honour the women of botany who came before me @365womenofbotany. The scientific contributions of these women were significant. Learning about the challenges these scientists faced, and their unwavering efforts to discover more about the botanic world, is inspirational. #IAmABotanist” – Associate Professor Rosanne Quinnell, School of Life and Environmental Sciences  

“Women suffer economic, social and political inequality but have nonetheless been central to global efforts to reduce emissions, build resilient communities and restore ecosystems. If we are to combat climate change and adapt to its impacts, then we must prioritise gender equality as a fundamental condition for climate action.” – Dr Katherine Owens, Sydney Law School

“Inevitably, the impacts of climate change will affect all lives, but we know that the impacts will be uneven, with the greatest devastation falling on those who are already vulnerable and subject to structural injustices. If we are to avoid the multiplication of the inequalities that climate change will visit upon women across the world, particularly Indigenous women, women of colour, women with disabilities and women who face systemic poverty, addressing the factors that cause and sustain those inequalities today is critical. Importantly, we should not frame women as victims here. Women have been and continue to lead the social movements across the world resisting violence against their lands and waters. And women, whose oppression has long been entwined with violence against the earth, have been and continue to lead experiments in living otherwise.” – Professor Danielle Celermajer, Department of Sociology and Social Policy 

Read more about SEI’s research projects.

Header image: youth strike for climate march Friday for Future, Turin, Italy - May 2019 via Shutterstock, ID 1406427770.