5. Gender mainstreaming in environmental policies

Valentina Bellesi
Sara Ramos Magana
Dimitra Xynou

Biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change and related extreme weather events threaten economic opportunities and pose major health and well-being risks. These environmental impacts affect men and women differently, exposing underlying discrimination, resource access inequalities and other factors that determine risks and vulnerabilities.

Due to the social, economic, and political barriers they face, women are more vulnerable to the impacts of environmental disasters or climate change in general (UN WomenWatch, 2009[1]). Especially in poorer areas, women often have the responsibility to secure water, food and fuel for cooking and heating, and are therefore especially exposed to changes in the availability of resources and/or in the shaping of their environment (OECD, 2021[2]).

Gender inequalities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and have become even more evident in developing countries. Furthermore, various environmental risks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affect women. For instance, exposure to indoor air pollution is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time at home (WHO, 2021[3]).

As countries attempt to recover from the pandemic, addressing gender inequalities and environmental deterioration through the gender and environment nexus will be essential to deliver on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Box 5.1). Gender mainstreaming in environmental policies can help understand environmental impacts on segments of society and create economic opportunities for women in the transition to a more sustainable economy. Promoting women’s access to leadership on environmental matters can also help accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and transition to a more sustainable economy.

Essential to integrating the gender-environment nexus in policy making is the promotion of environmental leadership amongst women. This can not only contribute to improve women’s representation, but also increase the focus on gender-specific environmental impacts, and lead to stronger and more effective environmental action (OECD, 2021[2]). Findings show that women in decision-making put a greater focus on sustainable investments in both the public and the private sectors, ultimately contributing to better environmental outcomes (BloombergNEF and SPF, 2020[4]; D’souza, 2018[5]; Mavisakalyan and Tarverdi, 2019[6]).

Gender equality and women’s empowerment is gaining ground in other international frameworks around the environment and climate change. For example, the Gender Action Plan of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) aims at advancing gender-responsive climate action and gender mainstreaming as a means to fight climate change and acknowledge its differentiated impacts on women and girls (UNFCCC, 2015[7]; 2019[8]). Initiatives such as the “Action Coalition on Feminist Action for Climate Justice”, introduced in March 2021 at the Generation Equality Forum organised by Mexico, France and UΝ Women show that increasing policy attention is paid to efforts to integrate the gender and climate action agendas (Forum Generation Equality, 2021[9]).

While most OECD countries have a national strategy or action plan on gender equality and/or gender mainstreaming, the level of integration between such a framework and environmental policies varies widely. According to responses to the 2019 OECD survey on integrating gender in environmental policies, only 5 out of 28 responding countries always consider gender aspects when building environmental policies, 9 do so often, 7 sometimes and another 7 never (OECD, 2020[10]). Gender equality aspects are mostly taken into consideration into policies relating to climate change, green entrepreneurship and green jobs, including in agricultural and forestry sectors. Countries also prioritise women’s participation and leadership in environment-related decision-making. Gender equality aspects are least considered in policies regarding food waste and environmental education (Figure 5.2).

Several barriers hinder the potential of the gender-environment nexus in policy – including the lack of gender-disaggregated data, persistent gender discrimination and biases, unequal representation and barriers to decision-making, as well as a lack of appropriate governance mechanisms, policy frameworks and tools for gender mainstreaming in environmental policies (OECD, 2021[2]).

The integration of gender aspects to environmental policies and the collection of disaggregated data appear to be two agendas whose pursuit is incomplete (OECD, 2020[10]). Most OECD countries do not have a systematic approach to collect gender-sensitive data with regard to the environment and environmental policies (OECD, 2020[10]).

The type of gender-disaggregated data collected or information on environment-related policies available varies between OECD countries. Data collection varies from exposure to chemicals by vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, to exposure stemming from use of agricultural chemicals and pesticides, or food contaminants. Other data items include levels of pollution (air, noise, industrial), transport modes use and mobility, female participation in the workforce of environment-related sectors or in high level positions of the decision- and policy making (OECD, 2020[10]).

OECD (2020[10]) found that several countries were willing to start collecting gender-disaggregated data to inform policy making. For instance, Finland identified a need to collect data on urban transport planning, energy, housing, and consumption for the implementation of the Government’s Midterm Climate Policy Plan. Slovenia works on identifying environment-related data to be collected under the Equality Opportunities for Women and Men Act. Spain is in the process of progressively introducing gender-disaggregated data collection, building upon the national Just Transition Strategy.

A gender-environment nexus is also largely missing from the SDGs and the existing indicators framework. With data availability being the major limitation, the framework does not adequately recognise the interlinkages between environmental and gender goals. There is little data on the very small set of gender-relevant environmental SDG indicators and data availability is scant for many developing countries (UNEP, 2019[11]; UNWomen, 2020[12]). For instance, out of the 231 unique indicators in the SDG framework, 114 have an environmental angle, and only 20 of those are gender-specific and/or disaggregated by sex, constituting a meagre 9% of the total (OECD, 2021[2]). In OECD countries, data are systematically available for only 35 (34%) of the 102 gender-related indicators (Cohen and Shinwell, 2020[13]).

Moreover, gender considerations are often missing in the design and implementation of green recovery measures that countries installed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent OECD work has mapped Green Recovery Measures implemented by OECD countries that include a gender lens. Only 18 (2.5%) of the about 700 measures assessed were identified as “gender-relevant” (i.e. they have an explicit reference to specific keywords in their description), and even fewer address unpaid care work, women’s economic security and/or violence against women (OECD, 2021[14]). Gender-relevant measures are concentrated in sectors such as buildings, energy and surface transport. Such measures cover, for example, sustainable and inclusive infrastructure development, or advancing green skills and training targeting women. More needs to be done to introduce a gender lens in other sectors, such as agriculture, forestry or waste management (OECD, 2021[14]).

The OECD has identified two indicators which will be further developed with a gender component: (i) mortality rates from air pollution, differentiated by pollutant, sex, country, year and age; and (ii) development of green technologies, based on patenting activity, differentiated by domain, sex, country and year. These indicators could support countries to make evidence-based policies to reach targets on gender equality and environmental sustainability.

There is still need for more data on how women are affected by environmental impacts and how differentiated men’s and women’s attitudes can lead towards a more sustainable world. Indicators under the gender-environment nexus could support women’s environmental leadership and impacts, by highlighting the areas where women’s experiences need to be represented and those where their representation leads or lacks behind. In this effort, it will be important to understand how behaviours and attitudes might change according to income, race, educational background and other factors.

Discriminatory social institutions and practices disproportionately affect women and girls (Chapter 2). Such biases and inequalities can lead to an increased exposure to disaster-related risks and losses to their livelihoods, and an impaired ability to adapt to changes in climatic conditions (CEDAW, 2018[15]).

Women and girls are subject to a much higher degree of discrimination compared to men and boys, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. They face more legal constraints, have limited economic opportunities and face greater barriers in accessing assets, especially land assets (OECD, 2019[16]). Even when their participation in certain economic sectors is significant and important – for instance, in agriculture, forestry and fisheries women account for 39% of the workforce – women are rarely owners. Women make up only 14% of agricultural landholders, limiting their ability to cope with the effects of climate change and environmental degradation (UNWomen, 2020[12]).

Women also face discrimination in access to non-land assets. According to the 5th edition of the Social Institutions Gender Index (SIGI) in 2023, 164 countries out of 178 (or 92%) guarantee women equal property rights. In particular, 11 countries still entitle husbands solely to administer and dispose of marital property. Furthermore, women’s access to formal financial services is limited by varying levels of discriminations as well. Even though women officially have equal access to credit and opening a bank account in 98% of countries, customary laws continue to prevent from opening a bank account or accessing credit in more than 25% of the countries, worldwide (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[17]; OECD, 2023[18]).

There are large potential benefits of greater female involvement in environmental leadership in the public and private sectors and civil society, as it may contribute to better environmental policy, more stringent climate regulation and lower emissions (Mavisakalyan and Tarverdi, 2019[6]; D’souza, 2018[5]). Yet, women continue to be underrepresented in environmental decision-making, especially in public leadership positions. It is striking that women made up only 28% of environment ministers in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021, one of the regions projected to be the worst affected by climate change (OECD, 2015[19]; Swiss Re Institute, 2021[20]). The gap among environment ministers is smallest in OECD countries, where women account for 39% of all environment ministers (Strumskyte, Ramos Magaña and Bendig, 2022[21]) (Figure 5.3).

There is some evidence from the private sector that suggests that women’s presence in corporate boards is associated with better environmental performance and responsible business practices (Hafsi and Turgut, 2013[22]). Furthermore, more female board directors are strong and positive correlated with increased environmental investments and greater commitment to pro-climate strategies (Di Miceli and Donaggio, 2018[23]). Nevertheless, a large gender gap remains: the average percentage of women in corporate boards in OECD countries stood at 28% in 2021 (OECD Gender Data Portal and Chapter 17). Globally, only about one-third of enterprises meet the critical mass of 30% of women on boards to influence outcomes and almost 30% have only between 1% and 10% of women in the boardroom (International Labour Organization, 2019[24]).

Women’s leadership is relatively high in civil society organisations. For instance, an analysis of NGOs admitted to COP26 gives an idea of how the agenda of women and the environment is advancing through civil society action. Women’s participation was highest as NGO representatives, making up almost half of the designated delegates. Women accounted for 44% of delegates representing environmental NGOs, 42% from Indigenous Peoples Organisations (and 44% of representatives from business and industry NGOs (Strumskyte, Ramos Magaña and Bendig, 2022[21]; UNFCCC, n.d.[25]).

To overcome the barriers and limitations women face, policy makers need to implement a holistic, whole-of-government approach that brings together goals of gender equality and environmental sustainability. Governments need to adopt gender-sustainability mainstreaming mechanisms and tools to identify differentiated needs and respond to them with appropriate policies, services and budgets (Chapter 4). Necessary mechanisms include political commitment and leadership, institutional and policy co-ordination, local and regional involvement, stakeholder participation as well as monitoring and reporting.

Gender and environmental impact assessments could work as a tool for integrating the gender-environment nexus across policy. A growing number of OECD countries already integrate the impact of proposed policies on gender equality, when conducting regulatory impact assessments (Deighton-Smith, Erbacci and Kauffmann, 2016[26]). Many more already integrate environmental considerations in their regulatory impact assessments, including on climate change (Jacob et al., 2011[27]). Likewise, different tools are being developed to guarantee non-market or subjective well-being valuation, such as environmental cost-benefit analysis, where environmental and social benefits and costs are considered (OECD, 2018[28]). However, there is no evidence of countries that introduced an integrated impact assessment that covers both gender and environment aspects and takes into account all trade-offs and complementarities between them.

When it comes to business practice standards, existing international standards such as the OECD Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct should be implemented more effectively and enforced with a stronger sanctioning mechanism (OECD, 2021[2]). Companies’ activities need stronger monitoring in order to ensure that corporations promote labour practices that respect women’s rights and the environment. The implementation of the guidelines’ recommendations, such as collecting and assessing gender-data, developing gender-sensitive warning systems and protection of whistle-blowers and/or assessing whether women benefit equitably in compensation payments or other forms of restitution should be monitored and enforced (OECD, 2018[29]). The ultimate goal should be the overall integration of the gender-environment nexus into all business practice standards and activities.

Governments can also mainstream green and gender considerations through budgeting. Gender and green budgeting could be brought together in an “SDG-budgeting” or “well-being budgeting” process, as in New Zealand (New Zealand. Treasury, 2019[30]). As another example, Canada is implementing a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) for all government decisions relating to taxation, budgeting and expenditures, domestically and internationally, in all policy sectors (Government of Canada, 2020[31]) (Chapters 4 and 21).

Green Recovery Plans and countries’ efforts to build forward better after the COVID-19 crisis are an opportunity for policy makers to introduce measures that align their gender equality and environmental commitments. This can put economies on a path towards green and inclusive growth. A gender lens can be introduced in plans for improving healthcare systems and food security, enhancing sustainable work and entrepreneurial opportunities for women, and supporting sustainable mobility practices as well as more sustainable production and consumption patterns. To account for the differentiated experiences of men and women, gender-relevant measures should be introduced in all sectors (OECD, 2021[14]).

The need to deliver green and sustainable finance in ways that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment is increasingly recognised, with approaches such as gender-lens investing and gender-focused financial instruments gaining traction. Yet, gender-related considerations are not systematically integrated in sustainable finance and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing (OECD, 2022[32]).

Up until now, green finance and gender finance have largely been considered separately instead of making use of existing synergies. Sustainability-linked instruments represent an opportunity for mainstreaming gender equality in sustainable finance. To fully harness this potential, performance-based financial instruments should be linked to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) at the intersection of gender and the environment. For example, Schneider Electric issued the first ever sustainability-linked convertible bond with corporate performance targets related to not only emission reductions but also gender diversity (in leadership, management and the workforce) and training of disadvantaged people in energy management (BNP Paribas, 2020[33]).

Sustainable finance should also support women’s participation in the labour market and access to green jobs. Women are generally underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields of study and work (Chapter 9), which are highly valued in the green economy and the financial sector. Tackling these issues is crucial for an effective transition to a green sustainable economy, which is expected to shift jobs within existing sectors and establish new, greener sectors of growth.

Even in the case of development finance, where the urgency of addressing both the climate crisis and gender inequalities is widely recognised, bilateral climate official development assistance (ODA) is far from integrating gender equality objectives. Only USD 778 million – just over 0.04% of all climate-related ODA – was primarily dedicated to gender equality (2018-19 figures) (OECD, 2022[34]) (Chapter 2).

In entrepreneurship, women’s role is often limited by barriers such as adverse direct and indirect effects of tax policies, institutional constraints and negative social attitudes towards women’s entrepreneurship (OECD, 2021[35]) (Chapters 28 and 29). As women seem to be more engaged and committed than their male counterparts to sustainability goals and tend to display more pro-environmental attitudes (Braun, 2010[36]), enhancing investment and finance into women-led sustainable entrepreneurship would lead to more positive outcomes.

In order to assess the gender performance and gender-differentiated environmental impact of companies, assets and financial instruments, it is important to overcome the lack of data that continues to persist. For instance, the lack of longitudinal data results in a reduced ability to perform predictive modelling in gender-lens investments (Gender Smart Investing, 2021[37]).

Further efforts are needed to better link the green, social and gender objectives of sustainability disclosure standards, taxonomies and ESG ratings and metrics. Gender- and environment-related ESG metrics would need to be better developed and integrated across the three ESG pillars to determine how environmental and gender quality impacts interact in corporate operations, as well as in the supply chains and communities in which companies operate.

The integrated pursuit of gender and sustainability goals requires a holistic framework that takes into account conflicting goals, complementarities and spill over effects. Policies promoting gender equality must consider the role women play in protecting the environment and in promoting sustainable patterns of behaviour. Vice versa, sustainability strategies must include gender aspects and pursue gender equality goals. Cross-cutting policies that address gender equality and women’s empowerment, domestic environment-related policies as well as transboundary policies with an intergenerational timeframe need to be designed and implemented (OECD, 2021[2]).

Countries can approach the gender-environment nexus when designing/implementing policies by assessing:

  • the level of integration of gender equality in national environmental policies and tools

  • gender equality policies and the level of support to advance environmental sustainability

  • governance mechanisms and tools for gender mainstreaming in environment-related sectors

  • women’s economic empowerment in environment-related economic activities, and

  • women’s role in environmental leadership and decision-making.


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