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Gender and Climate Justice: Why We Need More Women in Leadership in Hong Kong

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By Curtis Lam

· 12 min read

In Hong Kong, there is growing research pointing to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women. However, women’s voices continue to be marginalised and men continue to have the final say over climate policies. If Hong Kong wants to achieve gender and climate justice, decision-making processes need to be more gender-inclusive. But to do so, the city will have to recognise that gender inequality cannot be achieved merely through legislation but also through cultural shifts in how we conceive leadership. This involves challenging taboos and stereotypes that have acted as barriers to women’s ability to become leaders in Hong Kong.

On March 8, the world celebrated its 111th International Women’s Day, a day commemorating the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of women. Like most parts of the world, Hong Kong has been a celebrant of the occasion. Building on global momentum, March has been an exciting month for organisations, charities and rights groups in Hong Kong to bring attention to issues like gender equality and reproductive rights, as well as to use the opportunity to promote awareness about violence against women in the city, following a recent study which found that almost 40% of Hong Kong women experienced sexual abuse in 2021.

Recognising that gender inequality is no trivial issue in Hong Kong, there is a growing awareness that citizens need to work together to actively protect and support women from all kinds of injustices. What reflections can the environmental sector make?

Women and Climate Change

The impacts of climate change on women are already well documented in the research literature. Take air pollution as an example. Air pollution is found to be a huge risk factor for breast cancer. High levels of exposure to pollutants, toxins and smoke can disrupt women’s menstrual cycles (e.g. early or late periods), which can have long-term impacts on reproductive health. For pregnant women, the risks are even higher. On top of the aforementioned threats, they are more likely to suffer from cardiac and respiratory disease and other mental health problems. Pregnancies may also be affected, as poor air quality has been found to lead to premature births and low birth weight. These can pose further health risks to mothers.

So not only are women being negatively impacted by climate change, but they are also disproportionately affected, many of the health risks mentioned above do not apply to men. However, because of existing gender inequalities in society, the climate crisis has led to more women facing increased domestic violence, sexual intimidation, human trafficking and rape because of changing economic circumstances and agricultural practices, especially in developing countries.

In fact, many have described climate change as a “double injustice” to women. As a 2014 paper published by CARE International, a leading humanitarian organisation explains, not only are women disproportionately affected by climate change, but they also lack the resources, options and opportunities to overturn these inequalities. Men have a larger carbon footprint than women, yet climate action policies rarely acknowledge these gender differences.

Are women disproportionately affected by climate change in Hong Kong? While the city remains under-researched as a context, there is a growing body of research suggesting so. Studies have already shown that women in Hong Kong are more sensitive to extreme weather conditions than men. For example, consecutive hot nights can bring a 6% higher risk of death for women, because they tend to have a higher proportion of body fat, which makes them more susceptible to heat and weakens their ability to recover. Hong Kong also has a dreadful air pollution problem, as most pollutant concentration levels still fall short of WHO goals. While the impacts of climate change on local pregnancies are relatively unexamined, the replicability of findings from other contexts to that of Hong Kong is likely high.

Climate Inequality is More Than Just A Number

There’s no question that data and science have all pointed to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women – climate change reinforces gender inequality. But numbers can be misleading and unhelpful.

Apart from the fact that inequalities can often go unquantified, attempts to quantify inequality through metrics are always reductionist. Take domestic violence against women in Hong Kong as an example. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Women’s Coalition of Equal Opportunities earlier this year, it found that almost 40% of women had experienced sexual violence in the past year. But a statistic like this says nothing about the true impacts of domestic violence. A single experience is great enough to create a cascade of consequences: from contracting sexually transmitted infections to long-lasting emotional problems, broken family relationships or long-term barriers in employment, all of which can never be expressed fully through a simple mathematical equation.

By the same token, the unique effects of climate change on women in Hong Kong can never be quantified in a way that will do justice to their gravity. They will always be omitted from the larger picture. As climate change becomes a bigger issue in Hong Kong, inequalities may only widen. Just because women in Hong Kong may be more resilient and better prepared for future risks today, does not mean that women’s bodies deserve to be continually put to the test.

The question is not why these inequalities have persisted – the reasons are crystal clear – but why it is so hard to disrupt them. To understand why women find it so difficult to effect change on a macro level, it is important to consider constraints to women’s abilities to spearhead Hong Kong’s justice movements.

Figure 1: picutre of Hong Kong parliament

The Marginalisation of the Female Body in Hong Kong’s Decision-making Circles

When it comes to decision-making in policy, women are completely outnumbered by men in Hong Kong. For example, female representation in the Legislative Council (LegCo) has never exceeded 20% in its two centuries of history, which is far below the global average of 26% (as of 2020). Most women engaged in climate-related work in Hong Kong reside in non-governmental organisations. Although they may occasionally have an opportunity to express their views in public consultations, they nevertheless do not have sufficient influence in the final stages of policy decisions. As a result, most policy decisions in Hong Kong, whether related to the climate or not, continue to remain in the hands of men who pay scarce attention to the importance of gender.

As a result, the female body is marginalised in climate policy. As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), argues, “male-dominated teams will [only] come up with male-dominated solutions”. There is still a tremendous legislative incapacity to recognise the existential impacts of climate change on women: climate change does not only “make life more difficult”; it can put their lives at risk. In the powerful words of Itumeleng Komanyane, International Programme Manager at Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, “If [male policymakers] don’t understand gender, how can they pass anything progressive regarding women’s rights and empowerment?”

Given the dangers of not having enough female voices in decision-making, the case for more women in positions of decision-making should be clear. But this understanding has not been translated into support for women to take up leadership roles in Hong Kong. Why is Hong Kong’s “double injustice” so hard to tackle?

Hong Kong’s Gender Inequalities in Leadership is a Cultural Problem

Hong Kong’s gender problem is more than just an institutional problem. Even if there are no structures that explicitly prohibit women from seeking certain advancement opportunities, women can still be disadvantaged culturally.

In a detailed study conducted at The Women’s Foundation (TWF) in 2015, Marya Saidi found that gender stereotypes remain very prevalent in Hong Kong. They are further exacerbated by media representations, which lead to harmful portrayals of women and men and promote unhealthy perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

The troublesome consequences of gender stereotypes on women’s career and leadership prospects have been helpfully highlighted by two comprehensive survey-based studies. One was conducted by TWF in 2011 and a more recent one was conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and released by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in 2020. Although there is no law that bans women from becoming leaders, the gender stereotypes in Hong Kong can have equally strong inhibitory effects. They can be considered in two dimensions:

Obstacles to taking up senior roles

According to the TWF survey, almost 30% of women did not wish to be very successful in their careers, because of family obligations such as housework and looking after children. The existence of a “work-family trade-off” for women has yet to be proven, and a trade-off need not exist in the first place if both mothers and fathers are equally involved in domestic responsibilities. Yet, the fact that these tasks are often considered “mainly for women” has unfortunately led to women being more reluctant to develop their careers and reach for leadership positions. It is also not very helpful when more than a fifth of women’s partners do not want their spouses to be successful in their careers for these reasons.

Difficulties in staying as leaders

But just because some women rise to become leaders does not mean they are free from gender stereotypes. Women leaders continue to be “expected to take good care of their families regardless of their leadership roles”. For men, this is not an expectation but a bonus.

Often, the social expectations placed on women are also contradictory. In Hong Kong, women are expected to embody “feminine” traits of being empathetic and compassionate. In contrast, leadership qualities are often associated with “masculine” qualities of being dominant and assertive. The issue here is not role incongruity, i.e., a mismatch between their “nature” and their “jobs”, but the problematic assumption that women and men need to act “according to their gender”. When women cannot be seen as “good leaders” and “good women” at the same time, their desire to stay on as leaders can decrease drastically.

Gender Inequality in Hong Kong’s Green Sector

To what extent are these findings applicable to the environmental sector? While gender gaps are evident in Hong Kong’s male-dominated industries like finance, engineering or construction, gender gaps also exist within the so-called “socially responsible” and “purpose-driven” sectors (such as the sustainability or green sectors). While the social sector is perhaps one of Hong Kong’s most gender-balanced sectors (more than 40% are women), employment figures do not paint the full picture.

A series of interviews with sustainability professionals in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia conducted by Robin Hicks and Aditi Tandon from Eco-Business showed that in the green sector, women were not given the same respect as their fellow male counterparts. Many found their opinions frequently doubted and undermined, and people often did not know how to manage situations when a woman was in charge. Maggie Lee, currently Asia Pacific Regional Lead for Global Seafood Traceability for WWF, recalling an instance where she felt patronised by a director-level person when he commented on her “youthfulness” – and by implication, inexperience – shared that she would turn her camera off when speaking to top-level officials to avoid condescension. When women are not taken seriously, they are severely hampered in their ability to succeed, like attracting funding that is essential to much of their work.

Women are also subject to many other forms of leadership inequalities such as unexplainable pay gaps and unwanted public attention regarding their body shape, appearances and personal relationships. Together, they hinder women’s social and economic advancement and impede Hong Kong’s journey to becoming a more equal and inclusive society. With regard to climate change, this prevents women from being able to determine what is most important to protect and support themselves as they continue to disproportionately shoulder the impacts of climate-related injustices.

Figure 2: Picture showing Women's march in Hong Kong Photo credit: Mongkhonsawat Luengvorapant/Oxfam (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Hong Kong’s Climate Justice Must Begin with Gender

As shown, it is clear that climate change and gender inequality are interrelated. Their effects compound one another: women are more vulnerable to changing environmental conditions; at the same time, the silencing of women’s voices will only exacerbate Hong Kong’s climate change problems. While legislation has been a key promoter of gender equality in many domains of life in Hong Kong, these structural developments have not been enough to remove some of the city’s deep-rooted discrimination and stereotypes. They can be extremely harmful and are the main reason why women continue to experience frustration in their efforts to make a change.

Women are the building blocks of society; in Hong Kong, they account for more than half of the total population. When they suffer, society suffers with them. Hence, as Sonalie Figueras, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Green Queen asks, “without lifting women up, what chance do we have of creating a fairer, kinder, greener world?”

Thus, Karen Ho, Head of Corporate and Community Sustainability at WWF-Hong Kong, urges Hong Kong needs to really realise and harness the value that women bring to society. The diversity that women bring, along with the unique traits that they offer, enrich organisations and businesses as they offer new perspectives, foster healthier communicative practices within the workplace and help develop more sustainable practices. Relating to climate change, having more women in decision-making positions allows a more inclusive approach to policy. Decisions can therefore be better informed.

The lesson is not that Hong Kong needs to “inject more femininity” into organisations, but that we need to discard those harmful gender labels that specify what a “man” or a “woman” is (not) supposed to be or do. When there is more representation at the senior level, men can also learn from their female colleagues and be encouraged to adopt traits that they believe are not “masculine”.

In fact, since COVID-19, there has been growing interest for organisations to embrace an “androgynous” style of leadership, which emphasises the need to blend these two traditionally diametrically opposed categories. In practice, leadership styles are adopted within organisations based not on who the leader is, but on what works best to support all employees and members.

Overall, Hong Kong needs to be a more receptive society. As David Smith, associate professor at the John Hopkins Carey Business School puts it bluntly, we need “more listening” and “less mansplaining”. For women to be able to speak for themselves, men, having historically been in positions of power, need to be responsive to the concerns of women and pay careful attention to their own practices so as to not let their own egos get in the way of others’ successes.

It is also crucial that gender inequality in Hong Kong is not simply used to reproduce pitiful and patronising narratives about women. Instead, inequality should be seen as an “artefact of absurdity” that can propel all actors in society to start interrogating their own worldviews, values, assumptions and habits to help create a new world.

There is no guarantee that achieving gender equality will lead to climate justice in Hong Kong. Many other inequalities and injustices (along the lines of skin colour, class, religion, age etc.) need to be addressed. Given the challenges of fighting climate change, having more diversity in leadership positions does not mean we will immediately make wiser decisions about our climate and environment – education will have to play a huge part. But if Hongkongers are determined to fight injustice, we must be open to new ideas and solutions – as the saying goes, two heads are better than one. Inviting more people to contribute would be a simple but good start.

This article is also published on Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Curtis Lam is an MPhil student in Knowledge, Power and Politics in Education at the University of Cambridge. His research interests revolve around questions exploring the relationship between education policy and social justice like how education can promote equality, democracy and peace.

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