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Women are on the frontlines of climate change but not at the negotiation table

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By Mariel Ferragamo

· 7 min read

At the start of the COP27 climate conference in November, 2022 excitement was high and outlooks optimistic for the upcoming negotiations to be a landmark for climate discussion. But when world leaders finally took the stage in Egypt, several conference participants couldn’t help but notice who was missing.

As leaders stood onstage, a sea of mostly variations on the same dark suit and tie, the gap became obvious. Out of 110 officials poised to lead discussions on the global climate future, seven were female.

“Notice anyone missing?” COP27 attendee Kate Hampton, CEO of the Children's Investment Fund Foundation, asked on Twitter, overlaying the question on a photo of the scene.

World leaders at COP27. Photo credit: Kate Hampton, Twitter.

This scene is a familiar one in many decision-making spaces, and it’s no different in climate. Women are routinely underrepresented in discussions like the recent COP27, especially from developing countries.

With the disproportionate gender balance of COP27 dipping lower than pre-pandemic levels, women in the climate sector are speaking out about becoming a more prominent part of climate decisions.

“We continue to see very few Party delegations with equal numbers of men and women, and the majority of delegations are dominated by men. This unevenly slow improvement, at times even setbacks, demonstrates the lack of commitment to achieving gender balance in the UNFCCC,” said Claudia Rubio, Data Associate at the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO).

Many governments and organizations have stated that women are essential to solving climate challenges. Most have yet to achieve equal representation in decision-making settings. Men hold 61% of membership positions responsible for decision-making in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“There is an issue still with the representation of women,” Alison Campbell, U.K. Deputy Lead Climate Negotiator said in an interview at COP27. “We’ve made some progress, but there is a lot more still to do.”

Women represented 35.6% of COP27 conference participation overall, according to WEDO’s Gender Climate Tracker, which analyzes annual gender participation within the UNFCCC. This is lower in recent years, where 38% of delegates at COP24 in 2018 were women. During COP27, the BBC found that several countries had over 90% male teams.

This problem is nothing new. UNFCCC’s first gender-specific decision goes back to 2001. A 2012 decision encouraged countries to strive for gender balance at climate negotiations. There is even a thematic “Gender Day” at COP, to discuss “the role of the woman in adapting to climate change.”

Elizabeth Hogan, Senior Program Manager for National Geographic, has attended several global climate conferences. To her, it’s even more noticeable when male-heavy organizations must dig deep to find female representatives, coming off as an optics-driven strategy rather than genuine effort. Gender balance can be elusive among all participants in the climate conference, not only among Party delegates.

“You'll definitely see women who were sent as part of their delegations where you can tell they were sent because [their delegation] wanted to show, ‘look, we found a woman who works in fishing,’ or whatever, but she'll always say ‘I'm the only woman in my cooperative,’” Hogan said.

The energy sector is one full of such organizations, she added. Notoriously male-dominated, the International Energy Association’s sector analysis estimates women hold less than 14% of senior management positions.

Oil giant BP, for example, releases an annual gender pay gap report stating how important these issues are— but even in 2022, they fell short of their goal of 30% women senior leaders by 2020.

Filling the gap in female voices is critical as the effects of climate change are increasingly falling onto women, reports the Council on Foreign Relations. Compounding social, cultural, and economic factors cause women to experience its effects more severely.

In many rural communities, for example, women are primarily responsible for sourcing water and energy supply, and food production. In extreme weather events like droughts, the time it takes to maintain these resources increases— which comes at the cost of sacrificing opportunities pursuing education or employment.

Left to take care of rural land with limited mobility and economic resources, women remain in areas that see the worst climate impacts. The UN estimates 70% of the 1.3 billion people in poverty are women.

Unfortunately, these poorer areas are also where the representation gap is the biggest. “There's way more women represented in developed countries than developing countries. That's a very easy line to draw,” Hogan has noticed.

Women are “at the frontlines of climate change where the impacts are being felt more and more, and have a critical role in tackling it, so it’s vital that women are represented and have a voice,” said Campbell. For climate efforts to improve, women need to be seen as leaders.

When women are involved, outcomes are genuinely stronger, said Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All on the women-led energy podcast High Energy Planet.

“Having a woman either head an organization to do with clean energy or be part of an organization actually does better than the male counterparts,” she said, “so the data speaks for itself.”

Data from McKinsey backs this up. Companies with higher gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have higher profitability. A UNFCCC study this year found in the 19 countries they surveyed, women with equal access to decision-making chose the more sustainable route, such as prioritizing education, food security, and energy efficiency.

When governments focus on including women and marginalized groups in decision-making, it has led to more climate-resilient policy and improved social equity. So far, implementation has remained limited to more developed countries, like Belgium and Spain. Rwanda also has strong representation— the first country in the world with a female-majority parliament.

Though once women make it into the room or even to the top, there are still challenges. Especially for women of color.

When asked if there are moments when she is the only woman in work settings, Ogunbiyi replied, “All the time…. I feel that I sometimes don’t fit into people’s aesthetic as what an African woman will be looking like… And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to come into [my] role and just share all the amazing dimensions of African women— we look different.”

To combat underrepresentation, some women are banding together to share leadership skills. Ranjani Prabhakar, Senior Legislative Representative at Earthjustice, is part of the 2022 cohort for the grassroots climate group Women’s Earth Alliance. The Alliance has worked with roughly 13,000 women leaders since 2006, providing leadership, strategy, and technical training for women to scale their climate work.

“Women’s issues are unique and extraordinary when we talk about climate and ecology— so why not have a consortium for women to delve into how their issues are intersectional,” Prabhakar said. She is also helping form Greens REALIGN, a member-based collective of staff from environmental organizations organizing for a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just environmental movement; founded by Surbhi Sarang, an environmental advocate leading on environmental and racial justice issues.

To Prabhakar, this is a crucial way to elevate women’s voices in grassroots climate work. “As we start to bridge environmental justice to the mainstream, we're going to bridge women and marginalized groups to where there are better opportunities. Putting resources into bridging that particular gap is going to see more women come through in leadership.

To increase women’s participation at the country level, Rubio suggested reviewing representation in government ministries and the negotiator training and advancement pipeline so women have the same power in negotiations.

“More attention will be useless without action. Parties cannot assume that this disparity will simply fix itself over time–the majority must be prompted to truly prioritize changing the disparity,” Rubio said.

Another crucial component is integrating the intersectionality of climate and marginalized group priorities in discussions, she continued. Climate and gender dimensions, for example, should be guided by gender experts just as mitigation topics rely on mitigation experts.

Ultimately, inclusivity may come incrementally. This was the first year UNFCCC added a gender non-binary option in COP registration— two delegates registered as such, according to WEDO, marking a start for improved gender identity representation.

Many in the climate field acknowledge there is a long way to go to reach justice and visibility for marginalized groups. As involvement in climate discussions grows each year, this post-COP moment is one when many are taking stock of who’s participating to ensure more equal power dynamics for climate negotiations at COP28 and beyond.

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

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About the author

Mariel Ferragamo is Assistant Copy Editor & Writer at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was engaged in energy and climate communications at The Energy for Growth Hub, where she held the positions of communications coordinator and podcast producer. Alongside her work in communications, she has an interest in journalism, politics, and policy. She earned her B.A. in Environmental Policy from Colby College. During her academic years, Mariel also worked as an intern in both the United States Senate and the US House of Representatives.

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