Women in Sustainability

Anjali Viswamohanan and Kanika Chawla

While the opportunities for women in the workforce are better today than ever before, there exists a critical need for continuing affirmative action to ensure women’s full and effective participation in the workforce. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) recognise this need, and the distance that we must travel to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG 5). Gender equality in the workforce must translate to equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

Sustainability is at the intersection of economic growth, social justice and equity, and environmental protection. Sustainable development, inclusive of its three key spheres — economic, environment and social — is crucial to the discourse on gender equality. Given gender gaps in most of the organisations in this sector, the need to identify women as catalysts of positive change should be spearheaded by encouraging more participation of women in leading roles. However, despite the recognition afforded to the issue of gender inequality for achieving both procedural and distributive justice, the representation of women in decision-making positions in this sector continues to remain abysmally low.

While the lack of gender diversity is an issue that percolates through the length and breadth of the workforce globally, the manifestations of gender inequality right from the grass-root level of the sustainability workforce are particularly pronounced in developing countries. Here, the absence of gender equality ebbs from the inherent biases associated with the nature of work, field work, scientific interventions, data collection and analysis, which are predominantly perceived to be better suited for men.

The absence of female voices in male- dominated political dialogues and negotiations leads to fewer women aspiring to contribute to the discourse. This absence of adequate female role models in the sector, makes the limited participation of women in decision-making roles a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is also a significant inequality that is apparent in the unequal pay for equal work performed by men and women. These issues, left unresolved, have percolated and accumulated over the years, presenting themselves as prohibitive reasons for young women to join or pursue long and fulfilling careers in the sustainability workforce. For a country like India, which has been ranked 108 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, which looks at a number of dimensions from economic opportunities to political empowerment, the road to address these gaps is long and rough.

Women are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. For this and beyond, they have a significant role in the fight for sustainability. However, the lack of gender diversity across all levels in the sector must be seen as a critical flaw that needs to be addressed immediately. Women’s representation on panels, committees, debates must not be seen as tokenism. This Women’s Day let us pledge to no longer ask why, but how? How do institutions support the careers of women who work with them, and ensure that they receive same opportunities that are made available to men? How can institutions create a pioneering workforce of female leaders to inspire several more women to join the sustainability workforce?

At the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), we nurture the commitment to promote gender diversity in sustainability, public policy and beyond. To challenge and change the status quo within the institution and the sector as a whole, CEEW has launched the Women in Sustainability (WiS) initiative. WiS, a network of individuals and institutions, seeks to promote greater participation, inclusiveness, and visibility of women at all levels of the sustainability workforce. Its endeavour is to recognise and recommend affirmative actions to counter the challenges that restrict women from entering the sustainability workforce, taking on leadership roles, and receiving due recognition.

Launch of CEEW’s Women in Sustainability initiative

Corrective action, for centuries of systemic bias, requires institutions to make affirmative commitments to supporting their female employees, and correct the gender gap in the workforce. Women in this sector must proactively come together to build motivation for their female colleagues and young women with aspirations, and for men to lean-in and support their female colleagues. Through WiS, CEEW has been moving towards being a platform for stirring discussions to foster an inclusive work environment. Driving change needs action. For us, this has included networking with women working for sustainable development, developing key performance indicators that measure gender equity, and evaluating impact.

As we increasingly move towards pursuing sustainability practice, we must recognise the equally compelling need for organisations advancing the sustainability agenda to look inwards to ensure that their institutional practices are also in line with the principles of social justice and increased equity. The time for laying down concrete steps toward cementing women’s participation in achieving sustainability has come. Women must aspire for inspiring careers in public policy and institutions must recognise the essential correlation of gender and sustainability. Institutions and our male colleagues must recognise the barriers that women face and work with us to dismantle them.

Anjali Viswamohanan is Programme Associate and Kanika Chawla is Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (ceew.in). @CEEW_WiS @ceewindia @aveeem @kanikachawla8

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water is one of South Asia’s leading not-for-profit policy research institutions. CEEW uses data, integrated analysis, and outreach to explain — and change — the use, reuse, and misuse of resources. CEEW addresses pressing global challenges through an integrated and internationally focused approach. It prides itself on the independence of its high-quality research, develops partnerships with public and private institutions, and engages with wider public.