EJ @ stanford
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EJ @ stanford

A Call for Intersectional Environmentalism: A conversation with Dr. Jaqueline Lau

By Adiam Tesfalul and Kerry Omughelli

This blog post was written as part of a new spring course and public seminar series, “Topics in International Justice, Rights and the Environment” (ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118) taught at Stanford University in Spring Quarter 2021. This class was designed and offered in response to a growing demand for environmental justice education at Stanford, specifically on the international scale.

The danger of a single story, as described by writer Chimamanda Adichie, has resonance with the fight against climate change and environmental studies. In many instances, whether academic or in the private sector, we bear witness to single narratives or stereotypes being taken at face value and as the complete story when that is hardly the case, particularly when the stereotypes have to do with fluid and dynamic elements such as our identities — gender, race, class, etc. Each aspect of our identity, and the intersection of these identities, has a powerful influence on how we experience climate change and our ability to adapt to it.

Last week, we were fortunate to dive deep into two readings on the topic of gender and the environment. The readings provided prior to the lecture helped unpack the history of the “single story” that has problematically oriented climate change policy over time. We were also able to complement our takeaways from the readings with a seminar and conversation with Dr. Jacqueline Lau, who was a principal author on one of the readings, “Gender equality in climate policy and practice hindered by assumptions”.

Flyer advertising the public seminar given by Dr. Jacqueline Lau on 5/17/2021

Dr. Lau is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Australia Research Council Center for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University and also with World Fish. Her research investigates issues of justice and climate change resilience. She seeks to understand how coastal resources and livelihoods can be equitably sustained in the face of change. Her research is interdisciplinary — drawing on human geography and sociology and often in collaboration with natural scientists.

Dr. Lau presented her work and focused on the four key assumptions made about woman and the environment (described in more detail below) and three key concerns that come from not challenging these assumptions:

  1. Essentializes women and men characteristics
  2. Narrowly diagnoses the causes of gender inequality
  3. Propels strategies that have unintended and counterproductive consequences

The first reading, titled Gender Equality in Climate Policy and Practice Hindered by Assumptions (co-authored by Dr. Lau and her colleagues) provides an overview of four common and interlinked gender assumptions. The reading also goes on to clarify the various pitfalls embedded within these assumptions, and detail how they mask underlying causes of gender inequality and hinder paths to equality within climate policy and practice. The first assumption identified was that women are caring and connected to the environment; a feature of the “Women, Environment and Development” or WED era and the pitfall was that it overburdened women with expectations to serve as saviors. The second assumption identified was that women are a homogenous and vulnerable group. We saw how this assumption risks overlooking power and status conferred by multiple identities within the social structures of a given place, which can result in exacerbating inequalities and obscuring opportunities to address different people’s needs. The third assumption identified was that gender equality is a women’s issue. It was a feature of the “Women in Development” or WID era which viewed women as a means to an end of improving development outcomes without considering their diverse needs and aspirations. This had the effect of increasing time burdens and workloads, without changing women’s status or agency in society or within households. The fourth and final assumption identified was that gender equality is a numbers game, essentially suggesting that the way to arrive at gender equality is by increasing the numbers of women that participate in, or benefit from, development programmes. We saw that the term “gender equality” can easily be misconstrued as “sameness” in participation and were reminded that fairness is not always akin to equality.

Dr. Lau brought these challenges and complexities to life by utilizing two case studies 1) customer reef management in Papua New Guinea and 2) oyster harvesting in The Gambia.

With an eye towards disrupting barriers and the status quo, she recommended three solutions: (1) conduct, critique, and communicate gender research; (2) shift institutional barriers as scale; and (3) invest resources in gender equality over longer timelines. Lau pointed to CARE’s Gender Equality Framework as an example of one organization moving beyond gender assumptions. The CARE framework starts from the idea that it is not possible to achieve gender equality without transforming power relations and the structural environment.

CARE’s Gender Equality Framework (Source: CARE International)

One takeaway that we found especially helpful from Dr Lau’s presentation was the Gender Equality Framework form CARE, which was developed to assist CARE staff in conceptualizing and planning gender equality work. What’s particularly compelling about this framework is that it’s been updated with learnings from CARE’s existing Women’s Empowerment Framework that emphasize the need for women and girls’ empowerment approaches to be synchronized with and complementary to how men, boys, and people of all / diverse genders are engaged. Basically the theory of change aims to build agency of people of all genders and life stages, change relations between them, and transform structures in order that they realize full potential in their public and private lives and are able to contribute equally to, and benefit equally from, social, political and economic development.

The second reading, titled Climate Change through the lens of intersectionality, engages with intersectionality as a tool for critical thinking and a pathway that steers clear of traps of essentialization, by illuminating how gender intersects with other identities — including caste, class, ethnicity, age, health, sexuality and nationality, among others — in ways that shape interactions with, vulnerability to, and resilience against climate change. The article also maps out different individuals’ situatedness in power structures, and how those power structures may be reinforced but also challenged and renegotiated.

You can watch Dr. Jaqueline Lau’s seminar here.

Works Cited:
Note: * = required readings for ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118 students

*Lau, J.D., Kleiber, D., Lawless, S. et al. Gender equality in climate policy and practice hindered by assumptions. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 186–192 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-00999-7

*Anna Kaijser & Annica Kronsell (2014) Climate change through the lens of intersectionality, Environmental Politics, 23:3, 417–433, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2013.835203

Adiam Tesfalul is a second year student at the Graduate School of Business and is receiving a joint degree in the E-IPER program. She is interested in the sustainable built environment and how the public and private sector can work together more efficiently on climate change policy.

Kerry Omughelli is a second year student at the Graduate School of Business and is receiving a joint degree in the E-IPER program. He is interested in clean energy & clean tech.

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