“Climate problems” is a metaphor that has become common parlance within philosophy, where gender ratios often mirror that of math, engineering, and the physical sciences. It functions as a possible explanation for the under-representation of women and minorities, referring to what is considered to sometimes be an inhospitable professional environment for members of these demographic groups. In this post I discuss the existence of “climate issues” as they relate to one of the greatest social justice concerns of our time: anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the subject of the COP21 international negotiations in Paris this week. In particular, I look at the under-representation of women in influential, high-powered roles across various dimensions of ACC. I present the results of a preliminary survey that suggests that there is a striking lack of women in these high-profile spaces (14%), and argue that we ought to be concerned for three key reasons: the likely presence of implicit bias and stereotype threat; the epistemic benefits of women’s situated knowledge; and the disproportionate wrongs and harms women face as consequences of ACC.
The under-representation of women in many academic fields and professions has been well documented and continues to attract attention. But is the under-representation of women’s voices even more severe within certain sub-disciplines and issues? Is it worse at the upper echelons in these spaces? And should we be more concerned about some gender inequalities than others? My experiences, observations and reflections working on ACC both inside and outside the academy suggests the answer is “yes” to all of these questions.
Take one of the most frequently used teaching resources in philosophy on ACC – “Climate Ethics: Essential Readings” (Gardiner et al. 2010). Not one of the entries in this collection is written by a woman.
Looking at the climate science itself, just 17% of the lead authors of the ten most cited papers are women.
The situation is worse when we consider the academic papers that have attracted the most attention in the media, with none having a female lead author.
Journalists who write about ACC are critical conduits of knowledge from experts to lay people, but these writers and broadcasters are overwhelmingly men. Of the ten most shared news articles on social media in the year to date, only one was written by a woman.
Analyses conducted last year also reveal that male voices account for over 85% of people quoted in media about ACC.
Unfortunately, little improvement in gender balance can be found at the higher ranks of the state and within corporations. Notably, none of the CEOs or Chairs of the top ten companies responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions are women. Only two women reside at the helm of the governments of the ten countries most responsible for ACC, and only two more can be found leading the governments of the ten countries most vulnerable to the impacts of ACC.
Although the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has taken commendable steps to improve gender equality in recent years, the UNFCCC’s own senior management team falls short of these aspirations, with just two of eight members women. The gender composition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCCs) executive is slightly better, with women making up a third of its voting members.
Although this is only a brief survey of some of most high-profile and influential social roles associated with ACC, across the roles surveyed, just 14% are occupied by women.
However, we cannot conclude from the mere existence of a gender imbalance that there is a problem. It could be that women just aren’t interested in ACC. If this is the case, then there may not be an issue here to solve. However, as women are generally much more concerned about ACC than men, it is unlikely that this is the case.
But even if it was the case, there are at least three reasons why we should care about and ensure we address the under-representation of women across all aspects of climate change.
(1) Implicit gender bias and stereotype threat:
First, there is good evidence to suggest that women’s participation and progress in society – and thus across all aspects of ACC – is impeded by two psychological phenomena: implicit gender bias and stereotype threat (Beebee & Saul 2011; Saul 2013). These subtle, systematically gendered personal and social barriers are often unintended and generally operate below the conscious awareness of both men and women. Consider, for example, Roger Harriban’s description of Claudia Salerno (a Venezuelan delegate) on Radio 4 last night as the “drama queen” of the climate talks. The net effects on women amount to a cumulative disadvantage that Rossiter (1993) dubbed the ‘Matilda Effect’, which stands in contrast to Merton’s (1968) ‘Matthew Effect’ of cumulative advantages (Wylie in Grasswick 2011). Such psychological phenomena and consequent behaviours ultimately lead to an inequity in the real opportunities open to women and men, providing us with good reasons to actively pursue higher levels of gender balance in ACC.
(2) Epistemic reasons:
Second, there are epistemic reasons for enhancing women’s participation in inquiries and discussions about ACC. Feminist standpoint theory elucidates how our structurally defined social location systematically shapes and limits what we can possibly know, what we take knowledge to be, and what the epistemic content is (Wylie in Figueroa and Harding 2003; Wylie 2012; Intemann 2010). More women within conversations about ACC would bring a greater variety of views and more representative perspectives of society, and facilitate the adoption of strategies and actions that more successfully and comprehensively addresses people’s diverse interests and priorities (Tenzing et al. 2015). Certain kinds of diversity can therefore enrich inquiries and be of theoretical, practical, social, political and philosophical value. Women’s situated knowledge should be recognised as positive resource crucial to our full understanding of ACC and to developing the best (and most just) strategies to respond to it.
(3) Other rights-, justice- and fairness-based reasons:
Finally, because ACC is expected to impact women to a greater extent and in different ways than men, there are additional rights-, justice- and fairness-based reasons to promote women’s participation and representation in issue-influencing and decision-making spheres at all levels. Overlooking the participation of women is likely to only lead to inequitable outcomes and exacerbate existing gender inequalities (Tenzing et al. 2015). This has been one of the key motivations of the development sector in its push for gender sensitive and gender responsive action on ACC.
Perhaps, then, the probable, large-scale, asymmetric risks, wrongs and harms, and the (re)distribution of social power associated with manifestation ACC means that we should be more concerned about – and hence prioritise addressing – the under-representation of women in ACC and alike issues and/or sub-disciplines? Whilst the lack of women’s voices in say probability and time travel or abstraction may be a matter of concern, surely the under-representation of women across all aspects of ACC is a scandal.
Thank you to Professor Alison Wylie for a helpful conversation on this topic, and to Ruth Crook for a useful resource. Data used to generate images can be found here. If anyone who appears in any of the images wishes to be represented by a different colour because they are trans* or genderqueer, please contact me.