Photo credit: Rachele Daminelli via Instagram

New research from Women's Environmental Leadership Australia highlights the intersection between gender and climate change

A new report from Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia (WELA) has found that harnessing gender diverse leadership is a powerful and essential opportunity to ensure that Australia's response to climate-related challenges is more equitable and effective.

If there was one thing that I learned during my university media degree, beyond that if at first you don't succeed, try a new strategy, (fun fact: I failed my first uni media assignment. Fortunately, this did not deter me from pressing on with media because I lurvve it) - it was that readers, audiences, and listeners have a much harder time grasping complex issues like climate change, sexism, and racism than they do any story centred on a human being. 

Oh, you want to write about homelessness? Go and find an unhoused human being, the conventional news media wisdom told us, and “hang your story” on the first person willing to prostrate their pain to you as a reporter, and be quoted in the paper.

So, when reading through the latest 2024 report from Women's Environmental Leadership Australia (WELA), my heart felt sad. In all it’s well-researched, comprehensive detail, it outlines what's at stake in Australia when it comes to an uptick in climate-related weather disasters and increased biodiversity loss, and the urgent need to harness gender diverse leadership to ensure Australia's response to this challenge is more equitable.

How are we supposed to get Missing Perspectives readers, let alone decision-makers, to care about some of the quietest voices, who stand to be at the most risk of adverse weather events, and whose minds and hearts may also contain the seeds of our best responses? Also, abstract issues like climate change and ah, the extremely catchy and sexy phrase “feminist climate justice”?!

Perhaps it’s not about blunt pathos. Maybe my uni lecturers were wrong. Maybe we just need to speak a new language. The team at Atmos.Earth certainly think so – publishing a really beautiful piece called Why We Need New Words For Natureexploring the idea that we need new words to breathe life into what's at stake for people. 

Even well-intended bodies, who care about the environment, like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, use some pretty market-based and economics style word choices in their reports. For example, when describing our vibrant, life-filled oceans, they refer to them as “marine resources”. 

Beyond language, maybe I need to let go and trust that readers and decision-makers are more ready to tap into the higher levels of thinking required to connect with their changing climate, and women’s role in all this. 

It is well established that anthropogenic climate change has been caused by the excess greenhouse gases that have entered the atmosphere as a result of rapid industrialisation and the use of fossil fuels and related activities tied to global capitalist expansion. 

Climate change will – and is already having – devastating consequences for humanity. Many of these consequences are outlined in the latest I.P.C.C reports and include mass extinctions, a sharp uptick in climate-related weather disasters, sea level rise, food and water scarcity, millions of climate-displaced persons seeking new homes, severe shocks to financial markets, and increased political instability.

What is more is that the burdens of climate change will be unevenly borne, with, for example, the World Resources Institute indicating that the “greatest impact” of climate change to fall on the global population’s poorest. While across the 20th Century, there have been major improvements for white women in particular in terms of their parity with men on issues like choice, work, and the ability to move into public life, women in all their intersections are disproportionately impacted by climate change. According to the WELA report, they are 14 times more likely to perish (aka die) in a disaster and represent 80 percent of people displaced by extreme weather.

Here are four learnings from the WELA report about the intersection between gender and climate change:

1. When more women are represented in leadership positions across politics, science, technology and engineering, you see more environmental-led decisions. This is why the representation and leadership piece is so vital in the climate and gender conversation.

Climate presents both the biggest threat and the biggest economic opportunity for tech investment. The WELA report also highlights concerning gender gaps in STEM leadership, positions that are critical to solving environmental issues. Low investment spending exacerbates unconscious bias, as investors favour all-male teams.

On this point, Kirsten Hunter, the managing director of Techstars, is calling on four immediate tangible actions from the tech industry, to educate the tech industry about diverse teams delivering outsized returns on investment, the need for venture capital funds to explain when investments lack gender diversity, more transparency in venture capital investment, and the need to decision-makers to apply both a gender and climate lens to all critical decisions. 

If you're working in any of these spaces, finding mentors and community is key, as is professional support. To be frank, this is a challenging space given what's at stake is our planet and beautiful diverse species. Finding support and nuggets of hope are key to making this sustainable. WELA, Techstars, and Startmate offer programs for emerging climate leaders.

2. Post disasters, in private spaces like homes as well as public spaces like evacuation centres, there is a well documented increase in gender-based violence. We need all women at their most centred and empowered, not in the states of struggle and fear typically engendered by such types of violence.

3. Despite that kind of intense stat I shared with you before about women being more likely to perish in a climate-related weather disaster and become climate refugees, women and gender diverse people can also be active participants in solving these challenges. Bianca McNeair is a Malgana woman from Gutharagudu (Shark Bay) who is staying connected to traditional Indigenous practices of hunting turtle and dugong, and Lisa Millar of Wedgetail is a scientist down in Tasmania financing nature-based projects. Aussie women are out here, and they are busy.

4. With the increased frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters, the ‘soft’ infrastructure of community connection, mutual support, and collaborative innovation will be just as important as ‘hard’ infrastructure. Ya know, that stuff society routinely undervalues as women's work, like maintenance rituals being a form of love rather than just pure romantic passion, and kinship rituals? Actually a huge vibe when it comes to building resilience during times of disaster. 

Dr Carla Pascoe Leahy, who holds a PhD exploring motherhood and the environment and was key in bringing this report together, adds that at the international level, the idea that you need to think about gender what it comes to climate change has been well established for 10 to 20 years. She hopes that Australians will start to embed this in their way of thinking too.

Beyond that, Dr Leahy suggests connecting to the nature around you each day (for her it's the ocean), and also connecting with other people who care about these issues and are doing something about it. Talking and thinking about climate can bring up a lot, but connecting with nature and others is a huge source of hope and fortitude.

You can read the full WELA report here.