Women’s Empowerment and the Environment: What Does Science Say?

“Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, standin’ on their own two feet and ringin’ on their own bells,” sang Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox in a 1985 hit song.


Worldwatch – On International Women’s Day 2016 today (March 8), is it fair to ask whether sisters also are doing it for the earth? Or, put differently, could the empowerment of women and girls contribute to environmental sustainability—to a world that meets human and nature’s needs in perpetuity?

That’s the question we’re asking in the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) as part of our search for a scientific basis for the proposition that wider use of family planning is good for sustainability. Not that any such justification should be needed for women and girls’ well-being. Equal rights and opportunities are their own reward, and are worth striving for no matter what. And there’s no way that saving the environment should be seen as women’s work or a special obligation for females. It’s human work, and it obligates us all.

Yet a practical question arises: Might people of both sexes who care about sustainability be more likely to advocate for gender equality and an end to sexual violence if research demonstrated that a world of secure and powerful women would be better off environmentally?

After months of collaborative review of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers from the past decade, we can say that hard evidence is spotty at best. Considerable sociological research finds more altruism among women than men, suggesting a greater likelihood that if more women were active in society, they could imbue it with such values. When women achieve 20–30 percent representation in an organization, for example, they begin to be heard and to alter the way the organization operates. (For details on that research, see the book Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.)

Not many researchers, however, seem to take on the question of how women and men compare in their attitudes and actions on the environment. Or perhaps those who do don’t succeed at publishing in peer-reviewed journals—at least not in the past decade. A few of the articles we reviewed cited evidence published prior to our study period (2005 to the present) that women tend to be more concerned than men about the environment and are more likely to take action to protect it.

Even in the recent research we reviewed, we have uncovered a few suggestive findings. They steer toward a hopeful conclusion, presuming that gender equality grows and that women’s rights take hold around the world. Sisters may indeed be doing it for the earth—at least somewhat more than their brothers. Here is a Top 12 of the most compelling papers we’ve found, with hyperlinked abstracts that go beyond the short summaries offered below:

  • Countries in which women are closer to men in status, rights, and opportunities have lower per capita emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide when other factors are controlled for (i.e., their effect was adjusted so they wouldn’t distort the calculations). (Christina Ergas and Richard York, 2012)
  • Forest-management groups in India and Nepal whose executive committees had higher proportions of women conserved community forests more effectively. (Bina Agarwal, 2009)
  • Higher ratios of women’s nongovernmental organizations to countries’ populations correlated with lower rates of deforestation, other factors controlled. (John M. Shandra et al., 2008)
  • Countries with higher proportions of women in their national legislative bodies are more likely to approve environmental agreements. (Kari Norgaard and Richard York, 2005)
  • There is “strong support for the idea that increasing women’s political status in particular through representation in national government has a positive effect on state environmental protection efforts.” (Colleen Nugent and John M. Shandra, 2009)
  • In Ireland and the United Kingdom, municipal waste management policies generally ignore the “different understandings and concerns” of women and are less effective as a result. (Susan Buckingham, 2015)
  • In the United States, a study of eight years of Gallup polling data concluded that women are more concerned than men about climate change. Not only that, “women exhibit more scientifically accurate climate change knowledge than do men”—although they also “tend to underestimate their climate change knowledge more than do men.” (Aaron M. McCright, 2011.)
  • In Bangladesh, a small survey of indigenous women and men in a village near a national park found higher environmental awareness among women than men (Shah Md. Atiqul Haq, 2013).
  • In the coal country of the U.S. Appalachian Mountains, women tend to lead and fill environmental justice organizations. In focus-group interviews, these women articulated a sense of place and motherhood that led them to their activism, while men interviewed tended to identify more with the coal industry and eschewed similar roles. (Shannon Elizabeth Bell and Yvonne A. Braun, 2010)
  • The idea that some women’s experience as mothers prompts them to care more than men do for the environment gets some pushback, however. According to one perspective, this “maternalist” argument may serve “patriarchal . . . purposes with implications for gender justice.” (Michelle E. Carreon and Valentine M. Moghadam, 2015)
  • One paper argued against stereotyping women’s interest in the environment and called for more attention to gender issues generally to help shift social norms toward sustainability by integrating both women’s and men’s attitudes. (Angela Franz-Balsen, 2014)
  • In an encouraging sign of continuing interest in the environmental outcomes of empowered women, Craig Leisher and 10 other researchers launched last year an open-access “systematic review protocol” that somewhat resembles the FPESA project in its structure. The researchers are embarking on an effort to “produce a systematic map of the evidence” that the gender composition of forest and fishery management groups affects conservation outcomes. No results are available yet, but our project will watch for the outcome of theirs.

Clearly, the recent literature on the connection between empowered women and environmental sustainability is not large in scope and magnitude. Yet the material that we have found in recently published journals and seen cited from earlier decades suggests strongly that women tend to have more concern about environmental problems than men do. Under some circumstances, such as participation in government, they are more likely to act on this greater interest.

For the FPESA hypothesis, this is significant. If family planning opens up opportunities for women to participate more actively in their communities, in government, and in civil society, one might expect a greater demand—and maybe more activity—from them for policies and actions that protect the environment. More research and harder evidence is needed for anything like certainty. What we’ve found nonetheless supports the benefit of family planning for environmental sustainability, based simply on what happens when women “stand on their own two feet and ring their own bells.”

This article was first posted on the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA). Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its FPESA project.

Banner photo credit: UN WOMEN Pacific.

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