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Spend any time in UN circles and the g-word is everywhere. Gender is paraded as a significant cross-cutting issue in the new Sustainable Development Goals and in ongoing climate negotiations, touching everything from health and agriculture to sanitation and education.
This year’s COP 21 meeting in Paris is no different, with a multitude of talks on the nexus between gender equality and climate change offered at all levels of discussion. And it makes sense. Climate change is an environmental issue, but on a fundamental level it also touches on questions of social justice, equality and human rights — all of which have strong gender dimensions.
However, look at any panel at this conference and the lack of women is immediately obvious. After getting no response from the UN about whether there are gender policies in place over the voices they choose to air, I conducted a little informal survey: among the speakers at the last seven events I attended, men outnumbered women 29 to 11. Admittedly, this was at events in the independent civil society area. But people within the UN zone and those attending the negotiations reported a similar pattern. The only event to have a majority of women speakers was on female sexual health, a very gender-specific issue.
When an organisation like the UN has made the issue of gender balance central to its philosophy, but is still not managing to make it work in practice, there is reason to be concerned.
At summits like this, the argument is often that there are more male experts to choose from. But this argument is tired and illegitimate. There are more than enough qualified and articulate women to fill any conference table many times over.
If high-level events such as COP 21 are this skewed towards men, it is bad for science as it restricts the trajectories of certain disciplines, which are forged to a male viewpoint. Science may seek objectivity but the types of questions tackled and the interpretation of research results will be narrower if half the population are marginalised.
A female perspective is important for climate change because women will feel its impacts just as much, if not more, than men. Most smallholder farmers are women. In many countries, women are in charge of households and so are the first to be confronted by climate-related issues such as food security. Their experiences at the coalface of global warming offer a wealth of knowledge that must be tapped if adaptation is to succeed.
Small actions can send big messages, especially at an event like COP — for example the limited or no meat options at restaurants on the site. In this sense, COP 21 is a missed opportunity for the UN to practice what it preaches and offer a glimpse of a better, more equal future.