Current efforts to combat climate change leave women behind. But drawing women fully into the fight is a win-win—accelerating climate progress and advancing gender equity.
It is no secret that climate change is likely to have a disproportionate impact on women. For example, women are more at risk in climate-induced disasters. Research also suggests that women’s livelihoods and education will take a harder hit than men’s as the planet warms. Less widely recognized, however, is the fact that the current approach to combating climate change could leave women behind, too.
If current trends in areas such as education and employment continue, BCG analysis indicates, climate mitigation and adaptation strategies as designed today could delay the attainment of gender equity by 15 to 20 years. This is largely because women are underrepresented in the fast-growth green economy and therefore are at a disadvantage in garnering new jobs, participating in reskilling, and gaining access to funding for green tech startups.
The good news is that this outcome is not inevitable. Applying a gender lens to climate action will not only address the inequity issue, but also accelerate progress in mitigating climate change and adapting to it. We do not have to decide which pressing challenge to address and which to ignore. Rather, with the right approach, moves to combat one can fuel progress in the other.
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On the basis of our work with private- and public-sector organizations to drive progress on climate and gender equity, we see two primary areas for action:
Concerted action in both areas will create a win-win—advancing gender equity and accelerating the global effort to reach net zero.
To understand the impact of climate action on gender equality we use the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index. This instrument measures the gap as an index (ranging from 0 to 1), with 0 representing complete inequity and 1 representing parity between men and women. The index has four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In view of the current level of progress and the recent outsize negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women, the WEF estimates that it will take roughly 135 years to close the global gender gap. The actual duration of the gap is difficult to project with precision, but evidence indicates that it is likely to persist for a significant period of time.
As numerous studies and reports have detailed, climate change alone could extend that period further. That’s because women are likely to face reduced access to education and employment and to experience greater negative health and safety impacts from climate-induced natural disasters. BCG estimates that climate change could reverse gender progress and push the attainment of gender equity out another 20 years. In other words, if the impact of climate change on women goes unaddressed, gender equity in 2030 will be back to where it was in 2010. (See “Quantifying the Impact of a Warming Planet on Gender Equity.”)
Less appreciated, however, is how climate action as currently designed will impact women.
Positive Impacts of Climate Action on Gender Equality
Climate action will benefit the global population generally and women specifically in many ways.
Today, some diseases related to climate change—in particular, illnesses stemming from air pollution such as respiratory diseases— disproportionately impact women. Consequently, women will see an outsize benefit from environmental improvements.1 Notes: 1 https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/76519/Parma_EH_Conf_pb1.pdf. Consistent with that dynamic, we project that climate action will lead to a 2-percentage-point improvement in the health and survival component of the WEF Global Gender Gap Index through 2030. We also expect women to gain representation and seats at the table in climate debates and discussions, leading to a 2-percentage-point increase in women’s political empowerment overall during the same period.
Additional positive gender equity impacts are likely to stem from investments in measures that enhance society’s ability to adapt to climate change. These adaptation measures—including the use of climate-smart agricultural practices (low-till farming for example) and expanded access to microfinance for smallholder farmers—can positively affect women’s livelihoods. Consider the benefits of agroforestry practices, which involve incorporating trees and shrubs in cropland. The approach offers a low-cost way to restore soil fertility and could significantly boost female farmers, many of whom have difficulty affording inputs such as fertilizers. In addition, organizations such as the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency have undertaken efforts to help rural women and girls gain access to burgeoning sources of renewable energy.
Negative Impacts of Climate Action on Gender Equality
Our research also found that climate action as designed today could have a negative impact on women in two critical areas—economic participation and opportunity and educational attainment—more than offsetting the positive effects outlined above.
Economic Participation and Opportunity. The negative impact in this area stems largely from the way climate action is likely to shape women’s access to jobs and reskilling in the green economy:
Factoring in the impact on women’s participation in green jobs and reskilling, we project that women’s labor force participation globally will probably decline and wage inequality will increase as women are relegated to lower-skilled jobs. That could translate into a 3-percentage-point decrease in women’s economic participation and opportunity by 2030.
Another major economic challenge that women face involves overcoming barriers to financing and opportunity in the green startup space. Between 2013 and 2019, venture capital funding in the climate sector—including innovative areas such as regenerative agriculture analytics and negative carbon technologies—increased by 84% on a compound annual basis and reached $16.3 billion in 2019, triple the value of the hot fintech sector.4 Notes: 4 https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/services/sustainability/assets/pwc-the-state-of-climate-tech-2020.pdf. Yet women are at risk of being excluded from this revolution. Although 20% of non-climate-related VC funding went to startups with at least one female founder in 2019, just 15% of climate-related VC funding did.
Educational Attainment. The second critical area where women are likely to suffer negative impacts from climate action is in access to vocational education. As the green economy booms, it will change the job market and make reskilling more important. But because women carry an outsize share of childcare responsibilities globally, they will find it difficult to participate in the vocational training system to the same degree as men. As a result, we project a 1% decrease in women’s educational attainment by 2030.
The Bottom Line. The erosion of gender equity as a result of reductions in women’s economic participation and opportunity and in their educational attainment is likely to more than offset women’s projected gains in health and survival and political empowerment. Absent a concerted effort to shift course and integrate women into climate action, progress toward gender equality will likely be delayed by an additional 15 to 20 years. This outcome is hardly fixed, of course, as there is still time to bring a gender focus to climate action.
Integrating women into the climate fight is a win-win. In addition to addressing issues of inequity, it will accelerate action on mitigating and adapting to climate change overall. A deep dive into two areas—agriculture, and STEM and green entrepreneurship—will help clarify why this is so.
Agriculture. Agriculture was responsible for 12% of total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, making it the second-largest contributor, after the energy sector, according to Climate Watch. Because women account for 43% of ag workers, their actions can have a meaningful impact on emissions in that sector. Mounting evidence indicates that women are inclined to adopt sustainable farming practices that can help in mitigating and adapting to climate change. For example, a study by the World Bank found that women in agriculture consistently seek new or alternative sources of water and plant new varieties of crops, and that their involvement in group decisions results in improved sustainable land management.
Investing in female ag workers and farmers through financing, reskilling, and access to land and insurance could lead to significant reductions in agriculture emissions. If women had the same level of access to support in those areas that men do—which we estimate would require global investment of roughly $35 billion—the result would be a cumulative emissions reduction from 2020 through 2050 of about 27.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). That’s nearly 1 gigaton per year, which is approximately the amount of current total annual global emissions from the aviation industry.
Critical Sectors of the Green Economy. Investing in women’s STEM skills and green entrepreneurship can have a major impact as well. Today, women account for only 36% of STEM students worldwide. If women participated in STEM fields at the same level as men, the green economy—including startups—would see an infusion of engineers and creative talent. And assuming that those additional women-led startups contributed to emission reductions in line with climate startups historically, that could yield a total reduction from 2020 through 2050 of 12.7 gigatons of CO2e, or roughly 0.5 gigaton annually. The projected effect would be more significant in developed countries, where the green economy is already expanding at a rapid clip, but it could also have a major impact on the green economy workforce of emerging countries in the medium to long term.
Expanding women’s participation in other sectors of the green economy is likely to support emissions reductions there, too. For example, many companies are developing new sustainable business models as they race toward net zero. Consumer companies are remaking their businesses to offer more-sustainable foods, including plant-based proteins. Home goods companies are adopting circular business models to reduce emissions and environmental impact. And grocery retailers are trying to reduce emissions in the agricultural value chain, including by slashing food waste. Neglecting to fully engage women in these areas leaves a lot of talent on the bench and makes overall success more difficult.
A Sizable Impact. Taking action in agriculture and in STEM and green entrepreneurship could reduce global emissions by 1.5 gigatons annually—an amount equal to the combined total annual emissions of Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil. And BCG analysis indicates that these steps would also likely bolster global GDP by nearly 2%. (See “The Economic Rewards of Gender-Inclusive Climate Action.”)
That economic boost doesn’t take into account the positive impact of other steps to integrate women into climate action, some of which are difficult to quantify. Consider steps to expand climate education and awareness for mothers. As mothers and educators, women are at the forefront of climate education, raising awareness and climate literacy within their families and communities. Indeed, statistics show that women in regions subject to droughts and floods teach their children how to adapt their behaviors and consumption patterns—for example, by reducing the amount of plastic waste they send to landfills.5 Notes: 5 https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/meet-5-moms-standing-up-for-urgent-climate-action/. Studies also show that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties, indicating that helping women take a greater role in government could accelerate climate progress.6 Notes: 6 http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2011.
Concerted efforts across the public, private, and social sectors are necessary to avoid unintended negative consequences of climate action on gender equality. Such efforts must also address the inequities that climate change on its own will bring. For example, governments, NGOs, and private companies should continue their support of women smallholder farmers—in particular, female-headed households—to ensure that they have appropriate tools and techniques, including access to regenerative agriculture practices, to sustain crop yields.
As climate action momentum builds, leaders in the climate fight must take steps to ensure that their plans fully take into account the impact of climate policies on women. We see two critical areas for action in this regard.
Embed a gender lens in climate investments. All players in climate policy, as well as private-sector actors, should take steps to ensure that women participate fully in the multi-trillion-dollar opportunity to achieve net zero.
A critical part of that effort involves supporting female entrepreneurs. Funding remains a key hurdle, and action to expand access to capital for women entrepreneurs in the green economy is vital. But other forms of support are equally important and often overlooked. Although the entrepreneurship gap has many causes—including differences in access to human capital, social capital, and ongoing financial resources—recent BCG research has found that one key factor is women’s relatively limited access to robust support networks. Investors, corporate executives, and public-sector actors should help scale female entrepreneurs’ networks to achieve sustainable impact. The African Women in Business Initiative, for example, supports and enables women entrepreneurs, in part by helping them cultivate professional networks.
Ensure equity in green economy jobs. If women are to participate fully in the green economy, all concerned parties must intensify their efforts to get more women into STEM education and jobs. Governments should establish targets for the share of women in STEM programs at both the regional level and the country level and should dedicate budgets to achieve these goals.
But employment opportunities related to climate action go well beyond engineering and other STEM disciplines. As companies drive transformations and business model innovation in support of net-zero goals, they will need sustainability expertise across multiple functions—management, operations, finance, and marketing. Higher-education institutions and corporations can ensure that female students and employees receive equal opportunity for training and reskilling in sustainability so that they can participate equally in these emerging employment opportunities.
Governments and companies should also dedicate more resources specifically to women’s reskilling, especially in sectors where women are underrepresented.
As currently structured, climate action poses a significant challenge for women. But it also represents an opportunity. Bringing women fully into the climate fight can reverse the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender equity and can accelerate progress overall. To do that, policymakers engaged in crafting plans to combat climate change must apply a gender lens to everything they do. And those working to advance gender equity must increase their focus on helping women become players in the burgeoning green economy. Such action can create a much-needed win-win that advances both climate action and gender equity.
The authors would like to acknowledge Sander Van Damme for his support in the development of this publication.