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Gender Equality as Key in Defining Human Well-Being and Enhancing Sustainable Development

30 Mar 2012

Gender Equality as Key in Defining Human Well-Being and Enhancing Sustainable Development
This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

The predominant discourse on sustainable development focuses mainly on ecology and economics, not taking into account social dimensions of well-being and gender-based inequalities. This think piece emphasizes the importance of incorporating gender dimensions into the discourse on sustainable development to improve human well-being.

Gerd Johnsson-Latham works at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in the area of development cooperation. She has also been active in global and national women’s rights groups, and written several publications on women and poverty, violence as a threat to human security and on the different ecological and social footprints of women and men. This think piece contains her personal views on the subject matter.

Above: The large carbon “footprints” of a rich man and a rich woman compared to the small ones of a poor man and a poor woman, globally. The red line indicates the average footprint per person which the globe can sustain. The red arrows suggest how excess consumption of the rich needs to be curbed, while consumption of the poor needs to increase to meet their basic needs.

Gender equality as key to sustainable development

Research indicates that sustainable development and action to curb and adapt to climate change need not result in a poorer quality of life for people globally—just the opposite. But it would require a change in terms of how we define human well-being and quality of life. To this end, engendering the development agenda and bringing out female perceptions of well-being will be crucial.

While this think piece addresses gender-based differences, it acknowledges that differences between rich and poor females—as well as between rich and poor males—are often far greater than the differences between men and women.

The predominant discourse on sustainable development, including green economy, concentrates mainly on ecology and economics. However, it seldom embraces the more rights-oriented gender approach that highlights social and power-related aspects of sustainability and gender-based inequalities. Based on research conducted mainly in Sweden, this think piece suggests that green economics and innovative approaches to sustainable development can incorporate gender dimensions and address gender inequalities, thus improving human well-being without carbon intensive paths to development.

Engendering the sustainable development agenda could help address key aspects of unsustainability by challenging the trend that considers poor women primarily as objects in need of assistance, and—instead—placing them as subjects, or actors in charge of their own, as well as their community’s, well-being.

The gendered nature of (un)sustainable development

Gender-based differences can cause unsustainability, in terms of damage to both the physical and the social environment, in the following key ways.

Male lifestyle patterns and consumption are less sustainable

Research in Sweden indicates that in terms of consumption, women and men tend to consume in ways that confirm their roles as “real” men and women. Women are more likely to purchase basic essentials in the form of less expensive but recurring consumer goods for the whole family, such as food, clothing and so on, while men buy expensive capital goods like cars and home electronics and also, in general, tend to own the flat or house in which the family lives (Nyman 2002).

Studies show that men in Latin America and South Asia use one-third to one-half of their income for themselves (often for personal leisure) before the income is distributed among the family as a whole (Chant in Johnsson-Latham 2007). Men globally, in all economic segments of society, tend to have more resources, power and rights, both as a group and as individuals, which gives them greater freedom than women to choose lifestyle and consumption—including illegal or harmful unsustainable consumption (such as drugs, prostitutes and so on).

Studying rich males may be helpful in understanding unsustainable consumption patterns worldwide. Luxury consumption by rich people, notably males, appears to have highly influenced a wider culture of consumption (especially among men) that values higher incomes, greater mobility and positions in the business community, politics, media and sports. Several “lifestyle” magazines, commercials and soap operas—in countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and in Asia and Latin America—confirm and reinforce perceptions that well-being is essentially about material, high-carbon consumption, elegant cars, yachts, motorcycles, foreign travel, grand housing, swimming pools and so on. Success, therefore, tends—more so now than at any other point in history—to be expressed through male consumption that signals economic wealth rather than education or culture. Thus, while women’s shopping is much talked about, the lifestyles and consumption of wealthy males appear globally to be far more unsustainable compared to those of females in terms of CO2 emissions (Johnsson-Latham 2007).

Unsustainable time poverty, stress and ill health among women

Women’s lifestyles and consumption patterns, which reflect their main responsibility for care of the home, children and old people, are generally more ecologically sustainable than men’s (Nyman 2002). Globally, not least in the poorest families, women provide the bulk of all unpaid care within families and also the most remunerated care within health systems, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). Women’s double responsibility as wage-earners and unpaid caretakers for the home, often with a working day far longer than men’s, results in time poverty, stress and ill health—an often neglected aspect of “human unsustainability” evident in the World Bank study, Voices of the Poor in 2000. In spite of the magnitude of female ill health, WHO concludes that health systems rarely address the issue adequately among poor women and, if they do, they treat it primarily as a maternal health issue rather than ill health caused by gender-based discrimination in terms of sexual abuse and violence, or malnutrition due to a lack of access to resources and income.

Unsustainable, uneven mobility

In a historic perspective, men have always had much greater mobility and freedom in terms of access to public spaces and travel. It has been men’s—and particularly richer men’s—travel that has influenced city planning, investments in transportation systems, choices and priorities favouring “automobility” rather than public transportation, as, according to the Swedish National Road Administration, SNRA “transportation systems have been set up by men, for men”. All in all, this has set the pattern for today’s large-scale consumption of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases.

Transportation accounts globally for about a quarter of all energy consumption, and forecasts indicate sharp increases (World Business Council for Sustainable Development), This tend to benefit males far more than females, as men travel more, by car and air. Even in Sweden, a country ranking high in terms of gender equality globally, men account for about three-quarters of all kilometres driven nationally. Furthermore, some three-quarters of all passenger cars are registered to men. The gender imbalance in the use of energy-consuming motorcycles and large motor driven pleasure boats is even higher. By contrast, women live in two-thirds of all Swedish households that do not have a car (SNRA 2005).

Studies in Sweden by the SNRA further show that men dominate decisions on the distribution of resources for investments for transport purposes. Resources mainly go to areas that men use, such as roads and air services, while far less goes to public transport that is used, needed and wanted by lower income women. It would be crucial to study further and analyse the extent to which this pattern is global, that is, the extent to which publicly funded investments in automobility primarily increase mobility and freedom for men.

The picture below illustrates the situation—how the majority of the earth’s population have only limited mobility or use only simple modes of transport while a minority use motor or air travel.

(Source: Johnsson-Latham 2007, based on the Swedish National Road Administration)

Social unsustainability due to male violence

A major obstacle for female well-being globally, according to women’s rights organizations, is male (often spousal) violence. Both WHO (2009) and studies like Voices of the Poor (World Bank 2000) highlight the magnitude of this violence and provide testimonies of how it leads to death, ruins health—both physical and mental—and serves as a means to marginalize and humiliate women, particularly migrant women and refugees.

It should be noted that violence among men is also highly detrimental to the lives and well-being of men. According to the WHO (2009), males globally live shorter lives than females—unnecessarily—due to far more violent lifestyles and risk-taking in terms of violence, drugs, crime, hazardous driving and unsafe sex. The stereotypical male lifestyles thus extract a heavy cost in terms of human sustainability, equally for women and men, and for society in general.

As suggested by the Swedish author Eva Moberg, an important way to address male violence would be to not shy away from the problem, but to bring to the forefront of public debate the actions of the many men and women who are working to challenge the dominant but stereotypical perceptions of masculinity as violent and risk-taking.


Taking a gender equality perspective is needed if we are to replace outdated carbon-intensive models of development with innovative thinking that can shift the focus (from purely economic or environmental considerations) to aspects of well-being that are more sustainable. Acknowledging the role that gender plays in shaping consumption, health and well-being—as research from Sweden shows—can go a long way towards addressing key aspects of quality of life for both women and men (such as freedom from violence and ill health). These are core social dimensions of sustainable development, but are often missing from green economy debates.


Johnsson-Latham, Gerd. 2007. Gender Equality as a Prerequisite for Sustainable Development. Report 2007:2 of the Environment Advisory Council, Sweden, Stockholm

Nyman, Charlotte. 2002. Mine, Yours or Ours? Sharing in Swedish Couples. Doctoral thesis, Department of Sociology, Umeå University.

Swedish National Road Administration, (Vägverket), 2005, “Resa jämt: tankar kring ett jämställt transportsystem”, report 2005:110

World Health Organization (WHO). 2009. Women and Health. WHO, Geneva.

World Bank. 2000. Voices of the Poor. World Bank, Washington, DC.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Pathways to energy and climate change 2050. www.wbcsd.ch/web/publications/pathways.pdf, accessed in March 2012.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.