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Gender in the Green Economy

15 Jun 2012

Gender in the Green Economy
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.

In the absence of appropriate social policies, the green economy may exacerbate existing gender inequities to the detriment of overall sustainability. As workers, women are being excluded from the green economy due to gender-segregated employment patterns and discrimination. As consumers, women are more likely than men to buy eco-friendly products but they have limited purchasing power. As citizens, women are crucial to good governance in the green economy but have little influence because very few women hold management positions in both public and private sectors. The author suggests policies that would assure a fuller role for women, including putting female empowerment at the centre of development assistance programmes that aim to promote the green economy in developing countries; mandating business to adopt family-friendly practices to increase women’s participation in green jobs; giving women special skills training to work in the green economy; and enacting quotas to get more women onto corporate boards and in top-level management positions in industry and government to increase their influence over the shape of the green economy.

Candice Stevens is an economist who was previously the Sustainable Development Advisor of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France. During her 25 years at the OECD, she was also Head of the Industry Division, the Science and Technology Policy Division, and the Environment and Trade Unit. She has authored numerous studies and publications on sustainable development strategies, measurement approaches, and assessment methodologies including Gender and Sustainable Development: Maximising the Economic, Social and Environmental Role of Women for the OECD.

Structural gender inequality needs to be addressed to assure the well-being of women, the successful transition to a green economy and the achievement of sustainable development. In the absence of appropriate social policies, the green economy may exacerbate existing gender inequities to the detriment of overall sustainability.

Market-based approaches that emphasize economic growth have tended to exploit and marginalize women in both developed and developing countries in their roles as workers, consumers and citizens. For green growth strategies to succeed, equity issues must be fully addressed. The income gap between rich and poor is widening both within and between countries, and women make up the majority of the world’s poorest citizens (UNRISD 2010). The green economy offers a possibility for a more equitable sharing of revenue between men and women, capital and labour, and rich and poor countries. But governments must act to close gender gaps that threaten to make the green economy as inequitable as its forerunners. Green economy approaches that emphasize women as workers in green jobs, consumers of green products and citizens for green governance will provide for long-term sustainability.

Women as workers
As workers, women are being excluded from the green economy due to gender-segregated employment patterns and discrimination. It is expected that 50 million green jobs (for example, in industries or areas such as renewable energy, forest protection and rehabilitation, water and sanitation infrastructure, green housing, and environmental regulation) will be created worldwide in the next 20 years, as governments and businesses invest in reducing energy intensity, minimizing waste, and protecting and restoring ecosystems. But various areas of the green economy are largely closed to women due to the types of positions on offer. For example, women have long been marginalized in the energy sector where they constitute less than 6 per cent of technical staff and below 1 per cent of top managers. Women have less than 9 per cent of global construction jobs and their roles are generally administrative and secretarial (ITUC 2009).

About 75 per cent of green jobs will be related to renewable energy and green buildings. But the skilled energy and construction positions in the green economy are primarily male-dominated. In developed countries, these are areas which are characterized as “non-traditional” for women, defined as those where more than 75 per cent of the workforce is of the opposite gender (ITUC 2009). Although occupations that have traditionally been female-dominated (such as secretaries, teachers, nurses and household help) may be greened, these are often not regarded as a core component of job creation in the green economy agenda.

Women agricultural workers who could initiate green activities in poorer countries are often not part of the monied economy. In most developing regions, women are concentrated in the most casual and exploitative forms of work (UNRISD 2010). Sectors such as agriculture and forestry are predicted to be major beneficiaries of the transition to a low-carbon economy and the source of at least 2 million green jobs (in, for example, organic agriculture, biofuels and forest conservation). Globally, women comprise less than 20 per cent of the workforce in these primary sectors, however. The female labour force ranges from 2 per cent in developed countries, where few women work in mechanized agriculture, to as high as 60 per cent in developing countries, where many low-income labourers are women working in small-scale farming and forestry-based activities (ITUC 2009). Much female subsistence work is generally not included in official government statistics owing to difficulties in identifying and counting informal labourers. Although many green jobs can be created in agriculture, forestry, ecotourism, and other resource-based sectors, the marginal status of women in developing countries means they will likely not reap major benefits.

More than 60 per cent of women worldwide work in the services sector (UN 2010). However, men dominate the better paid jobs in finance and business services, as well as engineering, which underlie the green economy. Although they are engaged in many skilled services including teaching and nursing, female workers are concentrated in administrative support tasks (clerks, secretaries and customer service representatives) and the household sector (ITUC 2009). Women in the developed world are acquiring engineering and business skills at the same rate as men, but they confront barriers to their participation in better paid service sectors due to discrimination and blocked career paths. While there are qualified women in all areas of expertise to compete with men in providing green services, women remain minority workers due to institutional discrimination (OECD 2008).

Without policy changes and quotas for female participation in the public and private sectors, the green economy will reproduce these patterns. This is largely because women bear most responsibility for childcare and households, causing them to suffer from time poverty, intermittency in employment and lack of mobility, which negatively affects their career prospects. Due to gender-segregated occupations, they work in jobs with inferior conditions and little mobility. While some such work can be considered “green”, it is often far from being decent work. Due to gender wage gaps, women are paid less than men for doing the same tasks. Affordable childcare, paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements would allow women to play a fuller role in the green economy in developed countries. Ending discriminatory practices which economically disadvantage women and putting female empowerment at the centre of development assistance programmes would do the same for women in poorer countries (OECD 2008).

Women as consumers
Women are generally greener and more sustainable than men in their buying patterns as shown in surveys from several organizations including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2008; IJISD 2009). Studies of consumption trends in developed countries find that women are more likely than men to buy recyclable, eco-labelled, energy-efficient and Fair Trade products. In Europe and particularly in Scandinavia, women spend far more time than men seeking information on sustainable consumption and lifestyle alternatives. In these countries, women recycle, eat organic foods and purchase green goods at higher rates than their male counterparts.

Although women account for some 80 per cent of household purchases in developed countries, their limited purchasing power can act as a constraint on their eco-consciousness translating into broader patterns of sustainable consumption and production. Men tend to make fewer but more expensive purchases of electronics, automobiles and luxury goods. As men maintain their control of economic and financial systems, gender-based income gaps are growing (UN 2010).

The green economy could be invigorated through more widespread dispersal of consumer purchasing power away from the rich and towards the middle and lower classes, thus benefiting more women. The United States and the United Kingdom have among the fastest growing divides between rich and poor among the OECD countries. Many workers are failing to earn a living wage while corporate executives, mostly male, are being granted excessive pay and bonuses. In 2011, only the market for luxury goods was booming. As poverty levels rise, it is single mothers who are the poorest members of these rich societies. If women had more purchasing power, they would have greater influence over how firms affect the environment and remunerate green workers. If women were more prominent in public and private governance, they could advocate for greener production methods and consumer goods (Stevens 2010).

Women and governance
As citizens, women have little influence on the direction of the green economy, because they are rare in management and leadership positions in both the public and private sectors. Although women’s presence in the workplace is growing, more equal representation of women in economic and political leadership is still a radical idea for many. Among Fortune 500 companies, women are only 3 per cent of CEOs, 6 per cent of top managers and 15 per cent of corporate board members (UN 2010). Although studies find that firms with more women in leadership positions exhibit better performance and higher profits, women will likely continue to confront the glass ceiling in the green economy. without significant changes in attitudes and policies. Women remain on the sidelines even though their “risk-smart” approaches, eco-consciousness and leadership strengths are sorely needed to drive the green economy and to create green jobs (ITUC 2009).

Women are crucial to good governance in the green economy. Worldwide, only about 18 per cent of legislative seats are held by women, and in many countries there are no female representatives at all. Yet UN statistics underline that women in government give greater emphasis than men to social welfare and ecological issues and tend to be less corrupt (UN 2010). Women, more than men, tend to advocate government intervention in the marketplace to ban unsustainable products and to subsidize environmentally friendly goods. The green gender gap is most pronounced with regard to carbon taxes. European surveys show that women far outnumber men in advocating carbon levies to account for the true environmental costs of production and transport (OECD 2008). However, political perspectives which favour technological quick fixes over regulatory intervention fuel the market-based trajectory of the green economy.

OECD and other academic studies have found that fuller economic and political participation by the world’s women would lead to higher rates of economic growth, lower poverty levels, greater innovation, better business performance and more social stability as well as reduced environmental damage (OECD 2008; IJISD 2009). But male dominance and gender discrimination in rich and poor countries mean women have few opportunities to influence economic, social or environmental decision making. Policies are needed to ensure that the green economy does not perpetuate global gender and income inequalities.

Policy making to ensure women’s role in a sustainable green economy
It is the responsibility of governments to make the green economy sustainable through a range of policies which would assure a fuller role for women. These include: Combating traditions and discrimination which economically disadvantage women, and putting women’s empowerment at the centre of development assistance programmes that aim to promote the green economy in developing countries;
  • Enforcing anti-discrimination laws in developed countries and mandating businesses to adopt family-friendly practices including child care, flexible work and extended leave to increase the participation of women in green jobs;
  • Including provisions in government stimulus spending, public procurement and development assistance which require employers to adopt affirmative action goals to correct the under-representation of women in their workforce while greening their activities;
  • Giving women special skills training and apprenticeships to work in the green economy and recruiting them to fill “non-traditional” jobs in agriculture, industry and services in both developed and developing countries; and
  • Enacting quotas in all countries to get more women onto corporate boards and into top-level management in industry and government to increase their influence on the development of the green economy.

Gender gaps are extracting high economic costs and contributing to social inequities and environmental degradation around the world. At present, we are confronted with economic, environmental and social crises on a global scale. Yet women are relegated to taking a back seat to the men who are driving these unsustainable trends. Enlightened gender policies could steer the green economy away from narrow male priorities and limited market-based perspectives. The lack of progress on gender equality in all countries is at the heart of the failure to advance more broadly on sustainable development. If women were in more productive and decision-making roles, the world would be moving faster towards sustainability in the economic, social and environmental sense.


IJISD (International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development). 2009. Special Issue on Gender and Sustainable Development, Volume 4, No 2-3.

ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation). 2009. Green Jobs and Women Workers: Employment, Equity, Equality. Report prepared by Candice Stevens for the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development (SustainLabour), ITUC.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 2008. Gender and Sustainable Development: Maximising the Economic, Social and Environmental Role of Women. OECD. Paris.

Stevens, Candice. 2010. Are Women the Key to Sustainable Development? Sustainable Development Insights, Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University.

UN (United Nations). 2010. The World’s Women 2010: Trends and Statistics. United Nations, New York.

UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development ). 2010. Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics. UNRISD, Geneva.


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