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Masculinities, Patriarchy and Climate Change

In the recently ended Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 26) held in Glasgow, Scotland, there was affirmation of collective action among states, corporates and the third sector. There was a call for action and accountability on the commitments that were made. During the conference, 83 countries, 750 companies and 1000+ cities made a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. In the same meeting 141 world leaders made a pledge to stop deforestation by 2030 with a pledge of $19.2 billion by 2030.  As the COP 26 commitments are impressive, it is more important than ever to try and understand what collective action and accountability means in the context of gender equality and the role that masculinities and patriarchy play in contributing to climate change and the processes of informing and shaping solutions.

Whilst the world community is looking for solutions, it is evident women have to a large extent been absent in research and inter-governmental bodies that set policy and negotiate climate change agreements, including the allocation of resources for adaptation, mitigation and resilience. Men dominate climate change political arenas such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), Climate Finance Mechanism boards, such as Global Environment Facility (including the National Focal Points), Adaptation Fund, Climate Investment Funds, and Green Climate Fund.

It is worth noting that 90%+ of heads of governments and companies are men and wield a lot of power that has both positive and negative impacts on gender equality. The top managers of the corporations that are responsible for emissions operate in with a highly competitive and power-oriented masculinity and are answerable to boards and shareholders who want to see a return on investment. Heads of government are operating in an environment with a clear objective of protecting the economic and political interests of their countries with regards to climate change. In the process they formulate policies that deepen gender inequalities and harm the environment further.

Why the focus on patriarchy and climate change? Is it needed?

Climate change presents a complex challenge and requires a concerted, proactive and holistic response. It is in this context that we must revisit the affirmation for collective action. We must ensure that this collective action is not only driven through conversations between states and corporates but also that it involves men, women, boys and girls.  Our current dialogue on climate change remains framed around achieving climate goals without sufficient consideration of who is involved and how those outcomes will impact different segments of society, including women.

Every society has a gender order, an arrangement of political, economic and social relations of power reflecting and reinforcing ideas about gender differences and hierarchies. This applies to climate change as well. Patriarchal masculinities are those ideas about and practices of masculinity that emphasize the superiority of masculinity over femininity and the authority and power of men over women. Ideas about and practices of patriarchal masculinities serve to maintain gender inequalities and power hierarchies more broadly. They are expressed individually (in attitudes and behavior), institutionally (in policies and practices) and ideologically (in social norms and cultural narratives).

Men and boys’ impact and are impacted by climate change in a gendered way which is different to the impact on women and girls. It is important to understand men’s and boys’ multiple roles in patriarchal systems that contribute to climate change and through this identify opportunities for them to act as agents of positive change in allyship with women. It is in their interest too. It has been noted that the invisibility of men’s vulnerability is the result of the way in which climate science and research has been driven by the patriarchal agenda. A report by the World Health Organization that brings the point home tells us that, in times of drought, male farmers in developed and developing countries experience higher rates of suicide due to weaker or non-existent support networks. Links have also been made between eco-friendliness and perception of femininity. Research from Dr. Brough at Utah State University established that both men and women saw using the more sustainable tote bag alternative to plastic bag as being more feminine, regardless of the gender of the shopper.

From a purely binary perspective, it is evident that impacts of climate change affect men and women differently. Women suffer the most from the impacts of climate change. Women’s socio-economic circumstances make them disproportionately negatively affected by impacts of climate change, characterized by drought and flood. 70% of the world’s poor are women, who most often bear the responsibility of producing food, collecting water and firewood for households. The climate effects are projected to increase in scale and frequency. 

What is needed to address masculinities and patriarchy in climate change?

Men can play a transformative leadership role to seize the opportunities of solutions that have been presented to the world. An example is utilizing the UNEP’s six sector solution to the climate crisis, which identifies opportunities to ensure a stable climate and make real the commitments of the Paris Agreement. These sectors include energy, industry, transport, agriculture, food and waste, transport and nature-based solutions.

Working with men and boys to challenge patriarchal masculinities in these sectors will involve confronting the operations of patriarchal power at the individual, institutional and ideological levels by altering behavior, systems and way of life to protect families and economies and to be held accountable for it. We must identify the structural and systemic barriers to equitable climate change and ensure the voice and representation of women are central to the outcomes of climate change. This will require a change in mindset to see the issue of climate change, not just as an issue of carbon, but as an issue of justice and power and the rights and resources (both human and financial) that ensure that women and the vulnerable are equipped to solve climate change issues that impact on them.

Why the optimism? It has already been demonstrated that the collective will and power of men who lead large corporations can bring about transformative change. Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), the biggest coalition of companies have come together to ensure that their value-chain suppliers are deforestation-free. LEAF is a voluntary global coalition bringing together the private sector and governments to provide finance for tropical and subtropical forest conservation commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge of meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C warming targets. The coalitions are not perfect, but they have taken a significant step in the right direction to demonstrate the power of transforming patriarchy in climate change. Will you join us today in addressing your role in climate justice conversations and championing the role of women?

Work cited

  1. World Health Organization. (2010). Gender, climate change and health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, Pg. 30.
  2. Brough, A., Wilkie, J., Ma, J., Isaac, M. and Gal, D. (2016). Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(4), pp.567-582
  4. Transforming Patriarchal Masculinities: UN Women organizational approach to engaging men and boys for gender equality.




Edward Wageni
Edward Wageni is the Global Head of United Nations Global HeForShe Initiative, a global solidarity movement which seeks to engage men and boys as advocates for gender equality. Edward has a background in climate change work and is a gender equality expert with experience in strategic leadership, operational management and coordination. He has worked with civil society and led partnerships with government, UN agencies and private sector in promoting gender equality. Currently based in New York, Edward holds a MSc. Development Practice from Oxford Brookes University, UK, and has worked in many countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America as well as the UK. 

Social Media Handles:
Twitter @wagenie
Instagram: @ewageni


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