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Why climate change disproportionally impacts women

July 25, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC

A number of recent studies show that the negative effects of climate change fall disproportionately on women, caused by and compounding long-standing effects of sexism and institutionalized disparities around the world. 

According to the report Accelerating the Race to Net Zero Through Gender Equity, released in April 2022 by Aon and Women+ in Climate Tech, women globally are 14 times more likely to die in climate events and four times more likely to be displaced because of climate. This disparity, and the discrimination that causes it, has had a negative effect on workforce resiliency and bottom lines, researchers note.

While we may now have more data than ever to illustrate the climate gender gap, the work to fix the issue is still in its early stages. Some analysts suggest that companies can boost their workforce and climate resiliency by increasing the number of women in leadership positions. 

“There is a lot of work to do around connecting the dots between gender equity and climate action,” said Julianne Hogan, cofounder of Women+ in Climate Tech. “The education and research behind this will be crucial in making the business case to executives.”

Financial vulnerability

When you unpack the root causes of adverse climate effects felt by women, the raw data makes more sense: Women still own and manage a small percentage of the world’s financial resources and this decreases their resilience to the extreme events that come with climate change.

In many countries around the globe, women are usually responsible for providing their families with food, water, and fuel. Any climate-caused disruption to these areas often causes a drop in women’s attendance at work or school, which further decreases their financial stability.

The jobs that fall to women, especially underprivileged women, get worse with climate change. 

“The adverse effects of drought, floods, hurricanes, extreme rainfall events and sea level rise are often felt more keenly by women than men as a result of systemic gender discrimination and societal expectations related to gender roles,” according to a report released by the secretariat of the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June 2022. 

The Bonn report, synthesized by the United Nations from information submitted by 19 countries around the world, noted that in many countries the tasks of collecting firewood, finding fresh water, and taking care of the land fall to women. As climate change makes these tasks increasingly more difficult, women and girls must make longer journeys to gather essential water and firewood and deal with less productive land. 

The disruption caused by extreme weather events also affects supply chains, says Helen Whiteley, another cofounder of Women+ in Climate Tech, noting jobs like garment workers in increasingly flooded Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable. 

Climate change as a women’s health crisis

Exposure to climate change events can also lead to health problems with more significant consequences for women, especially during pregnancy, regardless of where they live: A paper published in 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that extreme heat and high levels of air pollution were associated with preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirths. 

These threats to maternal health are in addition to higher levels of cardiac disease, respiratory disease, and infectious disease caused by climate change, researchers noted. The authors, who are doctors from the University of Texas, the University of California–Berkeley, and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said that climate change is a women’s health crisis.  

Poverty and ethnicity exacerbate women’s vulnerability to climate change, and people of color are much more likely to have health issues and lost labor hours because of climate-caused extreme temperatures and weather events. Wealthy women, who have the financial ability to pay for health care and recover after extreme events, are less vulnerable to climate change. 

Climate risk assessment models may result in a divestment from businesses that support these vulnerable populations, which would make the situation worse, says Whiteley. 

“We don’t want to see full-on divestment because all those women will lose their jobs, and the businesses and the communities will be even more at risk from climate than they are now,” she said. 

Understanding gap

Analysts say that integrating women and minorities into decision-making will improve climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Companies with at least 30% of female board directors have better climate governance overall, says the Aon report, citing research from 2020 by BloombergNEF

“Women tend to take future generations into account in their decisions and therefore make choices that could help to increase resilience in the future,” according to the authors of the Bonn report.

“When you have a more diverse team, they’re going to be coming up with more innovative [climate] solutions and thinking from all angles,” notes Suzanne Biegel, cofounder of GenderSmart, in an interview with Fortune. She points to gender lens climate finance toolkits provided by organizations such as the 2X Collaborative

Investing in and empowering women will not only increase business resiliency and mitigate climate change, but it will also help support women and their families against the negative effects of our changing climate. 

Whiteley, who spearheaded the Aon report, says that many businesses don’t recognize that gender equity is important to climate action. “I still talk with people who are sophisticated investors and others working in climate change who do not know or understand the connection between the two issues,” she notes. “I think this is an opportunity for companies to fill this gap for the betterment of their employee relations and recruiting, as well as their net-zero efforts.”

While lack of representation impacts different sectors in a variety of ways, many analysts and investors increasingly see the value of greater inclusivity as part of a broader sustainability movement.

“Exclusion of women from decision-making at the highest levels of operations, planning, and program design has led to a fragmented response to waste management, thus not allowing the sector to reach its full potential,” says Ellen Martin, chief impact officer at Circulate Capital.

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.