Empowered women = happy planet? Gender equality in a changing environment

Critical theme

IIED's latest Critical Theme seminar explored challenging questions on gender equality, women's empowerment and environmental change.

Ethiopian women sort coffee beans at a long table. IIED's Critical Theme will explore gender equality issues (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Gender and women's empowerment are getting increasing attention in global discussions on climate change, sustainable development and the green economy. The international community is recognising the importance of making progress on gender equality as part of efforts to reduce poverty and promote sustainable development.

But different – and often competing – narratives are emerging in relation to these topics. Positioning an organisation in this global conversation can be a difficult balancing act.

IIED organised a Critical Theme seminar to discuss these challenging narratives. The meeting took place on May 20, 2015. It was designed to explore the issues surrounding gender equality and discuss potential pathways, including those for IIED as an organisation.

The meeting was timely: IIED is currently undertaking a gender audit to look at how it addresses questions relating to gender equality and equity in the way we work and the work we do. You can read more about this process in Isilda Nhantumbo's blog on Gender in the workplace and Kate Lines' appeal for gender lessons and suggestions from other organisations.

IIED intends to use the review and audit process to clarify assumptions, create space for controversy to enrich the debate and inform the choices we make as professionals and as an institute.

More than a single issue

The Critical Theme meeting was led by Agnes Otzelberger, who argued that gender is not one agenda or an exact science, but needs to be understood in terms of trade-offs, culturally sensitive issues, personal experience, contradiction and ambiguity. She posed the following questions to illustrate this:

  • "Investing in women and girls" for a better environment: empowering or exploitative?
  • Is gender equality a cultural agenda of the West?
  • Gender in the organisation: "everyone’s and no ones responsibility"?
  • Men taking the lead on gender equality: just another expression of patriarchy (men exercising power) or an opportunity for championing real change?
  • Considering related inequalities (socioeconomic differences, ethnicity, religion, etc.): important or distracting?

The subsequent discussion highlighted that clarifying the meaning is important, understanding the context is crucial, and - clearly defining the level of ambition of gender integration is fundamental (Agnes used a gender continuum tool, from gender blind, to accommodating, to transformative).

We published detailed coverage of the event via Storify.

Key questions addressed at the meeting:

  • Are the narratives on gender and women's equality truly heading for change – or are they defending a status quo?
  • When do change narratives empower, and when do they exploit women and girls?
  • Is women's leadership 'good for the planet'?
  • Is the 'gender agenda' an expression of cultural imperialism?
  • What is the role of men and boys in the push for gender equality?

About the speaker

Agnes Otzelberger is an independent expert and trainer on gender integration in the context of climate change and sustainability. Otzelberger says she is passionate about the potential for transformation – personal and collective – that comes with addressing gender and diversity in the context of sustainable development challenges.

Otzelberger studied political science (BA, Universities of Vienna and Geneva) and development studies (MA, Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex), and has worked mostly as a technical advisor to NGOs (CARE, Action against Hunger), in research (IDS), and advising bilateral co-operation (on secondment to DFID), on gender, climate change and food security.

About the Critical Theme series

IIED has established the Critical Themes seminars to explore new ideas and broaden the knowledge of its staff. The meetings feature a wide range of speakers and topics. 

Our most recent meeting looked at Pollution and social media in China. In February 2015 we focused on links between environmental change and food security. Other Critical Theme meetings have looked at the governance of marine protected areas and the relationship between financial systems and the green economy.