Rowan Fraser

‘The problem with stereotypes,’ said novelist Chimamanda Adichie in a powerful TED talk, ‘is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.’  This incompleteness is dangerous, according to Adichie, because it leads to one-sided views which deny complex realities.

Gender stereotyping seems to be a favourite and relatively constant pastime of human communities.  And while contemporary re-evaluations of gender differences and the associated norms have lead to many benefits, gender stereotyping persists throughout much of pop culture – indeed, some argue it has increased.

Within the field of climate change, gender perspectives have been introduced and taken up by climate change researchers ranging  from crop and seed research to urban infrastructure analysis.  These have yielded a more nuanced view of how climate change affects women and men differently.  However, in a field prone to implication, gender perspectives have also generated stereotypes which are in need of revision.

Social and economic inequalities

But before we get to the stereotypes, the social and economic inequities which women are subject to must be recognized.  These inequalities lead to vulnerabilities, and it’s the  different vulnerability profiles of women and men that give rise to the stereotypes.

‘The issue of climate change is that it exacerbates vulnerabilities,’ says Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar, Practice Lead at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, and consultant to the International Panel of Climate Change.  We’re discussing some of the prevalent stereotypes and the reasons for them.  Gajjar is part of a team looking at climate change in India and one of her focus areas is the climate change – gender nexus.

‘It aggravates certain negative trends’ Gajjar says.  ‘As a woman in India, I earn less than men, and I have a greater social burden,’ she says.  Women in many countries have reduced access to certain resources which are extremely useful before, during and after disaster events.  Such resources include information and knowledge regarding hazards, properties and materials for coping with disaster events, as well as broader resources such as income, livelihoods and rights.

‘Vulnerability is occupational,’ says Gajjar, ‘so it is closely linked to resources.’  And this means that urban women and rural women confront different types of vulnerabilities to climate change and natural hazards.  In particular, in urban areas, Gajjar considers heath facilities and basic services to be most important for reducing the vulnerabilities of women. ‘Poor urban women benefit greatly from increased basic services,’ she says.

Women are either victims or heroines

These inequalities have given rise to stereotypes within the climate change literature which don’t, it would seem to me, do much to help address the problem.

This was emphatically demonstrated in a 2011 article  by climate change academic Seema Orora-Jonsson.  The author analyzed a ton climate change literature (reports, project documentation, interviews, organizational communications etc.) and found that two stereotypes dominate the field: women as either victims or heroines of climate change.

‘Its true that these stereotypes are getting a bit exhausting now,’ Gajjar says during our talk.

Of the two stereotypes, that of women as victims of climate change seems the most common.  This view comes supported by what seem to be false or pseudo-statistics such as ‘women are 14 times more like to die from disaster than men.’  Another statistic is that ‘70 per cent of the poor are women’ and because vulnerability is closely linked to poverty, such a statistic means that women more vulnerable.

However, Orora-Jonsson considers these arguments ‘unconvincing’ and, essentially false.  She says they are based on anecdotal information and that there is not sufficient data to make these claims – especially at a global level.  Because the data behind these statistics is unreliable, she views the resultant stereotypes as fallacious.  She claims that without statistical backing these types of arguments damage the credibility of gender studies and mask broader issues of gender relations, inequality and power by reducing complex realities to simple sloganized stereotypes.

Another researcher, Bambika Basnett, agrees.  According to her, the premise that women are victims of climate change ‘rests on tenuous assumptions and weak empirical evidence.’

‘In a way, it’s welcome that women are being discussed in the climate-change area,’ Basnett said at a conference in Delhi in Feb. 2014. ‘But when you look at the assumptions that the discussions are based on, they are wrong. They can lead to negative outcomes.’

Basnett has traced, for example, the origins of the ‘statistic’ that women are 14 times more likely to die from disaster than men.  She found that it was first proposed as anecdotal during a workshop on natural hazards in 1994 – and seems to have been accepted as true since then.

Promoting women’s resilience

What to do about these stereotypes?  Some options could include:

Improved gender-based research into urban resilience

There is a need for improved research into how women are actually dealing and coping with climate change, especially in urban areas. This research should focus on experiences on the ground, in actual communities, as opposed to global-level statistical extrapolations (which seems to be part of the problem).  For example, what are the roles women are playing in dealing with climate change and disasters – from preparedness through to response and reconstruction in our cities?

Increased attention to the resilience of women

I’m going out on a limb here, but there have been studies looking at the emotional intelligence of women and men which have found that women tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence – although this is also being contested.  While emotional intelligence and strength cannot clear mud or flood water from the house, can hold a family together and provide incredible support to communities during and following disaster events.  Are we overlooking, or undervaluing, these sorts of capacities (in favour of income, decision-making powers etc.) when considering resilience and capacity?

Promotion of women as leaders of urban climate change adaptation and resilience

There are too few examples of women leading climate change and urban resilience initiatives. Why is this?  It cannot simply be because women are not playing these roles. There should be more attention on how women participate in climate change adaptation and resilience building.  We need to showcase good practices.  How do resourceful urban women solve problems linked to climate change?  How do they provide leadership within communities and how can these examples be promoted, replicated and scaled up?

I’m sure there are other options which need to be explored to promote women’s resilience.  But stereotyping women as victims of climate change, it would seem to me, does more to entrench inequalities that it will do to alleviate them.

Banner by Biswarup Ganguly

Photo 1 by Gender Global Governance

Photo 2 by Anil Gulati

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Categories: Gender, Governance, Inequality, Livelihoods, Resilience, Safety and Security