Feminism and sustainable development

by | May 3, 2017 | Climate change and sustainable development | 0 comments

by Sian Donovan

Despite the somewhat pervasive silence around climate change within the discipline of sociology, there is no doubt that the issue of climate change, and consequently sustainable development, is a sociological one. But not only is it a sociological one, it is one that must incorporate the issues of gender within climate change and sustainable development, and the differentiation in the subsequent gendered effects. By no means should the increasingly published work by feminists on gender and climate change and sustainable development be disregarded. However, the lack of research of this kind in mainstream sociological should not go unaddressed.

Brundtland’s popularised definition conceives sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This definition puts together the two concepts of development — traditionally economic and social goals — and sustainability — an ecological goal, to create a new goal of sustainable development. This definition should be inclusive of the needs of every individual in society, without ignoring anyone.

Illuminated in an important piece on feminism and sustainable development, Sherilyn MacGregor’s article ‘A stranger silence still: the need for feminist social research on climate change’ sheds light on the lack of research into gender and climate change, and accordingly the need for gender analysis in any attempts to tackle climate change in a sustainable and sufficient way. MacGregor calls for more ‘feminist-informed sociological research’ into the ways in which climate change discourse is very much gendered, whilst pushing the argument that once the case of gender analysis is addressed, critical social theories can then be further developed for the ‘post-carbon world’ we are living in.

It must not be ignored that in most cases, environmental degradation and climate change impacts the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in society, which includes women. Women’s subordinate position in society makes them more vulnerable to environmental degradation than men. In 1991, 90% of the 140,000 people who died in the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh were women. The domestic role of the private sphere that women have been socialised into means that a woman is most likely to be in the home when a natural disaster hits, and consequently women are most likely to lose their lives or suffer the most extreme consequences of a natural disaster than men. This also includes the considerable increase in domesticity as a result of disasters after they happen, such as having to look after the children more frequently as schools may close. In Enarson’s work Gender and Natural Disasters, it is addressed that ‘damaged living spaces are damaged working spaces for all women.’ Furthermore women are also more likely to go without food in the case of food insecurity, opting to put their children first and provide them with food before themselves. Therefore it can be argued that women, a marginalised and vulnerable group in society, are more deeply impacted by climate change than men. Thus this needs to be formally addressed in environmental decision making and integrated in sustainable development policies.

In September of 2015, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) were implemented. These goals aim to ‘end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda.’ The goals encompass targets that aim to be met over the duration of the next 15 years. The fifth SDG entails, ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.’

However no woman is the same. Women are not one big homogenous group; women have many differences including age, ethnicity, social class, disability and sexuality. Women have differentiated global experiences and these differences must be accounted for in all social and political policies in regards to the environment and sustainable development; one size certainly does not fit all.
It is without any debate that women must continue to empower themselves and each other, speaking out about issues that affect women worldwide as many powerful women have done before so in the past. Women’s contribution to environmental policies and decision making is fundamental in combatting the gendered effects of climate change and also giving women more of a voice in society. With increasing the power of women in society, fundamentally important steps can be taken towards gender equality.


Baker, S. (2016) Sustainable Development, Chapter 2: ‘The Concept of Sustainable Development’. London: Routledge
Enarson, E. (2000) ‘Gender and Natural Disasters’, Employment Working Paper 1, ILO
MacGregor, S. (2010) ‘A stranger silence still: the need for feminist social research on climate change’, The Sociological Review, 57 (2), 124-140.


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