A child stands among turbines at the Salkhit Wind Farm in Mongolia. Photo: Peter Erickson / SEI.

More than one hundred years after Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, women are still a minority in science, representing less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers. To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, five SEI researchers talk about their research and the interconnections between gender, development and the environment.

A gender lens can unpack how resources are controlled and power is distributed, and whether technologies and development interventions reproduce or reduce gender and social inequalities.

  • Q

    What are some of the misconceptions you’ve encountered at the intersection of gender, development and the environment?

    A

    Babette: A common misconception is that research in this area is only about understanding women and their needs. But it’s not just about women. A gender lens can unpack how resources are controlled and power is distributed, and whether and how novel technologies and development interventions inadvertently reproduce or reduce gender and social inequalities. It can also reveal how people – groups of women and men – are able to respond to development and change, and the political, economic and cultural barriers that constrain effective and inclusive responses that lead to well-being. By studying gender we are able to uncover other systems of power, based on ethnicity, class, age or race that continue to drive inequalities.

    Lisa: My research, which has largely been on the vulnerability of different communities in Central and Latin America, has taught me that poverty and gender are not always connected. But when they are, the reasons are highly context dependent. Specific cultural norms and values, such as restrictions on moving away from family and community, influence the division of labour. This may result in men being part of the labour market and women working more with household tasks. And norms seem to create ripple effects: they can influence access to and control over resources, such as land, and this in turn affects your chances of getting credit that can improve livelihoods.

    Cassilde: Some people might assume that the benefits of technology are gender blind. However, my research on a solar mini-grid in rural northern Zambia found that the transition to more modern energy services is far from gender neutral. Despite providing broad benefits within the community, the benefits derived from this new technology and services were not evenly distributed between men and women due to broader socio-cultural practices and norms. In the absence of parallel interventions in women’s empowerment, it is likely that only those who are already in positions of relative socio-economic wealth and power will be able to take full advantage of new energy technologies and services.

In the absence of interventions in women’s empowerment, it is likely that only those who are already in positions of relative socio-economic wealth and power will be able to take full advantage of new energy technologies and services.

  • Q

    What role can participatory processes play in empowering women?

    A

    Ivonne: Although women’s involvement in participatory processes may look good on paper, their effective participation relies on strengthening women’s rights. Giving women more access to productive resources for example will allow them to be effectively part of decision making processes. Take for instance how rural women are particularly affected by forest loss. Rural women often depend on forests for fuel, fodder and food. Deforestation means spending several hours each day walking long distances to secure these needs. Their limited ownership of land reduces their capacity to adapt to losses or to make decisions about how land is used.

    Laura: It’s true that rights matter – provided they can be exercised! I’ve been working in Marquina, Bolivia, where some women own water rights because men have migrated, often to find work. However, decisions made about those rights, and how the water is distributed, are made without the active participation of these women. This is a reality often missed out in typical watershed models – so we built a new one! By combining information on inequalities in water supply, vulnerable groups in the community and gender, we could see that the challenges women face relate to a lack of agency to exercise those water rights. In this case, the data about gender and vulnerability is an important component in the effective participation of women in water planning decisions and to avoiding decisions that reinforce inequalities.

    Cassilde: At SEI Africa, our programme on Sustainable Urbanization has mapped out the involvement of women in urban planning processes. We’ve discovered that women are involved at all stages of sustainable urban planning in Africa. As researchers, women inform urban development and policy formulation. They are decision-makers holding office in government and practitioners that lead civil society organizations in projects that improve the living conditions and livelihoods of urban dwellers.

Although women’s involvement in participatory processes may look good on paper, their effective participation relies on strengthening women’s rights.

  • Q

    What initiatives regarding women or gender have particularly inspired you?

    A

    Ivonne: From the gender pay gap to #MeToo, women are increasingly making their voices heard. I am particularly inspired by the thinking around intersectional feminism, where the focus on inequalities goes beyond gender but considers its interplay with other contextual characteristics such as ethnicity, class, geography, disability and sexuality.

    Cassilde: I’ve been particularly inspired by the Women in Transport programme led by our partner Flone Initiative, a women’s organization based in Kiambu County, Kenya. They are addressing the issues affecting women in public transportation. Women are under-represented in the urban public transport sector in Nairobi and are often victim of harassment and assaults. The program aims to attract, retain and promote women in the transport industry and provides them with skills and support to achieve a safe and lucrative working environment.

    Laura: SEI’s Gender and Social Equality (GSE) program has really inspired me. As a woman working on technical, data driven projects, and through interactions with partners in many parts of the world, I’m very aware of gender-relatedchallenges on environment and development. I’ve seen at first-hand the barriers to participation of women in decision-makinginstitutions, the lack of tools to address inequalities in water access and the impacts of inequalityon women and girls. Working with the GSE program led to wonderful things in our water research: a guidance document on how to mainstream gender and social equality in technical models; a gender tutorial to ensure that the time women spend in collecting water is captured in the WEAP model; and a pilot study based on a small community in Bolivia.

    I’m also very inspired by many female role models at SEI who truly support the growth of young researchers in SEI, people like Marisa Escobar, Annette Huber-Lee, Babette Resurección, and Madeleine Fogde.