Gender equality in Asia still remains unsatisfactory, where women still face deep-rooted structural inequalities and discriminatory gender stereotypes. It continues to limit women’s full and equal participation in the social, economic and political sphere.  

To reduce poverty, build resilience and, ultimately, achieve sustainability, environmental researchers like us must consciously look into our own initiatives and ask ourselves if we meaningfully integrate gender approaches in our operations, project planning, design, and implementation.  

In SEI Asia, applying a gender and social equality perspective to environment and development initiatives is not just the work of one team or research cluster. On International Women’s Day, we ask researchers working on different thematic areas across the region on how they #ChooseToChallenge themselves when it comes to gender equality. 

1. How is SEI Asia supporting women in breaking the glass ceiling when it comes to environmental and policy research?

Niall O’Connor (Asia Centre Director): SEI Gender and Equity policy, which covers non-discrimination, equal opportunity, and human rights, helps us steer the Asia Centre in the right direction. We have inclusive recruitment panels, ensuring gender balance and regional coverage, to choose the best candidates for the roles. At present, we have far more women, in key areas of management, research and administration in SEI Asia than men. We have a meritbased promotion process, in which candidates based on their capacity, competence and delivery get promoted. Women in the office continue to be promoted to lead teams, lead our two largest projects, and are in real positions of authority such as Deputy Director, Head of Operations, and heads of Research Cluster Teams andHuman Resources.    

We proactively encourage our team to get involved in external panels and push the boundaries – for example, some external workshops may prefer an older man to speak, but we request to send a young qualified, talented woman to represent the Centre. 

2. How is the Centre pushing for a gender equal world? 

Niall: In our research, we promote an inclusive view, ensuring all people are heard regardless of gender, ethnicity, or age because we need a diversity of minds reviewing the issues and suggesting solutions. We coproduce knowledge by working with all stakeholders to ensure that women and all nonbinary people are heard, and voices and opinions integrated as best we can. 

Our gender and development team reviews key projects from the Centre to ensure they have integrated approaches to gender equality. They help other researchers and even external partner organizations in building their knowledge and capacity around gender and rights-based approaches and reflect these in our research products and policy impacts. 

Photo: Albert Salamanca / SEI

3. How have you integrated a gender equality approach in your cluster’s work? 

Diane Archer and Jaee Nikam (Urban): Given the importance of addressing gender equality for a more inclusive urban future, all of our projects take a gender lens. For example, we look at the impacts and costs of air pollution on the working lives and opportunities of women, youth and marginalized populations in Asian countries to identify evidence-based policy options from regional case studies and improve the quality of employment in a context of poor air quality.  

We’re also conducting research on the role of informal waste workers in enabling recycling in Bangkok, as well as assessing household patterns of waste generation. In analyzing the data, we are examining differences in the working life of male and female informal waste workers, for example in terms of the health challenges they face, safety and security, and income.

Leonie Pearson (Water): In the water cluster in SEI Asia, women make up six out of nine in our group – so we know the importance, significance and critical lack of voice women have had in water work to date. Therefore, the work we do, and how we do it, all has a lens of gender, equity and inclusion. For example, we work in research teams that specifically seek to understand how women use water in different ways to men in rural and urban settings.  

Uttam Ghimire (Water): Similarly, the research conducted by our cluster also acknowledges gender representation, for example by balancing the ratio of male and female survey responders, encouraging applications from female candidates for any vacant position within the cluster and integrating gender, societal equity and poverty components in our research. 

Philippe Doneys and Jenny Yi-Chen Han (Gender, Environment and Development): Being a cluster focused on gender and social equity, all of our activities have to be conducted using a gender equality lens. But that goes beyond our own cluster, as we can help and support other clusters and the Centre as a whole to integrate a gender equality approach in all activities.  

We take an active part in other clusters’ projects, and we also have other clusters involved in gender, environment and development activities. It also means ensuring that the different components or stages of research are done in a gender sensitive and responsive manner. This would include adding a gender lens to a research problem and to the analysis, but also in the research process itself, in terms of data collection, research capacity and representation of women and minorities, gender-sensitive methods in gathering data (both the process and tools chosen), as well as choice of respondents and how they are included in the research.  

Finally, it means addressing the policy agenda in ways that can generate gender equality solutions based in concrete evidence. However, we always look at how gender can intersect with other forms of social differentiations or characteristics, in ways that can compound effects but also in ways that may be unexpected. Gender is nuanced, complex, and contextually dependent, which is why our work on gender always use an intersectional lens. 

Minh Tran (Climate Change, Disaster and Development): In addition to recognizing the challenges posed by the intersection of gender and other socio-economic identities and gender-balance representation in research, our climate change and disaster work also sees women and girls and people of all genders and sexual orientations as active change-makers. For example, we seek to understand the role of girls and young women in tackling health risks and impacts of climate change in low and middleincome countries, and the agency and capacity of women in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent natural hazards. 

Albert Salamanca (Climate Change, Disaster and Development): We seek to approach gender equality in its truest meaning. That is, gender covers a number of identities including sexual orientation. This means that we treat gender as identities beyond straight men and women so that we challenge heteronormativity in development. We would like to understand how gender identities intersect with societal structures such as age, race, class, location, caste and migration status, and how such understanding could make our work truly emancipatory and liberating for many kinds of people including gender and sexual minorities. With this view in mind, we have been critical of the usual gender studies and we would like to push our inquiry towards gender+. This year, we have supported the first regional gathering among non-normative genders and sexualities, or what would be defined in western societies as LGBTQI+.  We have listened to their voices and concerns and provided them with a platform to be heard in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction research and policy arenas. 

Michael Boyland (Climate Change, Disaster and Development): Our work is focused on how people experience disasters and climate change impacts differently, and why we face different levels of risk because of our gender, age, (dis)ability and other socio-economic factors that intersect with gender to shape vulnerability. We hope our research and policy engagements demonstrate that disasters are not natural, and that action to address risks must directly face the man-made factors that produce and distribute risks in unequal and unjust ways. 

Kuntum Melati (Policy): As part of the policy cluster, our focus is to influence policy processes through strategic engagement. When we are talking about policy processes, gender mainstreaming should be the core of our work. We integrated gender perspectives together with rights-based approaches in designing, implementing, and analysis of policy frameworks. For example, when we reach out to stakeholders and decision makers, we need to ensure not only a fair representation (beyond numbers) but also inclusivity (taking into account intersectionality). For example, in our event Sustaining Family Farming in Asia, we support women smallholders farmers and disadvantaged and minority groups to voice their concerns through policy dialogue on food and nutrition security, poverty reduction and sustainable agriculture. Farmers who mostly are from disadvantaged groups, indigenous communities, womenheaded households, and minorities should be placed in the center for policy and decision making.   

Clemens Grunbuhel (Policy): Policy dialogue and stakeholder engagement require a focus on power sharing, equal representation and empowerment. Our mandate in SEI ensures that our research and policy advice comes from a feminist standpoint and issues of equity and structural inequality are systematically addressed. Our research helps us understand structural, institutional, and culturally ingrained inequalities and it is done with a view to empower the marginalized and create transparent and participatory decision processes. Beyond mainstreaming, we target gender issues, such as the feminization of farming, informal work, and rights over natural resource use. We do this to bring these issues to the forefront of policy discussions and to highlight that both environmental conservation as well as sustainable development can only occur with the full participation of everyone in society. 

4. Why do you think that a focus on gender equality is necessary in our research work?

Leonie: We want to go bigger than gender being equal – we want people equity. It’s the intersection of gender and other socially derived attributes, especially poor or ethnic minorities that is critical. The question about why is obvious – to date, allocation of water across people has been unequal. If you have a big voice, power, or were deemed important you would have the most water, and yet by 2030, half of the world is expected to be living in water‐stressed conditions so with unequal water access now, minorities, powerless and voiceless will need to be waterless. 

As the share of the world’s population living in urban areas continues to grow, we need to ensure that these urban areas are inclusive and leave no one behind. This means addressing challenges such as pay gaps between women and men, gendered vulnerability to air and water pollution and climate change impacts. Therefore, when focusing on inclusivity and equity, gender needs to be taken into account. 

Philippe and Jenny: For us, including a gender equality approach is common sense if we want to address development and environmental challenges in contexts where women and minorities are given less access to governance and decision-making power; doing work without a gender lens would undermine our own objectives as an institution working towards transformational change. This is true in terms of the research process itself (including methodology), and in terms of issues we are trying to address through research. This is also why our cluster takes an approach that places power, through rights, participation and governance, at the centre of our examination of vulnerability and marginalization, something that COVID-19 has revealed even further; that social exclusions have deep and longterm impacts that not only undermine gender equality, development and well-being but also remove the ability of those who are socially excluded to respond and address challenges that affect their lives. Our activities on, and with, women environmental human rights defenders are an example of our work to place power at the centre of our examination of gender and the environment. 

Minh: A focus on gender equality ensures that climate action and disaster resilience are inclusive and equitable. For people who are at a disadvantage because of their gender and other socio-economic identities, the impacts of floods, droughts, and other climate impacts can be worsened. Gender inequality and climate change impacts place double burden on such groups.  

Albert: If we believe that human rights are universal, then the right to life and dignity of everyone including those placed in minority positions in society should be respected and should be allowed to flourish. Their dreams and aspirations should be supported and fulfilled. 

Kuntum: We are committed to gender equality as one of our goals in every project. By focusing and integrating gender dimensions into our work, we ensure accountability and gain a broader and more comprehensive perspective – acknowledging and understanding data, issues, challenges, and knowledge from various perspectives. In influencing the global sustainability agenda, it is crucial to base recommendations on inclusive decisions with a view towards development for all.

Video: Kade Thossaphonpaisan / SEI

5. How would you like to incorporate gender and social equality into your work in the future?

Leonie: We are looking to make sure that wider issues of social equity are core to our delivery. Creating space in work to consider not only allocation of water at a mass scale (i.e. at the community scale) but also at a disaggregated scale to think about which groups get more or less access to water. We are seeing if technology can help us achieve this, for example using traditional hydro morphology tools but with gender data and disaggregated spatial scales to inform policymakers. We are also upskilling our work in stakeholder engagement, using analysis like social networks to help water managers on the ground understand who has power and hopefully shift the balance to water allocation that is more equal for all. 

Diane and Jaee: Addressing social and gender issues in all our research projects is integrated in the SEI global strategy. In the urban cluster, we intend to follow this strategy by continuing to ensure our projects all consider gender and social issues, including inequalities faced by those living and operating in the informal sector. 

Uttam: Generally, the majority of the research or social studies conducted in the past using surveys interacted with the male population because they were seen as involved in the household economy and the heads of families in rural settings. Women, involved in household work and subsistence activities were not fairly represented and the impacts of any disaster were not studied with a focus on the underrepresented parts of society. There is a need to study the impacts of different scenarios on women, children and the old and the poor, because they are more vulnerable to any given disaster. There have been some studies which revealed that many women and girls from Africa could not attend schools as they had to haul water over longer distances during the drought season. Such inequalities are likely to increase in future under the changing climate.   

Philippe and Jenny: We will continue what we are doing, but also learn from COVID-19, as well as the implications of global political trajectories (e.g. rising nationalism and political uncertainties in the region). As mentioned earlier that means that if we want to achieve gender equality or better development, it cannot be done without addressing the root causes of social exclusion or without providing means of response to those who are socially excluded. We want to build and expand on our work on women environmental human rights defenders, for instance, and address power inequities in climate change response and decision-making. We are also trying to expand how gender is understood in environment research, including more focus on gender relations, a better understanding of how masculinities play a role in the linkages between gender and the environment, as well as explore gender though SOGI populations (sexual orientation and gender identity). Finally, it means combining research work with capacity building and facilitation of local organizations working on gender equality and social inclusion. This is where SEI can contribute to a more sustainable response. 

6. How can we better raise awareness against gender bias?What concrete actions can we take to push for equality in Asia?

Niall: Despite progress, gender bias is still a persistent reality in many areas of our societies: whether in some of our homes, our offices, or within government or in the private sector. We need to first be sensitive and aware of this persistent bias, and to challenge our own entrenched biases in order to inspire and elicit change from others. Leading by example remains key.  

We must also acknowledge that participation does not equal change. For gender equality to become a reality, we must move from nominal participation (where people think it’s enough to just have a group of women answering our questions) towards transformative and empowering participation, where women have a real power over the decisions that influence their lives.  

Social inequality is one of the greatest challenges our world faces today. So concrete actions that we can take are to provide platforms for those most marginalized to be able to voice their concerns to circles of power that we, through our research to policy work, have access to, but that the majority of those who battle for socio-environmental justice every day, may not. 

An example of how we are doing this is through our research to policy work on environmental defenders in the region. More generally, we must ensure that each piece of research work we do (whether it be on water, urban issues, migration, policy, air quality, etc.) also contributes to a better awareness and evidencebased knowledge on both the factors that make inequalities a persistent reality, as well as on the actions that are needed to transform them.