People brainstorming ideas at a table
SEI Science Forum in Bangkok, 1 June 2017. Photo credit: SEI Asia.

SEI’s researchers have been engaging with issues of gender equality and social equity in their research and policy work on development. It is clear that integrating GSE in research and policy work enables a better analysis of who benefits and who is left out.

Environmental impacts affect different social groups in different ways: women and men, rich and poor, ethnic, race and age groups. And often, technical responses to these impacts may also inadvertently deepen these inequalities.

However, researchers are also aware that their engagement on gender equality and social equity can come across as piece-meal, or faces various constraints in research projects. Thus focused, sustained and explicit connections are not always possible.

How can researchers then better integrate GSE in their work? What kinds of successful examples are there, and what kinds of challenges do they face? At the SEI Science Forum in Bangkok in June, SEI researchers shared their perspectives on these questions.

A number of SEI Initiatives are trying to make more compelling cases on social equity issues.

Providing solutions to environmental problems can impinge on social equity. SEI’s project on manure management and community bio-digesters in Bangladesh provoked tensions between balancing environmental aims with social equity aims. This is because sometimes solutions may address one but not the other. We therefore need to better understand the possible tradeoffs between environment interventions and social equity, and attempt to find ways to correct across-the-board adverse effects.

Social inequity can also exist at different scales, and not only confined to gender-based inequalities. The SEI project SEI project tackling loss in post-harvest income of mango farmers initially planned to focus on women. But during the course of the project, the team identified various other problems which were more serious than inequality between women and men, for instance, lack of agency for all farmers, and the power of the private sector over the farmers. When the project was trapped in the binary of women and men at the household level, social equity analysis helped bring out issues of overlapping inequalities (class, gender, ethnicity), usually referred to as intersectionality. While farmers were disadvantaged as a group, within that group, some felt the disadvantage more keenly than others. Social differences such as gender, class, ethnicity, race, age are tightly entangled, and may lead to complex forms of disadvantage and privilege.

SEI’s work on climate change and fossil fuels has grappled with the issue of how women can access information about development projects and its potential impacts; a participatory framework for gender-equal engagement with users of climate services is being developed. This also reveals how research needs to address vulnerable groups at multiple levels of governance, for example, to achieve equitable climate resilience.

Going green does not automatically lead to equitable outcomes. For example, while the gender wage gap has been a long-standing concern since the 1970s, what makes it compelling today is examining it in the context of the greening of the economy.  SEI research needs to explore the gender pay gap concern more in-depth, for example, looking at women’s pay in specific sectors such as forestry and agriculture, to obtain richer, more detailed stories of the gender pay gap issues. This in turn can help inform, and initiate, changes in policy. SEI Tallinn’s ongoing work on the gender pay gap in the bioeconomy sectors is a good case in point.

Similarly, research on air pollution with social equity perspective is informing who is impacted by air pollution as mediated by other factors like location, class, age, etc., and the disproportionate health impacts on poor rural women from fuelwood emissions.

For instance, as countries try to move away from fossil fuels, it is also important to look at what this transition means for marginalized communities who still depend on fossil fuels (such as coal miners). The transition can intersect with, and worsen, existing social inequities in households that rely on fossil fuel subsidies, for example, with particular implications on girls and women.

GSE offers a valuable framework for research analysis, such as GSE in political economy/political ecology analysis within some of the SEI Initiatives.

The key to the SEI framing is the notion of fairness. SEI work needs to build on, and use the inherent human bias towards, fairness and equity to create greater buy-in for gender equality and social equity issues. But even as we look outside to implement reforms, it is also important to bring change within: SEI needs to develop best practices within the organization itself.

Much more can be done to integrate and nuance intersectionality dimensions of GSE in SEI’s work and better inform policymakers. The discussions at the SEI Science Forum in Bangkok have helped to lay the foundation for going further.