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March 8, 2023

How to close the sustainability gender gap

Climate disruption impacts more women than men, globally. The tech industry can help rebalance the sustainability gender equation.

Environmental disruption will ultimately impact us all—but already, the effects are unequally dispersed. Women, despite representing half the planet’s population, are disproportionately impacted by environmental challenges, from climate change, to water scarcity, to pollution, to resource degradation and depletion.

As we mark this year’s World International Women’s Day, themed, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,” it’s time to recognize that one of the biggest challenges of our time—the environment—is not a gender-neutral one. For the technology industry, it’s crucial to consider the gendered nature of the digital solutions we design and implement, particularly those aimed at sustainability.

Tech companies also have an essential role to play in boosting women’s participation in developing environmental solutions, which—in the end—is essential to achieving global sustainability.

What’s driving the gender imbalance

Through the years, women have made significant contributions to solving environmental challenges. From Silent Spring’s Rachel Carson, to renowned whistleblower Erin Brockovich, to Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai, to today’s best known environmental activist Greta Thunberg, women have historically been outspoken environmental advocates.

Despite their immense contributions, women’s role in environmentalism continues to be undermined due, in large part, to gender inequalities. The biggest drivers of this imbalance span three key areas: the division of labor, resource access and control, and strategic decision making.

  • Uneven division of labor. Globally, the largest demographic in the fields of informal work and unpaid care is women; some estimates show women spend 2.6 times more time on unpaid care than men. This means that when natural disasters or climate catastrophes strike or are impending, women are less able to leave the impacted area to seek an alternative livelihood.

    For instance, in the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, 1.5 times more women lost their lives than men. Similarly, 80% of those left to fend for themselves during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans were women, despite their representing 54% of the city’s population.

    In rural areas of developing economies, women rely on natural resources to provide for their families, whether walking long distances to collect water, fodder and fuel, or relying on environmentally dependent practices like rainfed farming. This makes women particularly vulnerable when such resources diminish due to environmental change. It’s not unusual for young girls to be pulled out of school to help their mothers, thus interrupting their educational pursuits and damaging their economic prospects.

  • Access and control over resources, finances and opportunities. Globally, women have lower access to, control over and ownership of resources that are essential to dealing with environmental disasters: natural resources, technology, information, education, finances and assets. When it comes to property and home ownership, less than 15% of all landholders globally are women, which translates to limited decision-making power on issues like productivity improvements or changing to alternative energy sources.

    Because women also have relatively lower access to technology resources like the internet and smartphones, they are less likely than legal property owners to get vital weather information. According to the International Telecommunication Union, more than 50% of women do not use the internet compared with 31% of men.

    Lack of property ownership also prevents women from accessing credit sources, which are often pegged to asset collateral; for example, women receive only 2.3% of startup funding and less than 30% of climate funds. The global gender pay gap further limits women’s ability to afford and adopt climate solutions.

  • Representation in strategic decision-making. Whether in business, government or civic settings, women are often under-represented in decision-making forums. In the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, for example, there was a public outcry about the lack of women in the conference negotiation forums, where they represented just 27% of the delegates. Only 32% of the authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are women, which can result in their insights being excluded from shaping the environmental policies.

    This under-representation is mirrored in many corporate settings, including in energy and sustainability roles. At the same time, research shows that women have contributed valuable insights on combating environmental change.

Bringing women into the climate solution

Because the tech industry is a key part of developing solutions to environmental challenges, it’s incumbent on tech companies to close the sustainability gender gap. They can do this by:

  • Taking a gender-responsive approach to innovation and technology. Tech companies need to ensure their project teams are gender diverse and that they use inclusive design principles that focus on actual end-user needs and contexts when creating digital solutions. For example, companies developing digital agricultural solutions for rural regions should consider women’s potentially lower tech literacy levels in their design.

    Establishing gender-diverse project teams may be challenging due to the gender gap in STEM fields. Companies should use their internal workforce data to understand why— despite young women outperforming young men in STEM education—women are under-represented in STEM professions. Analysis of data such as gender-disaggregated longitudinal data on recruitment, number of applicants, promotion ratios, retention at the one, three- and five-years mark, and family-friendly benefits can help businesses better understand what pushes women out and how they can retain and advance them.

  • Supporting organizations that support women in STEM. Technology companies can also direct their corporate social responsibility efforts toward helping to improve girls’ and women’s digital literacy, by providing technical upskilling and education.

    Through its support of Girlstart and other organizations that support women in STEM, Cognizant Foundation has helped more than 150,000 girls increase their interest in and aptitude for STEM careers through afterschool programs. Cognizant Outreach is also involved in driving digital inclusion across several demographic sectors.

  • Collaborating with gender-equality advocates. Through collaborative efforts between tech companies and gender-equality advocates, digital solutions can be developed to tackle both environmental challenges and gender inequality. Digital solutions can be developed to model and predict the spread of specific gendered impacts of climate change.

    By collecting, processing and visualizing data on gender-specific resource utilization like energy use, travel patterns, displacement during environmental disasters and use of digital interventions, tech companies may help answer novel questions in a timely and granular way.

Businesses need to see gender equality as not just a reporting requirement or a stand-alone goal but as a crucial component of achieving overall sustainability. The tech industry is in a key position to help the world recognize—and rebalance—the sustainability gender equation.

Eunice Wangari Muneri
Sustainability Solutions Manager
Digitally Cognizant author Eunice Wangari Muneri

Eunice Wangari Muneri is a Sustainability Solutions Manager at Cognizant, focused on ESG reporting, green finance and environmental impact assessments. In addition to her vast experience, she is completing her Ph.D. in Environmental Change.

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