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Gender and Sustainability, Part 2: Challenges to the Glass Ceiling

(The first post in Darlene’s series on gender and sustainability can be found here.)

In my last post, I looked at how studying gender and environment can work together. In this post, I want to touch upon how gender matters and operates within my own life as an environment studies student.

Now, this task can be quite difficult to disentangle. For example, how has identifying as a female influenced my choice to enter environment studies? Or how has it influenced my choice of research topic? Or even how I go about doing my research and how I process information?

It certainly has, I’m sure, as surely as my own upbringing as a second-generation Chinese Canadian did, though I can’t necessarily point to specific incidents.

Looking ahead to the future choices ahead is another way to look at how issues of gender influences my life. For example, what kind of career, occupation or lifestyle would allow a balance between work and home? How would having and raising children differ if I were to be working on international development projects, working in an environmental non-profit organization, or continuing on as an academic?  Should I even want kids as an environmental activist, given the environmental pressures our population is already placing on the earth? Despite my still rather youthful status, issues such as these come to mind.

I say this not because men don’t think about these issues – I’m sure they do. However, I do believe such questions to be a greater dilemma for women who, in most scenarios, continue to be seen as the primary home-caretaker and care-giver. I see this daily, in my female mentors and professors who hold full-time jobs, write and publish articles, teach and mentor students, while simultaneously carrying the expectation of primary household responsibilities. I have taken a course with a  professor, who not only taught while 9 months pregnant, but gave birth and taught the very next week without break.

While I admire her fortitude, I’m not so sure I want that for myself. Gender inequality continues, even in higher education. Though women now outnumber men in enrollment – and degrees, for that matter – there remain some significant inequities. At my own university, a 2011 gender equity report (using 2009 statistics) notes that only 20% of  faculty employed at the Professor level are women. There is almost a $15,000 differential in annual average pay between women and men.  Even after accounting for gender differences in allocation of faculty across departments, differences in experience, and special research allocations, there is still a $3,000 pay differential. Aside from pay, many inequities may be more difficult to quantify: things like inequities in office space, research resources, as well as in a general climate of marginalization. These are sad statistics for a seemingly progressive university which counts itself for being among the best in the world, and I would suggest not out of line with other top universities.

That is, the glass ceiling continues to exist, at multiple levels and in multiple arenas. Taking stock of this, it might seem discouraging.  Equity is a fundamental pillar of social sustainability.  I would argue that a great deal of the crises our world is now facing is a direct result of the lack of female participation and leadership at all levels in society. If we haven’t managed to even achieve the quantitative measures of equity in the institutions in which we are taught,  how can it be expected in the other reaches of society?

To be quite honest, I’m not quite sure what to say in terms of how we might get there, other than it will require a lot more work, and likely some more battles as well.  In fact, issues of gender equity can be characterized as quite similar to sustainability in that a great deal more change – behavioral, institutional, and structural – is required in the process towards each. Both issues can be difficult to talk about and provoke heated exchanges.

To that end, I think it important that gender play an significant role in environmental discussions in the future, both as a point of intersection in research, as I discussed in my last post, and as an issue in our everyday lives.  Simply put, gender matters!

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: December 6, 2011, 12:52 pm Category: Opinions, The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

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