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Studying Gender and Sustainability: Part 1

As a female student interested in all kinds of social justice and sustainability issues, I wanted to take the time here to talk about the particular ways in which gender can play a role for a student of sustainability. Given that this could be a pretty big subject area, I’ve decided to split this up into two broad topics: looking at gender as a concern in environment-related research (which I shall discuss here), and as a concern for students in their academic careers (which I shall take on in my next post).

Gender is of course, a fluid and socially constructed term, although for the purposes of the current post, I’m going to focus on the general female-male dichotomy. Gender, to start with,  is a particular locus for inequality and social difference in environmental politics and studies.  Ec0-feminism is one large strand of research that combines gender and sustainability studies. One of the arguments in eco-feminism examines how women become associated with “natural” or even “primitive” scenes, whereas men become associated with “culture,” and accordingly, as progressive and dominant over nature, and thereby, women. The argument, in practice, is not as dualistic as this may sound–social inequality exists for both men and women. Nonetheless, the argument and connection stand: women, as a marginalized group, are disproportionately burdened as victims of environmental devastation, and the history of environmental degradation and the oppression of women are linked at numerous intersections.

Furthermore, the way we associate gender with different physical or emotional traits, or forms and types of labour, often results in differing outcomes between men and women in a variety of ways. There are often both formal and informal mechanisms which operate to enforce asymmetrical gender access to resources. In North America, we might  think of management positions or pay equity, while in other circumstances, it might be in terms of land ownership, water rights, or food access. Identifying how perceptions of gender can operate in particular situations–and may result in different outcomes for persons of different genders–is an important part of sustainability. For example, Susan Hanson is one author who has written about how gender and sustainability intersect. In her 2010 article “Gender and mobility: new approaches for informing sustainability” she examines how gender differences in mobility (given that women travel shorter distances, use the car less and public transport more) can affect sustainable transportation decisions.

To better illustrate this, I thought I might give a brief sketch of a couple individuals in my department who are particularly interested in the intersection of these fields:

Danika Kleiber is a fellow Resource Management and Environment Studies (RMES) student at UBC. A self described feminist biologist, she received her BSc from Tufts University, where she undertook a double major in biology and women’s studies, and a MSc from the Department of Forestry at UBC.  Currently, Danika is doing her field work in the Philippines, where she is looking at issues of gender in marine-protected areas (MPAs). More specifically, she is examining how gender roles influence what is considered ‘fishing’, and how overlooking certain marine resource extraction methods (predominantly used by women and children but also increasingly by men as well) can undermine effective and equable marine management and conservation.

Leila Harris, is a professor of mine, with dual appointments in IRES and the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies at UBC.  Much of her work focuses environmental (particularly water) issues as they intersect with gender or ethnicity, or connections to environmental justice, difference and inequality more generally. For example, part of Leila’s research has been focused in Turkey, where she examined how the changing water resource system along the Tigris Euphrates basin affected resource access, management and knowledge between men and women, particularly, but also with respect to the Kurdish and Arabic speaking minority populations in the region.

To provide one example, the onset of access to irrigation water has changed not only the primary crop grown–from wheat, barley and other pulses  to cotton–but also shifted divisions of labour between men and women. Where women were once the primary caretakers of  wheat, as well as the herders of sheep and goats and animal products for household use, their roles have shifted with the tremendous labour needs for the cotton harvest. So while women now participate extensively in the cotton harvest, men have taken on new roles in cotton marketing and sales due to the crop shift, resulting in new narratives about the contributions of men and women to the household. With the more indirect contributions of women now to household needs, there is now the suggestion that women no longer work and just ‘sit’ while men are providing for household needs since they engage in market transactions and bring home cash from the sale of cotton.

The research of these two women are excellent examples of how environment and gender studies co-exist and complement each other, and why considering issues of gender is important for all students of environment or sustainability.  It’s an issue I hope that gets further taken up, both in our studies and in our everyday life as students and professors–given that gender inequality is still a problem in academia, as elsewhere, an issue I shall address in my next post. Stay tuned for more!

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: November 17, 2011, 11:07 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , ,

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Gender and Sustainability, Part 2: Challenges to the Glass Ceiling – Getting to GREENR linked to this post on December 6, 2011

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

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