Europe’s green transition must not sideline women

The European Green Deal continues to marginalise women, especially those from minority backgrounds. The EU must integrate an intersectional feminist approach into its green transition, write Nadège Lharaig and Katy Wiese.

Since the beginning of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s term in December 2019, both gender equality and environmental action have been high up on the agenda, though the intersections and overlaps between them have been poorly explored. 

On the one hand, the Commission introduced the European Green Deal in December 2019, the most ambitious environmental strategy to date in the EU. On the other hand, a year ago, it released the EU Gender Equality Strategy. In addition, it pushed for near gender parity at the Commission and a representation of women at the European Parliament above the international and EU averages for national parliaments. 

While it has been encouraging to see more attention and action in these disparate areas, the gender-environment nexus is still very much absent in EU policymaking. For example, the European Green Deal and its sectoral policies are not based on any gender analysis, nor does it contain gender indicators.

Despite scientific evidence for gender differences in energy consumption, gender is not reflected in neither the national climate and energy plans nor in the EU’s proposed Climate Law. The Just Transition Mechanism, which aims to leave no-one behind during the shift towards sustainability, mainly addresses geographical inequalities via reskilling schemes and funding for workers in coal regions that might have to change career paths to more sustainable ones. The Gender Equality Strategy acknowledges the link between gender and environmental policies but does not entail any concrete actions. 

Built-in bias

Why does it matter, you may ask? 

Let’s examine a concrete example. The energy sector and other sectors that will benefit from the transition enjoy a tremendous potential to create employment. The green transition is expected to create an additional 1.2 million jobs in Europe over the next two decades alone. But who will benefit from these green jobs? 

The renewable energy sector in Europe is, like many other technological sectors, dominated by male professionals. Women make up only 35% of the renewable energy sector workforce, compared with more than half of the total labour force. Not only that, the traditional distribution of jobs continues to exist for these renewable energy jobs, which tend to reflect the gender divides of the overall job market. While women hold 46% of the administrative posts, they only occupy 28% of technical and 32% of senior management positions. 

The causes of this gender gap have been extensively researched and relate to the patriarchal norms that continue to dominate society to varying degrees. In short, gendered stereotypes, gendered orientation in higher education, unconscious biases in recruitment, sexist work cultures, difficulties for women in striking a work-life balance and the unequal distribution of domestic and care work all limit women’s participation in the renewable energy transition. 

Intersecting prejudices

This means that a green transition that does not tackle these gender-related issues through dedicated and targeted policies and programmes risks perpetuating and even deepening existing gender inequalities. It also risks depriving the transition of a much-needed talent pool in a sector that is still threatened by shortages of skilled workers. 

However, integrating a general gender dimension into environmental policies is not enough. We also need an intersectional approach to environmental policymaking. Intersectionality, coined by the lawyer and philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes how race, class, gender, and other categories of identity “intersect” with one another and overlap to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. 

While in Europe we still lack official disaggregated data on these intersections, we can safely assume, by looking at studies from other developed countries, such as the USA and Canada, that women from racial minority groups or women living in rural areas will not have the same employment opportunities in the renewable energy sector as a white women living in a dynamic urban centre. Understanding how the conscious and unconscious discrimination processes work in an intersectional manner is a first step to finding solutions. 

To its credit, the European Commission has also started to work on this gap by tasking the European Institute for Gender Equality to gather intersecting data on gender and environmental issues. It will also promote female role models in the renewable energy sector. While these measures are more than welcome, they are not enough. We need a holistic approach and intersectionality needs to be integrated into all aspects of decision‐making and at all stages. 

New foundations

The renewable energy sector is only one example among many that makes the case for including an intersectional gender lens in environmental policies to ensure fairness, effectiveness and impact. This means that the green transition alone cannot achieve gender and social equality without tackling the structural dynamics embedded within socio-cultural and socio-economic contexts.

We cannot let the opportunity of the green transition pass by for half of the European population. We urgently need explicit measures to include women in all their diversity in EU environmental policies and programmes. Women have been one of the main driving forces in environmental activism and among the loudest advocates of sustainability. It would be beyond ironic that after all these efforts women would be left behind in the green transition.

  • This article is the first in a series dedicated to exploring the links between gender and environmental issues in specific EU environmental policies. In collaboration with our member organisation Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), we are preparing a dedicated report on the subject. For more information, contact Nadège Lharaig, nadege.lharaig@eeb.org or Katy Wiese katharina.wiese@eeb.org .