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Why collaboration and compassion can build a better future

The Women’s Marches held across seven continents in January, which brought together an estimated 2.2 million people, highlighted the powerful link between gender and environmental justice.

As the 2015 Paris Agreement makes explicit, climate change places a disproportionate burden on the health, safety and economic security of women.

The United Nations World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, published in 2014, makes for uncomfortable reading.

The UN argues that women and girls will suffer the most from climate change, because they bear the burden of securing shelter, food, water and fuel, while facing constraints on their ability to earn income, access land or amass capital.

They are also most likely to die from natural disasters, to be displaced by climate catastrophes or to have their health compromised due to food and financial shortages.

But more women represented in decision-making has the potential to rebalance the equation. “Women should not be viewed as victims,” the report’s authors say, “but as central actors in moving towards sustainability.”

Because the vast majority of the world’s food production and water collection tasks fall on the shoulders of women, they are also the first to notice the evidence of climate change, the consequences, and potential adaptive behaviour.

Women also tend to be more committed to sustainable behaviour – partly because they are poorer, but also because they make more ethical consumer choices. The OECD’s Gender and Sustainable Development report (2008) found that “men’s lifestyles and consumer patterns, whether they are rich or poor, tend to be more resource-intensive and less sustainable than women’s.”

Women are more likely to recycle, buy organic food and eco-labelled products, consider issues such as child labour and fair trade, and place a higher value on energy-efficient transport. Even in households with cars, women are more likely to use public transport than men.

And a range of studies have found that companies with higher female representation on their boards give higher priority to environmental and social issues.

Women’s participation at the political level has been found to deliver greater cooperation across party and ethnic lines, and to deliver a more sustainable peace. At the grassroots level, women’s inclusion in decision-making can build better and longer lasting outcomes from climate projects and policies.

The reasons for this are manifold, but at the nub of the matter is a simple truth: when we create the space for everyone to contribute, we get better outcomes for everyone.

While the political atmosphere that sparked the Women’s Marches may be cause for concern, the 2.2 million activists that came together in January are cause for optimism.

The “my way or the highway” style of leadership won’t help us face the global challenges ahead. An iron fist won’t bring the world together. Instead, we need leaders – both men and women – with a talent for collaboration, a willingness to embrace diversity and difference, and hearts full of compassion.

And that sounds like the people in our movement.

Romilly Madew is Chief Executive Officer at the Green Building Council of Australia

Follow the hashtags #BeBoldforChange and #Women4Climate on Twitter for our latest International Women’s Day updates.