Climate change is not gender neutral | National Union of Public and General Employees

Climate change is not gender neutral

Women and marginalized communities are more likely to experience negative effects of environmental and climate change and to face barriers in adapting.

Ottawa (3 Feb. 2020) — Environmental issues disproportionately affect women and gender diverse people, particularly those who are racialized, Indigenous, living with disabilities, or living in poverty.

NUPGE’s latest backgrounder, Environmental and Climate Change: A Gender Perspective, gives an overview of this trend, as well as, underlines women’s contributions to climate action and sustainability efforts.

Effects are uneven

It is becoming more widely understood that environmental degradation, including climate change, affects different people in different ways—both within and between countries.

Put simply, the effects are uneven across populations because of existing inequities in society, which are only made worse by environmental and climate change.

This means that people who are marginalized or vulnerable—people living in poverty, racialized and Indigenous people, immigrants, migrants, and refugees, people with disabilities, women, young children, and the elderly—are more likely to experience the negative effects of environmental and climate change. They also face barriers in mitigating or adapting to these effects.

Pronounced impacts on women

For example, during extreme weather and climate-related disasters, like floods, droughts, and storms, women are more likely to experience negative health effects, to be displaced, and to face a higher risk of violence. And they are more likely to die.

Their paid and unpaid work are disrupted, too. For example, when schools are closed due to air pollution, women are more likely to stay home from work to care for children.

Especially women of marginalized communities

Women and gender diverse people who are racialized, Indigenous, migrants, refugees, living with disabilities, or living in poverty bear the brunt.

One of the clearest examples is that racialized and Indigenous communities experience disproportionately high levels of pollution in their air and waters, known as environmental racism. Studies also show that climate-related disasters and resource extraction sites are linked to increased gender-based violence, with Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse people most at risk.

During extreme weather and disasters, people living in poverty are more likely to be displaced, and women with disabilities face unique barriers to evacuating and to accessing health care and other services.

Women’s role in sustainability

Despite the barriers, women are (and have been) playing a crucial role in sustainability efforts. They are often the ones taking action in their communities in times of crisis.

It was women community leaders who stepped forward in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to provide care for their fellow community members. In Canada, it is Indigenous women who have been at the forefront of movements for climate justice and water justice.

Women workers are also on the frontlines as first responders, providing emergency response and care to those affected by environmental hazards and events

Being at the table

It is crucial that women and gender diverse people are meaningfully involved in environmental decision-making and policy-making processes, especially given these uneven impacts. Think here of the slogan, “nothing about us without us.”

In fact, more equitable representation is shown to make for more effective environmental policies and initiatives.

Valuing women’s knowledge

Given their roles and experiences, women often hold a great deal of knowledge and skills that can contribute to sustainability. For example, women farmers and harvesters have long played an important role in fostering sustainable food systems, such as protecting the land and seeds.

Indigenous women, in particular, have a great deal of local and ecological knowledge. As water protectors, leaders, knowledge holders, economic providers, and teachers, Indigenous women are well-positioned to help us better understand the impacts of environmental and climate change, as well as, inform strategies for sustainability.  

Not all doom and gloom

The acute effects of environmental degradation on women and marginalized people are alarming. We must continue to raise awareness and combat the inequities at the root.  

But the numerous examples of women identifying solutions, contributing expertise, and leading efforts for change should inspire hope, too. The climate crisis presents an opportunity to advance a more equitable, as well as, sustainable society. 

Read the full backgrounder here


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE