Op Ed: Canberra Times

As the climate crisis escalates, women are leading the charge for more ambitious environmental outcomes

Canberra Times, 9 December 2021, Victoria McKenzie-McHarg

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German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for her speech at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last month. Picture: Getty Images

We all watched with bated breath while world leaders negotiated the future of our planet at the recent climate negotiations in Glasgow. Yet the people at the decision-making tables remained the same as always – and they were overwhelmingly white men. In fact only 10 of the 140 world leaders who attended the opening leaders summit were women.

Why does that matter? It matters because if we want different outcomes, we need different people at the tables where decisions for our future are made. It might surprise you to know that, according to research from the European Parliament, women elected to parliaments around the world are much more likely to support environmental legislation than men.

It’s a fact that should interest many of us as we reflect on the state of climate and environmental action in Australia. Particularly given the gender inequality that persists in the upper echelons of decision-making across our society – in our parliament, on corporate boards, and in the C-suite. The very places where climate and environmental action has been lacking. 

It is certainly a trend that doesn’t end outside Parliament House. Studies have shown similar effects in business, where firms with female chief executives produce less air and water pollution and less greenhouse gas emissions compared to firms with male chief executives. 

Companies with more women on their boards are also more likely to have stronger environmental and climate policies. Furthermore, research from the University of Adelaide demonstrated that companies with more gender-balanced boards are less often sued for breaching environmental laws. 

It’s not just about adding women – but rather allowing women and people from diverse communities and backgrounds the opportunity to lead in ways that work for them. When diverse voices are allowed to bring diverse approaches to leadership, that’s when the magic really happens. 

In a hopeful sign for Australian democracy, we are now seeing a growing number of women putting up their hand to change this dynamic. 

While some women will seek to create change from within through existing political party structures, it’s exciting to note that the rapidly growing community independents movement is overwhelmingly spearheaded by women – as both candidates and co-ordinators – and they’ve got the issue of climate change front and centre in their minds. 

Many of Federal Parliament’s current independent representatives who are leading on these issues are women – including Zali Steggall, Helen Haines and Rebekha Sharkie. And following in their footsteps are new ranks of independent women putting themselves forward and placing environmental outcomes at the centre of their platforms – including Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, Allegra Spender in Wentworth, Dr Sophie Scamps in Mackellar, Penny Ackery in Hume, Suzie Holt in Groom, and Linda Seymour and Georgia Steele in Hughes. 

This matters because we need new voices creating new narratives of what’s possible – not just in Parliament, but in all sectors, including in the media. The latest assessment from the 2021 Women for Media reportTake the Next Steps showed that of 60,000 online articles in May 2021 across all issues, less than one-third of the quotes were from women. 

In quotes related to the environment, women were quoted only 33 per cent of the time, but the results were as bad or worse when it came to quotes on the related topics of disasters (33 per cent), politics (30 per cent), technology (28 per cent) and science (25 per cent). By having more women in leadership across the board, we can start to improve other indexes that have sidelined women for too long, and finally see movement on the climate and environmental crises that threaten our future. 

We know that COVID-19 has further set back women’s leadership at a time when we need it more than ever. LinkedIn data shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles since the start of the pandemic, creating a reversal of one to two years of progress across multiple industries. 

If we’re going to cut pollution, protect nature, and support communities to transition with new clean economic opportunities, we need to make sure everyone has a seat at the table. Together we can empower and make space for diverse people from all backgrounds, communities and experiences to reshape our future.

In fact, if we’re to have a future, it’s essential. 

  • Victoria McKenzie-McHarg is strategic director of Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia.