Gender equality and climate neutrality are two interconnected topics that are integral to urban development. Gender Equality Officer Annika Dalén highlights the importance of understanding the relationship between gender and sustainability and provides a glimpse into the strategies Umeå has adopted.
Umeå, Sweden, is a city that actively strives for gender equality, aiming to create conditions for women and men to have equal power to shape society as well as their own lives. This has been central to our municipal development strategies for decades.
As we are intensifying our work towards climate neutrality, it is obvious to us that gender equality needs to be at the core of this work. After all, different dimensions of sustainability – social, environmental, etc. – cannot be understood separately from one another. We firmly believe that it is necessary to integrate an understanding of gender (in)equality as a central part of sustainability work aimed at achieving climate neutrality.
If you started reading this article looking for a one-size-fits-all, copy-paste-ready solution on gender and climate neutrality, I am sorry to disappoint you. This article will not provide you with that kind of answer. But don’t stop reading just yet. What you will get are some keys to approaching the link between these two matters and some concrete examples of how it has been done in Umeå.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the data, the questions, and the action.
The Data: Our Gendered-Landscape-Method
We call our method of work “The gendered landscape”. It is about integrating an understanding of gendered power structures and living conditions for women and men in all the work the municipality does.
The two central aspects of our method are: collecting gender-segregated data and asking critical questions. Through gender-segregated data, surveys, analysis, and dialogue, we aim to understand the different living conditions of the people living in our municipality. These data help us to decipher and make visible who gets what and under what conditions. They also help us to address how different conditions – in terms of economy, responsibility for unpaid domestic work, collective experiences of violence, and other gendered experiences – affect not only how we access and use places and services but also how we feel about them.
To give an example, our recent travel habit survey from October 2022 shows that in 45 per cent of all their journeys taken, the men in our municipality opt for a car as their means of transport; whereas the share of car travel for women is 34 per cent. Given that mobility generates almost half of the total emissions from private households in Umeå, this is a key area to work on. What this data tells us is that if men travelled like women, car travel would go down six points from 40 per cent (overall average) to 34 per cent.
Our local survey also revealed that for most men, “driving less” is the most frequently chosen option in response to the question “What would be the easiest thing for you to do to reduce your climate footprint?” Can we apply this data to find solutions for a more sustainable municipality? In light of this knowledge, we need to open the discussion about what investment is better for the environment; investing in electric buses or getting men to take the bus. And this in turn leads us to our second key aspect – asking critical questions.
But before going into that, a quick clarification might be in place. The examples of gender-segregated data in this article are based on the binary categories of “man” and “woman”. These are not homogenous groups. Other intersecting power structures, within and beyond these groups, such as sexual orientation, socio-economic background, ethnicity, religion, etc. are equally important for an integral understanding.
The Questions: Critical From the Start
The data are only the starting point from which we now need to ask the right critical questions. These critical questions cannot be an afterthought, they need to be there from the start. We need to constantly ask who is planning and who and what is being planned, and build that understanding into our strategies, including our action plans for reaching climate neutrality.
When we look at men’s share of unsustainable mobility, it is essential to understand the underlying reasons and motivations. Would we solve everything if we introduced more frequent bus routes to male-dominated workplace areas? Or do we also need to ask what in terms of power, identity, and norms is connected to the car and how we can address this through mobility management and behavioural change?
We also know from surveys and dialogue with the community that over 80 per cent of people in Umeå are worried about climate change; women to a higher degree than men and more women also think that the work has barely started.
If we know that women worry more about climate change and, as expressed in our survey, women also express a greater readiness than men to change habits to contribute to climate neutrality, how do we make sure that proposing individual sustainable solutions – such as choosing sustainable modes of transport, recycling more, buying second-hand and repairing broken items, all of which in general are a bit more time-consuming and require a bit more effort – do not disproportionately place a heavier burden on the groups that already dedicate more time than others to unpaid care work? Or to put it somewhat provocatively: considering the data, is it fair to demand the same share of unpaid ‘environmental work’ from women as from men?
Remember always to ask: What is the problem? Why is it a concern and for whom? Whose lives are we making easier if we apply one solution or the other? This way, we can ensure that the platforms and solutions we devise for greater sustainability are truly gender sensitive.
Now to a concrete example: our municipal energy company conducted an analysis on solar panels, showing that women were not represented equally when it came to buying and placing solar panels on their houses. One contributing reason was that buying solar panels meant a quite substantial one-time investment and was associated with the need for having a deep knowledge and interest in tech issues. However, when the company decided to also offer the choice of renting instead of only selling solar panels, solar panels became accessible to a wider range of people. Renting was associated with a decreased financial burden and clients were offered additional technical support, meaning they didn’t have to be an expert to put solar panels on their houses.
To sum up, a holistic understanding of sustainability is a guiding principle for all strategic development in Umeå, where gender equality is understood as a fundamental component of sustainability. We have an organisation that has trained itself to see that behavioural change is not easy and is connected to power, identity, and perceived norms.
Working actively with data on gender (in)equality, quantitative and qualitative, is a good investment. It sharpens our critical eye, opens up processes and creates innovation. It can also save a lot of time and money by making interventions specific and efficient – if we ask the right questions from the start.