The gender perspective in sustainable development

Author: Dawn Bonfield

Date published

23 October 2020

The Institution of Structural Engineers The Institution of Structural Engineers
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The gender perspective in sustainable development

Date published

Dawn Bonfield

Date published

23 October 2020


Dawn Bonfield

In this blog, Dawn Bonfield considers the links between science and technology, gender and sustainable development.

In late August 2020 the 19th Gender Summit took place. It was hosted online from South Korea. It focused on how gender mainstreaming in science and technology can help us meet the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

This is a subject that I take responsibility for on the World Federation of Engineering Organisation’s Women in Engineering Committee, where I am UK representative and deputy chair.

In this blog I will write about 'the gender perspective'. This means taking into account any physiological difference or cultural, societal or religious norms that determine the roles individuals take within society due to their gender. Interventions to improve lives, especially using engineering and technology, should ensure that the gender perspective has been considered. This applies to men and women equally, as they often have different needs and roles. In the context of this blog, interventions happen as a result of research and problem solving.

2030 Sustainable Development Goals and gender mainstreaming

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals were created by the United Nations (UN) in 2015. They were founded on the principle of 'leave no-one behind'. They call for transformative shifts, integrated approaches, and innovative solutions to overcome the structural barriers to sustainable development.

They recognise that innovation and technology can be used to reach those who are the most likely to be left behind, including women and girls.

Gender mainstreaming involves bringing a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring, financing, and evaluation of:
  • Technical solutions
  • Policies
  • Regulatory measures
  • Spending programmes
This ensures that men and women have equal opportunities and are not disproportionately disadvantaged by their gender.

The broader issue: The representation gap in STEM fields

Addressing the lack of gender representation in science and technology continues to be the subject of much discussion globally. Evidence is routinely gathered that shows why there is a lack of participation by women in the STEM fields. Reasons include:
  • The pipeline problem (the number of women who drop out of the STEM career pipeline at each transition) is leaky and sticky. It prevents women from reaching the top leadership and decision-making positions in STEM
  • Barriers in higher education exist. An example is women not receiving grant funding to the same level as men. This means consistently missing out on the largest of grants and the management of the biggest programmes
  • COVID-19 has exacerbated existing barriers. This is partly because women have taken on a higher share of the increased burden of home schooling and care giving

Global gender inequality and sustainable development

Gender inequality (as with all inequality) is repeatedly shown to be costly to the global economy, to productivity and to trade performance. It's importance appears to be consistently ignored by governments around the world.

In terms of climate change, men and women are clearly shown to be affected differently (and to different degrees) by climate events. These events include storms, natural disasters, flooding, smog and heat waves.

Utilising the knowledge we have of the societal roles of women throughout the world will lead to better policy making. Involving women and taking their perspectives into account in available technological solutions will create better outcomes.

A clear gender link can be shown between the climate crisis and any health crises that result from it. Where women are more likely to be the care givers of those effected by the crisis, there is a cascade effect on gender inequality. This is because they are unable to sustain employment.

Women’s lack of access to a digital footprint (eg identity card, bank account or property ownership) often results in them being unable to apply for development funding or other aid. This in turn increases their inequality, and that of their children.

Women working in agriculture is seen as one of the biggest areas to benefit from gendered decision making and intervention. Women are consistently unable to access the finance, the crop knowledge, and the land tenure that would raise them out of subsistence farming.

Data (or lack of it) inhibits better understanding of the link between positive gender outcomes and positive overall outcomes. The gender disaggregation of data is universally recommended.

Using science and technology to address global gender inequalities

If science and technology are to help address global gender inequalities, there are three areas that we need to influence. If we can make progress in these areas, we will take solid steps towards the gender mainstreaming that is so needed.

Firstly, we must consider how to involve more women in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals. This means:
  • Applying their perspectives to the challenges
  • Considering their different viewpoints when interpreting data and setting research agendas
  • Increasing their representation in the research, technology, policy and decision making processes
Secondly, we must ensure that the gender perspective is considered in the research itself. This means making sure that our science, engineering and technology outputs are inclusive of all. They should be equally valid and accessible for all users.

Thirdly, we must go further and consider how science and technology can be used to address the specific challenges faced by women and other marginalised groups, who through their societal or cultural roles have reduced access to the resources that enable equality. These include:
  • Finance
  • Knowledge
  • Independence
  • Property ownership
  • Autonomy

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals is a balancing act

All the above relates to interesting analysis that was presented at the Gender Summit. It focussed on the gender perspective and its link to progress against the Sustainable Development Goals.

A particular focus was the interdependencies of the goals, and the need to ensure that perverse outcomes do not inadvertently occur. This would be where progress in one area results in a negative impact on another.

Conversely, the progress of gender positive outcomes can be shown when the Goals which relate to human wellbeing are addressed. Examples are:
  • Goal 1 - poverty
  • Goal 2 - hunger
  • Goal 3 - health
  • Goal 4 - education
It is important to note that this is not all that is needed. In abstraction it will not produce progress at the rate required for gender equality.

When this occurs, there is a symbiosis in making progress against all of these goals.

Interventions and policies designed to give more equal growth across all goals can be developed from a better understanding of these interdependencies.

Time is of the essence

The conference concluded by reiterating that there are only ten years left to make the desired progress against the Sustainable Development Goals if we are to reach the 2030 target. It is imperative that these challenges are tackled by diverse teams with clear attention paid to the gender perspective.

Please note that this article is a summary of the 2020 Gender Summit. A better understanding of all perspectives (not restricted to gender) is imperative to ensure that no-one is left behind in the pursuit of equality and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, I’d encourage you to look at the Gender Summit presentations. They can be accessed free of charge.

You might also be interested in finding out more about the gender perspective and its link to Sustainable Development Goals.


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