Gendering Climate Change in Canada
My name is Amber Fletcher, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Studies, University of Regina, Canada.
I study the social dimensions of climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) in agricultural contexts, with a focus on gender. In particular, I study how women in agriculture are affected by—and respond to—climate extremes such as flooding and drought. I have attached a link to one of my recent articles. My major research site is the Canadian Prairies, an agricultural region with a history of severe and protracted drought. Climate scenarios indicate that the Prairie region is at risk of even more droughts in the future, interspersed with extreme precipitation events.
Within the social sciences, much of the research on climate impacts and adaptation has focused on the Global South—and for good reason. Due to global inequality and its associated issues (e.g., poverty, under-development), it is in the Global South where the impacts of a climate disaster are often strongly and immediately felt. Studies show that — due to inequalities in resource distribution, education, and other entitlements and rights — women and girls are often negatively affected by climate-related disaster.
But, climate change is a global problem with global effects. My own research examines the gender impacts of climate change in the Global North. Although residents of rich countries (particularly the most privileged) may be relatively buffered from climate disasters due to high levels of economic and institutional capital, farmers are still highly exposed. A flood or drought has the ability to wipe out an entire family’s annual income or even its entire livelihood.
In my research with Canadian farmers, I have found that women and men are often affected differently by climate extremes. Due to very engrained gender roles, farm women and men often perform different kinds of work. After conducting hundreds of interviews with farm women and men across the prairie region, I have noted the same themes: women are often seen as “helpers” and “supporters” on the farm, while men are often seen as the “main” or “central” farmers.
When a climate disaster hits, it is the “main farmers” (often men) who bear the psychological burden of farm failure. This is particularly difficult because ideals of masculinity discourage men from talking about their emotions. Climate stress can be a heavy burden to bear. And, in rural Canada, mental health supports are few and far between.
Looking at men’s vulnerability challenges the idea that women are uniformly the “victims” of climate change. This idea has been discussed lately in the literature: the importance of recognizing women’s agency and avoiding victimizing discourses while, at the same time, recognizing that women are often disproportionately affected by climate events. It is important to bring visibility to the contributions women make and the challenges they face. In my research, farm women—who are often positioned as “supporters”—feel the weight of supporting their families and communities in times of crisis. They often have less agency than “main farmers” over coping and adaptation strategies. Their contributions to rural social capital are crucial but often invisible. This is linked to historical gender ideologies, which have naturalized the idea that women are “nurturers”.
Gender experts know that these constructs are primarily social, not biological, and that our “truths” about gender vary across time and space. Nevertheless, gender roles are linked to deeply rooted ideas and have structured our societies in particular ways; therefore, gender has the power to shape our experience of a climate extreme. Awareness of these social dynamics and inequalities can mean better climate adaptation policy that is attentive to local realities and that, ideally, challenges gender inequality at the social level.
I would like to end with two questions on these themes:
1. Climate change is a global problem and a gendered problem. Climate change is intertwined with inequality at multiple levels (e.g., global inequality, gender inequality). How can we examine and address the differential impacts of climate change between Global South and North, and between women and men, without a discourse that victimizes or reduces the agency of those most affected?
2. Paying attention to gender in climate change research means effective integration between natural science (e.g., climatological scenarios) and social science (e.g., the social effects and lived experience of climatological events). What are the best ways to integrate both approaches into climate research?