Article | 01 Mar, 2021

New data reveals slow progress in achieving gender equality in environmental decision making

Around the world, women are leaders, stewards, educators, engineers, farmers and scientists who contribute invaluable experiences and knowledge to effectively safeguard our environment and realise sustainable development goals. So where are they in top decision-making positions? This International Women’s Day, IUCN reveals new data on women’s leadership in environmental ministries.

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In Ghana, women on the Densu estuary work on ecosystem restoration activities to replenish depleted oyster populations, for which they strive to revive livelihood activities, sustainably 

Photo: Jamie Wen-Besson, IUCN

This year, as the world marks International Women’s Day by focusing on women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world, we take a moment to reflect on women in environmental decision making. 

Women are critical environmental decision makers

Women and men have different experiences, roles and knowledge relating to how we use, manage and conserve our natural resources. Decades of field experience has shown that valuing and supporting these differentiated contributions improves strategies to turn the tide on environmental degradation. IUCN’s work in West Africa shows that women are effective in devising and implementing solutions to increase sustainable livelihoods while reducing conflicts, while other studies show that women are more likely than men to use climate smart agriculture techniques to adapt to climate change and that when more women are involved in group decisions about land management, the group conserves more. 

These contributions extend into scientific, business and political decision-making fields as well. Companies with more women on their board of directors are more likely to be proactive in improving energy efficiency, lowering company costs and investing in renewable power generation. Past studies have shown that countries with more women parliamentarians are more likely to ratify environmental treaties and set aside land for conservation while numerous analyses demonstrate the importance of gender diversity in science.

Investing in environmental sustainability also offers critical pathways for achieving global goals on gender equality, not least SDG 5. Studies and field experiences alike confirm that the meaningful, visible, full and effective participation and leadership of women in environmental and conservation efforts can increase women’s political, economic, social and personal empowerment.

At the top, progress is far too slow

But how have we progressed at the highest levels of representation and environmental leadership? SDG 5.5 tracks women’s political participation as a key component of women’s empowerment ― and understanding trends, gaps and progress in the environment sector is also critical. 

In 2015, IUCN’s Environment and Gender Information data showed that only 12% of 881 national environmental ministries (e.g., those related to natural resources, water, forests, etc.) across 193 countries were led by women.

Five years later, we see progress ― but not much. IUCN’s new data reveals incremental change: in 2020, women held 15% of top jobs as ministers of environmental sectors.1


IUCN's new research shows that women held 15% of environmental minister positions in 2020, a 3% increase from a 2015 study.       Photo: Estudio Relativo

Overall, these incremental changes in global tallies track with changes in parliamentary representation over five years, as women held 22.3% of all such seats in August 2015 and 25.4% in December 2020 ― a roughly 3% change. Looking at environmental sub-sectors: the numbers are low across the board. While many countries have developed or consolidated ministries focused on climate change in the last five years (our numbers showing 26 total ministries), 15% are headed by women. In 46 countries with forest-specific ministries, 18% are headed by women, while 11% of water or irrigation ministries are headed by women.

Sector snapshot: gendered decision making in fisheries

Women account for 15% of harvesting and 90% of processing roles in fisheries―or about half the global fisheries workforce.       Photo: Estudio Relativo


When we think of the fisheries sector, one often calls to mind the image of fishing boats filled with fishermen hauling their catch. Yet, this is only a fragment of the bigger fisheries value chain, where women are responsible for an estimated 90% of informal and formal industrial processing roles as well as the majority of small-scale marketing. 

With this in mind, sustainable fisheries management depends not only on fish harvesting practices, but also on the ways in which we prevent post-harvest losses by improving and conserving what we have and on ecosystem protection ― roles that require the leadership and involvement of women at all levels. Examples from around the world demonstrate that gender integration in sustainable fisheries efforts improves sustainability, prosperity and equality as women play important and effective roles as stewards of fisheries and their ecosystems, as well as stakeholders and leaders promoting sustainable fisheries management.

Yet, women are often left behind in policies, programmes and decision making. These costs have repercussions for ecosystems, as well as for health, livelihoods and human rights. In many fisheries sectors, gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation, is used to maintain unequal power dynamics over access to and rights over fisheries resources, leading to increased health crises, with HIV infection rates in fishing communities 4 to 14 times higher than national averages. 

So where are women in leadership? Studies have found that 1 of 71 major seafood companies have women CEOs and 90% of seafood company directorships are held by men. In our 2015 dataset, 13% of fisheries-related ministries were headed by women. Advances were recorded in 2018, with women representing 15% of fisheries ministry leaders. However, in the latest findings, despite a growth in the number of these ministries (in part due to the creation of new blue economy ministries), the number of women ministers reverted back to 13%.

In 2015, women accounted for 13% of fisheries ministers. These figures went up to 15% in 2018, but returned to 13% levels in 2020.       Photo: Estudio Relativo

Source: J. Siles, M. Prebble, J. Wen, C. Hart, and H. Schuttenberg (2019). Advancing Gender in the Environment: Gender in Fisheries - A Sea of Opportunities. IUCN and USAID. Washington, USA: USAID. Available at: and EGI data from 2015, 2018 and 2020.

We can’t afford to fall backward ― stepping up progress is crucial

What will the data show us in another five years, after the world has “built back better” from COVID-19? Over this last extraordinary year, the pandemic has not only highlighted the links between humanity and nature, but has also reminded us once again of how gender inequality deepens during crises. As the pandemic continues, so too do its effects on limiting women’s access to benefits and services across numerous environmental contexts, as well as on equitable, effective natural resource governance.  While some stories have recognised women’s leadership as effective in navigating the pandemic, women at all levels of environment sectors ― from scientists to informal agricultural labourers — are experiencing gendered impacts that will leave lasting impressions. Without effective and innovative solutions, these threaten to restrict women’s involvement in economic and environmental decision-making at multiple levels ― a major risk to resilience-building as the gender-differentiated impacts of the climate crisis coincide.

At every level of formal and informal work, it is widely documented from across regions that women are falling behind their male peers due to increased and overlapping burdens related to lockdowns and care work. New research findings show that women scientists with young children have had to reduce more research time than other peers during the pandemic, which has contributed to lost lab-dependent field research across agriculture and natural resources by 26% and atmospheric, earth and ocean sciences by 21%. Concurrently, as women fill the majority of the world’s informal work, particularly in environmental sectors, they are frequently the hardest hit by pandemic restrictions and economic recessions without social security nets. Some countries are taking critical, intentional steps to bridge these gaps: in Paraguay, for example, the government’s COVID-19 recovery plan includes a focus on microcredit grant relief schemes targeting Kuña Katupyry (“skilled women”) in agriculture to ensure women are not left behind while keeping local food production afloat during the pandemic.

Closing gaps

With new data, we mark this International Women’s Day as an opportunity to #ChooseToChallenge the gap ― and all the interlinked gender gaps that act as barriers to realising human rights and environmental sustainability, hand in hand.

This year, at its World Conservation Congress, IUCN will bring together civil society, Indigenous peoples groups, business and academia to debate and take action to build a more equitable and sustainable future that reflects these challenges and opportunities. IUCN is also collaborating with partners to propel urgent action and accountability for gender equality through the UN Generation Equality Forum, as well as in global climate change and biodiversity policy setting and implementation spheres. It is working with member States to strengthen gender-responsive Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), implementing national climate change gender action plans (ccGAPs) with diverse partners, curating tailored knowledge and tools on tackling the urgent crisis of gender-based violence, and much more ― all aiming to empower, champion and support women at all levels of environmental governance.

Now, more than ever, concerted efforts to close gaps and increase gender equality for better, impactful environmental decision-making and action will be critically important to ensure the resiliency of communities to overcome our global climate change and biodiversity challenges and achieve our global goals and build back better together. 

1 Publicly available data allowed for the inclusion of 712 ministerial positions from 187 countries as information from 6 countries was not available. The 2020 dataset did not include transportation ministries, while the 2015 data did; additional analysis of the 2015 data found no percentage changes in representation when transportation ministries were extracted for a comparative analysis.