‘Climate action is incomplete and unsustainable without gender and power considerations’: Dalberg on gender and climate change

The UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) lays out a global ambition to empower women and girls and achieve gender equality by 2030. At the current rate of progress, however, it would take 140 years for the world to achieve equal representation in leadership in the workplace and almost 300 years to close gaps in legal protection and end child marriage.

For global, impact-driven firm Dalberg, this isn’t good enough (see sidebar, “Introducing Dalberg”). Dalberg’s mission is to address the world’s most pressing problems through systemic change, and the firm acknowledges gender inequality is both a pressing problem and the catalyst of other pressing problems. Take climate change. It has gendered effects: women are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster because of other forms of gender inequality. But it also has gendered origins rooted in an extractive, patriarchal relationship with our planet. Climate-resilient development requires the participation and leadership of women, which requires gender equality.

Dalberg’s deeply held beliefs led it to sign the UN’s Neutral is Not Enough pledge in 2019 alongside UNICEF, CIFF, and Educate Girls—the first professional services consulting firm to do so. Accordingly, it made an official commitment to apply a gender lens as a standard practice across all engagements and develop tools and resources to support staff in the same.

We sat down with Dalberg’s Naoko Koyama, a partner based in Durban, South Africa, and Madhuri Mukherjee, an associate partner in the Nairobi office, to discuss issues at the intersection of gender and climate change, specifically in Africa. Our wide-ranging conversation covers the importance of the language and narratives, the need to apply a gender lens throughout the process of developing a program or project, and how two consultants from Japan and India came to work on gender issues in Africa.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dalberg’s mission is to help build “a more inclusive and sustainable world where all people, everywhere, can reach their fullest potential.” The company is truly global, with offices across Africa, the Americas, Asia–Pacific, and Europe. And Dalberg thinks big: recent projects have included developing a comprehensive plan to create 25 million jobs for youth across the African continent over the next five years and setting up a partnership between the US and Indian governments to add five billion new digital transactions across India over three years. With more than 500 people in 28 offices worldwide, the firm brings together strategy, implementation, research, digital, and strategic comms expertise to support its clients.

Katie Parry: Why is the intersection between climate and gender important?

Naoko Koyama: Our mission is to help build a more inclusive and sustainable world, which requires us to think about and elevate diversity in everything we do. To drive true and sustained impact, we have to think of and understand gendered differences and biases in power among different groups of people across various identity markers and across economic, social, and legal spheres in different contexts.

At Dalberg, we are therefore committed to bringing a gender and power lens to everything we do—not just where the primary and explicit objective is gender equality but across other projects where power and gender gaps and dynamics may be implicit or deep-seated. While climate is just one aspect of the plethora of work we do, the intersection of climate and gender is a very important one, given the urgency to respond to climate change. Climate change has been increasingly receiving higher attention and funding, and if we don’t intentionally bring a gender and power lens to it, then the impact of such activity will be much less than it could be.

Madhuri Mukherjee: Exactly. Our current work will determine and shape how various social, economic, and political systems work and interact in the coming decades. If we don’t apply a gender and power lens, then current access and equity gaps will not be prevented or closed and, in the worst case, may even widen.

In the climate action space, clean energy is a good example. We are aware of the power and the socioeconomic–environmental benefits of distributed renewable energy solutions (such as solar water pumps and solar home systems). However, there is a need to be intentional and explicit using a gender lens to view the clean energy sector to support women as consumers, employees, and leaders and to design financial and nonfinancial support and training that is inclusive and speaks to contextual needs. For instance, women can obtain meaningful employment as last-mile delivery agents for various solar equipment, but if the employment is not designed appropriately, then often such jobs can be unstable (in terms of the incomes they generate) or unsafe (in certain contexts it may be unsafe or inappropriate for women to travel and sell and install such products).

If we don’t think about an inclusive and holistic way to design, distribute, market, and finance these products, we risk creating a whole new sector and new jobs where historically marginalized groups of people continue to be marginalized and the solutions don’t see meaningful uptake by principal users.

Katie: Tell us a little bit about what Dalberg thinks about these issues and how you work with clients.

Madhuri: As a cosignatory to the UN’s Neutral Is Not Enough pledge in 2019, we committed to applying a gender lens to all our projects. Since then, we’ve continued to learn, and our thinking has evolved. We want to be very clear that when we talk about gender, it is not the same as women’s rights; people of all genders are limited by gendered expectations and threats. Yet gender equality is particularly relevant to women, who have been denied equality for centuries because of their gender. And while conducting gender analysis, it is critical to understand how systems that surround us produce, reinforce, and mitigate gender and power differentials.

For example, in the climate space, it is critical to examine the source and destination of climate financing. Who is making decisions on where financing flows, how are these decisions being made, and who do they include? Then consider the views from those on the ground who understand the context, including those who are most affected by the issue in question and the proposed solutions. Our clients vary in the extent to which they are already asking these questions. But if they are not explicitly asking them, we take the initiative to bring those considerations to the work.

“We want to be very clear that when we talk about gender, it is not the same as women’s rights; people of all genders are limited by gendered expectations and threats. Yet gender equality is particularly relevant to women, who have been denied equality for centuries because of their gender.”

Katie: Is the connection between equity and efficacy for the industry something that most people now accept, or do some still view consideration of the “gender angle” as a box-ticking exercise?

Naoko: The industry is shifting slowly, with more progressive thinkers now understanding that considering diverse viewpoints and needs makes sound economic sense.

It helps to have a long-term investment horizon or outlook, particularly when we’re talking about the intersection of climate change and gender in contexts like in Africa. In today’s world, the default is often to build systems, products, services, and solutions that work best for men. Reaching women meaningfully is certainly an investment, especially given that it requires overcoming not just institutional or infrastructural barriers but also normative barriers. But once that investment has been made, we have often found that women become better customers, more than justifying the initial investment over a five- or ten-year time horizon.

Unfortunately, a lot of climate investment focuses on short-term returns and low-cost investments, which is one of the reasons that reaching women can be really challenging. Most products are designed first for men because they represent the profile of target customers, in many cases. Consequently, designing retroactively for women becomes time-consuming and expensive, deterring companies from doing so. If products are thoughtfully designed with both men and women in mind from the start, the outcome will be more sustainable and less costly.

Katie: Are national and international policy frameworks fit for purpose?

Madhuri: There’s a lot that still needs to change. A year or two ago, Dalberg looked at the Nationally Determined Contributions of the various countries—which are the efforts each country has committed to making to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We found that only around 20 precent even mentioned gender when they talked about climate funding and adaptation. That’s a very clear omission considering these national-level policies filter down and help to dictate where funding flows. Globally, according to our analysis, only around 0.04 percent of climate-focused official development assistance (ODA) currently has a gender equality–related primary objective.

Naoko: And things are not changing as fast as they need to, given the scale of the issue. We need a top-down shift. This could be a global commitment—or it could start with a commitment by one country or donor—that all climate-related policy and action would be gender intentional.

We at LEFF are, at heart, storytellers. We are dedicated to amplifying voices and causes from all over the world, regardless of gender orientation, race, or economic background. And the stories we tell as part of the Into the Weeds interview series are particularly important to us. We will be interviewing inspiring individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level; we’ll bring you insights from the leaders of global organizations, renowned experts and academics, and innovative local businesses.

Our goal for this series is the same one that underpins all of LEFF Sustainability Group’s client work: to use our storytelling skills to build awareness of the issues that threaten our planet and to draw attention to all the people, initiatives, and innovations that are fighting back.

Katie: How do different mindsets and narratives shape the gender and climate space?

Naoko: The narratives and language we use in this area are really important. We did a review of how gender is treated within climate-smart agriculture policy, and what we found—overwhelmingly—was that women appeared as victims or recipients of help, rather than as agents of change who help to drive the climate transition. This is not a helpful narrative; we need to engage with women and empower them, both around climate adaptation and climate change mitigation.

The effects of doing so can be significant. Solar water pumps are a good example. Not many female farmers have access to this technology, but those who do can better adapt to the unpredictable weather conditions, reduce expenditure, improve productivity and income, and grow their livelihoods—just like male farmers. That’s just one study, but it really shows the important role that female agency can play in driving progress.

“…women appeared as victims or recipients of help, rather than as agents of change who help to drive the climate transition. This is not a helpful narrative; we need to engage with women and empower them, both around climate adaptation and climate change mitigation.”

Madhuri: Another mindset shift that is at the center of what Dalberg does relates to when and how we factor gender and power dynamics into our policies, programs, and engagements. For many organizations, gender is an overlay or an afterthought. That’s not the way it should be: we need to understand gender and power dynamics as critical to every part of decision-making to eventually develop sustainable solutions.

For example, the growth in carbon credits can finance climate-smart agriculture practices and solutions, but if not done intentionally, the design of these projects may prevent women from fully benefitting. For instance, it may be that credits are designed to cover a certain minimum acreage, which women are less likely to possess than men, or that they require recipients to demonstrate proof of ownership, which women are less likely to have due to the way that legal systems are set up. These are key nuances to be intentional about if we want these projects to succeed since there is growing urgency for agriculture to continue to be feminized because men often migrate to cities for other employment opportunities.

Naoko: All of that comes back to the vital distinction between gender neutral and gender intentional. Gender neutrality—which might mean, for example, setting the same criteria for men and women to access a service—is generally not enough, because women face so many more barriers in meeting those criteria.

Katie: Clearly there are lots of ways that gender inequality can complicate the fight against climate change. But can it work the other way around? Are there times when climate change risks increase inequality?

Madhuri: Absolutely. For instance, climate change is now one of the leading drivers for girls to drop out of schools. The Malala Fund estimated that climate change prevents 12.5 million girls globally from completing school due to damaged infrastructure, economic conditions that push school fees out of reach, and adverse health effects. Climate change could also lead to an increase in child marriages as families cope with economic hardships and girls are considered tradable assets. These may sound like second-order effects, but we need to understand that climate change is taking place within an intricate web of power structures, and the effects of a relatively small shift in the climate can be huge—and vicious.

Katie: What motivates you to keep going?

Naoko: This work—to make climate adaptation and mitigation gender intentional—is still pretty new. There’s a lot we still need to do, including, for example, to make sure we’ve pulled together the most compelling business case for these changes. In many cases, businesses and other stakeholders just don’t yet understand that applying a gender lens to climate issues makes solid business sense.

Madhuri: What, after all, is the alternative? Neither gender inequality nor the worsening climate crisis are things that should be accepted. And, as Naoko says, there’s so much more that can be done.

Behind the scenes

This interview is part of LEFF’s Into the Weeds interview series—a series that amplifies individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level. We’ll be bringing you insights from renowned experts and the leaders of global organizations and innovative local businesses. Clair Myatt (she/her) is the manager of LEFF Sustainability Group, for which Katie Parry (she/her) is the director.

LEFF Sustainability Group would like to thank KC Esper (she/her) and Lys Sorresso (they/them) for their editorial contributions to this interview.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of LEFF or have its endorsement.

Katie Parry

Katie Parry is passionate about helping clients find the stories and narratives that will unlock the change they want to see in the world. Her principal focus is on sustainability, but she also has substantial experience across other sectors and industries, including the public sector, consumer, and technology. Before joining LEFF, Katie was a McKinsey & Company consultant and a lecturer in writing for public policy in the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program. She has also managed a clean-water research program for the World Bank and spent two years as the United Kingdom’s climate security negotiator at NATO. She holds an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, an MS in statistics from the London School of Economics, and a BA in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford.