Towards a Gender-Inclusive Circular Economy

Through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2030 UN Development Agenda aims to "end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of all people, everywhere". In order to realize the major changes required to create more sustainable, inclusive, and successful societies within the suggested 15-year time frame, it is necessary to mobilize all facets of society. The 17 SDGs are interconnected, and the accomplishment—or lack thereof—of one of them affects the others.

The gender-specific goal under the 2030 Agenda is represented by SDG 5: gender equality. Additionally, one of the three universal values underpinning the SDGs is gender equality and women's empowerment. Therefore, establishing gender equality is essential to ensuring inclusive and sustainable development.

The circular economy, a concept that has gained popularity over the past ten years, calls for a fundamentally different economic model by dramatically altering current production and consumption patterns. It also asserts to be a paradigm shift that can solve a number of systemic issues. The circular model can be viewed as a facilitator and instrument to accomplish numerous SDGs. The circular economy must be examined from a gender perspective to discover how it may help deliver more equal conditions.

In order to build a sustainable, all-encompassing, and just model to create systemic solutions, the circular economy needs a social, economic, and political framework that is gender equal. The importance of incorporating a gender perspective into public policies that direct and shape the shift to a circular economy is highlighted by an awareness of the role of structural factors and an understanding of how they influence and, to some extent, condition the potential outcomes of that shift. Public policies and programs that neglect to incorporate a gender perspective and lack gender mainstreaming not only continue injustices, such as women's increased exposure to hazardous waste-related hazards and unsafe working conditions, among others, but they also lack the capacity to offer truly comprehensive solutions.

Existing research demonstrates that women are overrepresented in end-of-pipe, low-value added, and informal circular economy activities like trash management, recycling, and reuse. Women's engagement is less noticeable when focusing on more value-added circular activities including industrial eco-design, the creation of circular products, and other activities making greater use of advanced technologies. As a result of gender socialization and the gendered division of labor, women have a low participation rate in STEM fields, which contributes to this issue. For instance, only about 30% of students worldwide who are engaged in higher education in STEM-related professions are women.

It's crucial to remember, nevertheless, that the circular economy and gender are also intertwined in settings other than the conventional realm of productive activity, such as the domestic sphere and alternative economies and places. Women have typically been assigned to the domestic and reproductive roles in the context of family and home life due to the historically unequal gender division of labor, whereas men frequently have a more prominent position in the public and financially rewarding productive sphere. Women are compelled to do reproductive work such as household administration, caring, cleaning, and cooking efficiently by minimizing expenditures and making the best use of the resources at their disposal.

Women have historically participated in alternative economic spaces, as made evident by the passing down of clothing and toys between older and younger siblings, the reimagining and creation of meals using limited resources, the cultivation of their own food, and other forms of trade like sharing or bartering with neighbors. However, the contributions made by women to ecologically friendly and circular activities shouldn't just be those that come about as a result of prejudice and adversity. Women should have equitable access to opportunities that enable them to lead the way toward circularity across all disciplines and industries.

Women tend to be more environmentally conscious consumers and to be more sensitive to ecological, environmental, and health issues, according to global surveys. In comparison to males, women are more likely to recycle, reduce waste, purchase organic food and products with eco-labels, and take part in household water and energy saving programs. To develop effective circular systems, women must be actively involved in the circular economy by promoting sustainable consumption and encouraging involvement in managerial and leadership positions.

Women are often the knowledge holders for traditional sustainable practices, so systematically incorporating lessons learned from them into the circular economy design and leveraging local value chains for sustainability would not only ensure a "just transition" for everyone, but would also inform how to make the new economic paradigm operational and sustainable. Targeting gender roles and consumption habits as well as waste generation and avoidance could be a crucial pillar in the transition to a circular economy. This would address certain gender inequities by reducing waste as well as by recognizing the value of occupations that support circular economies.

Women are generally more involved in their children's socialization and education and as a result, they are crucial in spreading the message of conservation and responsibility for natural resources. Furthermore, a study by Warth and Koparanova (2021) demonstrates that less participation in policy and decision-making may result in a separation of policy from community and a solely male responsibility for sustainability. Researchers also contend that women may be more vulnerable to some forms of pollution due to their heightened sensitivity, which puts their own health at risk and raises baby mortality. However, they are hardly ever represented in organizations that make decisions about pollution.

In addition, the power and utilities sector, a crucial industry in the transition to circularity, continues to be predominately male. Women hold only 5% of executive board positions, 21% of non-executive board positions, and 15% of senior management leadership positions. This implies that the gender gap also exists in the sectors supporting the circular economy. As a result, a more robust involvement of women across the entire circular economy spectrum is required for a meaningful and inclusive transition towards circularity, rather than merely in activities linked to the informal sector, low productivity levels, and low technology use.

The core of feminist political ecology is gendered politics and public action, which evaluates how gender affects social positions, power dynamics, and negotiation tactics. Warth and Koparanova (2021) remind us of the Rio Declaration's assertions that women are essential to environmental management and development, and that their full participation is required for the Sustainable Development Goals to be met.