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Why Environmentalism Needs More Women Voices

By Robyn Purchia, guest blogger


Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

For my son’s fifth birthday last month, we decided to throw a “zero-waste”[1] party. I developed an elaborate to-do list, and my parents, husband, and I baked and cooked almost the entire day before to prepare. We used reusable cups, plates, cutlery, napkins, and drink dispensers I’ve collected over the years, and decorated with flowers I bought and colorful tablecloths I had stored.

The event went off without a hitch — no broken plates, (almost) no wasted food, and plenty of kids hyped up on sugar having a great time. After the last plate was washed and put away, I felt both accomplished and exhausted. It wasn’t an easy task for me, despite the support I am privileged to have from family and friends.

It’s critical for women to vocalize why making environmental choices is sometimes hard for us. Through my work at the San Francisco Examiner, as well as my day-to-day experiences as a mother living in San Francisco, I’ve noticed a gender divide in our movement. If we expose these differences and unite to develop solutions, we can improve the system.

In 2018, for example, I reported on a study conducted by the San Francisco Department of the Environment on women and biking. Researchers found a significant gender gap in the use of bike lanes in the SoMa area. Of the people surveyed, only 29 percent self-identified as women, and women of color represented only 13 percent of SoMa bikers.

Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst

There could be many reasons for the low number of women bikers in the area. When the Department presented the results of its study, city commissioners shared their concerns about the safety of biking. Women commissioners also expressed that they would like a place to clean up and put on work-appropriate clothes after riding their bikes.

Based on the information commissioners shared, addressing the gender divide among bicyclists could be as easy as creating safer bike lanes and office lockers. But it could also involve addressing the more systemic expectation that women always look “presentable.” I know that I’ve struggled to bike to work in a dress suit and pumps. We need to ask ourselves why we are struggling, so we can get the resources we need.

The same is true when it comes to reducing waste. Last week, Gallup released the results of three polls conducted in mid-2019 where researchers asked married and cohabitating couples to report on who is likely to perform various household tasks. The study found that in addition to laundry, cleaning, and cooking, women are the primary decision-makers when it comes to home decor in 62 percent of households. Women are also more likely than their husbands to care for children on a daily basis, shop for groceries, and wash dishes.

If women are doing these chores and trying to reduce waste it can be even more exhausting. My husband and I have a strong partnership, but I still spend my weekends planning and preparing meals for the week, boiling stock, hydrating beans, schlepping reusable containers to Rainbow Grocery, taking my kids via bus to various activities, cleaning and folding laundry, and trying to rest for the upcoming work week. Accomplishing these regular chores in addition to cooking, cleaning, shopping, and decorating for a birthday party is downright draining.

I would love to see women launch a “zero waste” birthday party service where mothers can hire-out for help. I would also love to see deeper conversations around gender inequality at home, and raising both girls and boys to become competent homemakers and caregivers. Again, there are differences we need to articulate and address if we’re going to make environmentalism more accessible.

Thankfully, Women’s Environmental Network provides both a community and a forum to confront difficult questions and look for answers. Last September, the women of WEN took part in “WEN Hackathon — Women Solving Man-Made Problems.” At the event, over sixty collaborators lent their heads and hearts to devise interconnected solutions.

We need to continue these conversations if we’re going to champion the type of environmental policies that are truly inclusive.

[1] I use zero waste to refer to the intention, not the outcome. We had to recycle, compost, and throw things away after the party. However, we wasted significantly less given our intention to reduce, reuse, and refuse wherever we could.