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#MeToo has arrived and China’s environment sector must respond

Fighting sexual harassment is just the start: women working for China’s environmental groups need to be heard, writes Yao Zhe

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China's environmental sector is no exception to allegations of sexual harassment against men (Image: Mihai Surdu/Unsplash)

The #MeToo movement has reached China’s universities, charities and media following a number of allegations against well-known men, and it’s revealing important truths about the frequency of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The alleged perpetrators have been criticised for lacking moral standards and respect for others, resulting in calls to put in place systems to help prevent and punish such behaviours as soon as possible.

The cases of sexual harassment and assault exposed recently have mostly occurred between powerful men and less powerful women (for example a male reporter and a female intern, and a male charity founder and a female volunteer). This reminds us that harassment in the workplace, and in society as a whole, relies on power imbalances – and that the environmental sector is no exception. Therefore, fighting sexual harassment is just one part of the solution: women should not just demand protection, but take an active approach to calling for gender equality and the rebuilding of power structures that govern our workplaces.

Sexual inequality in the environmental sector

Sexual harassment can be viewed as an extreme manifestation of gender inequality, but there are more “moderate” examples that exist in the workplace. Those who work in the environmental and climate sphere in China will not be surprised to see conferences large and small feature mostly male speakers, even if there is no lack of female researchers on the topic under discussion (internationally, an all-male panel is referred to as a “manel”). Environmental news stories quote male experts much more often than their female counterparts. And while environmental groups have more female employees than men, management is usually male, based on my observations.

These are not questions of violence, but they do systematically hamper women’s professional development and reinforce male-dominated power structures. That many people believe the above phenomena are nothing unusual is a tacit admission of the reality of gender inequality. 

Environmental groups often want to create change but the gender imbalances within those groups disrupt of limit the change they seek to make. For example, policymakers should listen to a wide range of opinions but if it is always the same group of men participating in those discussions, the policy created is much less likely to reflect wider interests, thus further privileging male interests.

In fact, it is women who are more likely to be affected by pollution and climate change, and so their needs should be the focus of policy and project design. Women can just as easily be protectors of male authority and patriarchy, but increasing the opportunities for women’s voices to be heard and raising the number of women in leadership roles will help redress some of these imbalances.

Change can start now

Since the scandals broke many Chinese civil society bodies have made commitments to fight sexual harassment. The speed of the response is cause for hope. Government, business and academia are more constrained by their systems, but the NGO sector has a strong tradition of dynamism and bringing about change.

Increasing women’s voices and influence in China will be a long and complex process but real action has started. For example, getting more female experts into the media. The group NüVoices has put together a list of female experts researching Chinese issues, the areas they study, and contact details. This is offered for free to other journalists to encourage their colleagues to include more female voices in their reports. However, experts of Chinese nationality are still in the minority on this list, and more could be added. It would be valuable to provide a similar list to journalists working in Chinese.

It is also possible to give more women opportunities to speak at conferences and prevent the appearance of “manels”. There are many women working in the environmental sector, so this should be easy to do. A European approach could be copied: to increase gender diversity in EU policy discussions the Brussels Binder created guidelines. Whether you’re the keynote speaker or the organiser it contains information on how to boost gender equality.

Be braver

Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and Irish comedian Maeve Higgins have recently launched a project with ambitions beyond simple “equality”. Their Mothers of Invention initiative uses a podcast to discuss what women around the world are doing to combat climate change. For them, there is a deeper problem to climate change: "The capitalist patriarchy is not going to solve this. We need to".

Gender equality isn’t about seizing power from men within the existing system, but changing patriarchy itself and creating a feminist model of governance and behaviour. When it comes to the environment, as Mary Robinson says: “climate change is a manmade problem that requires a feminist solution.” This view is also applicable to the various environmental challenges China faces.

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