The role of women’s leadership in cultivating a gender responsive circular economy

Author/editor: Furman, S
Year published: 2022


Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today and requires accelerated action to ensure a sustainable future. The circular economy (CE) is emerging as a solution to some of the problems created by human-induced climate change. Through its emphasis on reducing and eliminating waste output, this model seeks to construct more sustainable ways of producing and consuming. However, circular initiatives often fail to consider social and particularly gendered dimensions, and as in other entrepreneurial models, frequently eliminate women from leadership positions. This research assesses the possible role of women as leaders in cultivating a gender responsive CE, allowing the full potential of this innovative economic model to be realised.

This research deduces implications of women’s inclusion for sustainable development from existing scholarship on both the CE and women’s leadership in the business and climate sectors. It explores benefits, barriers, and the importance of incorporating a gender perspective in circular approaches. A case study of the Philippines, where progress towards gender equality in leadership is advanced and the country is adopting circular approaches to tackle its extreme waste crisis, illustrates how a gender responsive CE may be achieved in practice.

Three main findings emerged from this research. Firstly, women in positions of leadership are proven to have a positive impact on both business and environmental outcomes, yet emerging data indicates that women face inequalities and under-representation in leadership in the CE and wider environmental initiatives. Secondly, the implications of women’s under-representation are intensified given that social norms and structural inequalities make women more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Whilst circular approaches are being undertaken by the private and public sector to adapt to climate change, the notable absence of gender responsive CE initiatives risks undermining progress towards sustainable development. Thirdly, the CE, despite being an innovative and new economic and entrepreneurial model, lacks a gender perspective that could be crucial in realising its full potential. Adopting gender responsive circular approaches is therefore critical for progress towards sustainable development and gender equality.

In order to realise a gender responsive CE, it is recommended that governments and organisations committing to circular practices must equally commit to social equality and inclusion. This could include government policies enforcing gender quotas and audits, greater financial support for women in the CE, and the development of programs targeted at empowering women as leaders and educating circular enterprises on the benefits of women’s leadership. Enacting these recommendations is pivotal in enabling women’s leadership and striving for a gender responsive CE. Further details about the research and findings are available in the attached report.

Sarah Furman (she/her) is a Research Assistant at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. She is currently studying a double degree with a Bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Arts (majoring in French Language and Culture) at the Australian National University. Sarah completed this research on the role of women’s leadership in creating a gender responsive circular economy as part of her internship at GIWL.

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