"As I was conducting field research looking at the adaptation experiences of Inuit women in Nunavut, Canada, a region which had very little gender-focused adaptation, resilience and vulnerability work, I was curious to understand how [such] researchers were engaging with concepts of gender worldwide," Anna Bunce of McGill University, Canada, told environmentalresearchweb.

Together with colleague James Ford, Bunce evaluated 123 peer-reviewed articles in this field with a focus on gender published since 2006. These gender-focused articles were "a small fraction of a much larger body of scholarship on adaptation, resilience and vulnerability". Since inequalities and socially constructed roles affect the vulnerability of the different genders to climate change, in turn influencing the types of adaptations recommended, climate change is not seen as gender neutral.

"I was honestly surprised by how little work was taking place in Central and South America and Asia (excluding Bangladesh)," said Bunce. "At the same time I was also surprised by how often women were deemed as being vulnerable without there being any explicit reference to or discussion of the reasons they may, or may not, be vulnerable. After repeatedly reading articles that labeled 50% of the globe’s population vulnerable and grouped them with children, the elderly, and the disabled, simply because of their gender, I felt a critique of this nuance-lacking narrative was necessary."

Examining nuance

Some researchers are concerned that engagement with gender in this topic has been "tokenistic", with studies merely documenting that the impact of climate change will differ by gender but contributing little to our understanding of what’s creating vulnerability and stimulating no change that will reduce inequalities. If we adapt based on such tokenistic engagement of gender risk, we may reinforce pre-existing gender vulnerabilites, and carry out interventions that work better for one gender than the other.

"A key challenge to this field is the recognition that the gendered experience of climate change adaptation, resilience and vulnerability is nuanced," said Bunce. "There needs to be a deeper understanding by researchers who bring in discussions of gender to their research or analysis of the issues and concepts surrounding gender. For researchers who do not have a background in these concepts, I urge them to read and explore the gender literature so they can avoid making (and reiterating) generalized statements and deepen their analysis and understanding."

Only one of the 123 articles analysed in the review explicitly focused on men, and no studies focused on those outside the gender binary. Studies focusing on both genders chiefly highlighted the experiences of women. "This…is a response to broader concerns about the privileging of the male voice in research in general, including climate change research," write Bunce and Ford in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). "As such, many of the papers examined focus on women as the understudied gender. Notwithstanding, the dearth of studies explicitly focusing on men or third genders is concerning."

Variation, variation

Much of the research in adaptation, resilience and vulnerability aims to inform decision-making, whether at the household, regional or national level. There are two key approaches – developing a scientific understanding that will hopefully be useful for those looking to act on it, or creating actionable knowledge, with an emphasis on community engagement and empowerment, and researchers often seeking to catalyze change.

Around 60% of the studies Bunce and Ford examined had a focus on adaptation or vulnerability, while only 6% focused on resilience. These eight resilience-focused studies also had the lowest engagement with gender, on average. Just over 40% of all the studies had a high level of engagement with gender.

"Adaptation, resilience and vulnerability research is increasing over time, not only in the amount of research being done, but also the level to which research is engaging with concepts of gender," said Bunce. "Of the three disciplines, adaptation research was found to engage with concepts of gender at a higher level than vulnerability or resilience research."

Of the 123 studies, 49 took place in sub-Saharan Africa and 24 in Asia, with 11 of these in Bangladesh. Eleven were in Australia, eight in Europe, and four took place in Canada, five in Mexico, two in the US and one in Brazil and Chile.

"Looking at the research from a geographic perspective, there are real disparities, with research in Sub-Saharan Africa leading the way, while the Americas lag," said Bunce. "Although a large amount of health-related adaptation, resilience and vulnerability research exists, it scores poorly on our gender engagement index, indicating a need to develop a deeper understanding of gender in this field."

Nearly one-quarter of the articles, 28 in total, had a focus on health, whilst 25 examined environmental management, and 16 covered hazards research. Other sectors such as agriculture, food security, livelihoods and migration were notably low on papers, the study found.

Gender futures

In 50 years’ time, Bunce hopes to see "a more nuanced understanding of the role women play in the spheres of climate change adaptation, resilience and vulnerability that digs deeper than simply painting women as vulnerable or as saviours." She also thinks that "as we've seen in the last 50 years, our understanding and inclusion of gender into research will continue to improve".

But there’s still work to do. "Sub-Saharan Africa is leading the way and has a great deal to teach those of us doing research outside this region," she added. "Hopefully, we will bring in the perspectives and experiences of those outside the gender binary so we can accurately understand the experiences of individuals at all points on the gender spectrum."

Now Bunce plans to use her review to inform her own work looking at the climate change experiences and adaptive capacity of Inuit women in the territorial capital of Nunavut in Arctic Canada. "I feel by providing more case studies that explore climate change adaptation, resilience and vulnerability, and gender at an in-depth level, we as researchers can gain a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which gender impacts one's climate change experience," she said.

Bunce published her findings in the new Environmental Research Reviews section of Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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