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Woman engineer inside a production facility. (Image: Coffeekai via Twenty20)

Why adopting a gender-inclusive approach towards Circular Economy matters 

The circular economy must be gender-responsive to actively bridge gaps and overcome barriers to ensure a just transition for all.

By Manuel Albaladejo, Virginia Arribas and Paula Mirazo

The 2030 Development Agenda through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sets the objective of ending poverty, protecting the planet and improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere”. Achieving the Agenda’s goals requires mobilization of all sectors of society to realize the fundamental changes needed to achieve more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous societies within the proposed 15-year period. The 17 SDGs are interlinked and progress–or lack thereof–on one goal impacts the others. 

Within the framework of the 2030 Agenda, SDG 5: gender equality represents the gender-specific goal. Additionally, gender equality and the empowerment of women is established as one of the three universal values guiding the SDGs. Thus, gender equality represents an integral component for achieving inclusive and sustainable development. 

The circular economy, which has gained increasing attention over the last decade, proposes a profoundly different economic model by drastically changing current production and consumption patterns, and promises to be a paradigm shift capable of addressing a series of systemic problems.1 In this sense, the circular model can be seen as a facilitator and tool to achieve several SDGs.2 To determine how this model can contribute to delivering conditions of greater equality, the circular economy must be analysed from a gender perspective. 

Towards a more gender-inclusive circular economy

A gender-equal social, economic and political structure is a necessary foundation for the circular economy to create a sustainable, comprehensive and just model to deliver systemic solutions. Recognizing the role of structural factors and understanding how they influence and, to some extent, condition the possible results of the shift to a circular economy emphasizes the necessity of applying a gender perspective in public policies that guide and shape the transition towards circularity. In addition to perpetuating inequalities (e.g. women’s heightened exposure to unsustainable work conditions and waste-related hazards, among others), public policies and programmes that fail to integrate a gender perspective and lack gender mainstreaming do not have the capacity to provide truly exhaustive solutions.

Existing research shows that women are disproportionately represented in low-value added, informal and end-of-pipe activities of the circular economy, including recycling, reuse and waste management. By contrast, when delving into higher value-added circular activities such as industrial eco-design, the development of circular products and other activities involving greater use of advanced technologies, women’s participation is less prominent. This, in part, is the result of women’s low participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activities due to gender socialization and the gendered division of labour. For example, globally, only approximately 30 per cent of students enrolled in STEM-related fields in higher education are women (Figure 1).3 Moreover, the power and utilities sector, a key sector in the transition to circularity, is still overwhelmingly male-dominated: women make up only 5 per cent  of executive board members; 21 per cent of non-executive board members, and 15 per cent  of senior management leadership roles.4 This suggests that the gender divide also exists within the circular economy and the sectors that underpin this transition. Hence, a just and inclusive transition towards circularity calls for a stronger participation of women across the entire circular economy spectrum, and not only in activities associated with the informal sector and with low productivity levels and technology use.

Girls' and women's education across fields of study

Note: Distribution of female students enrolled in higher education by field of study, world average.

Source: UNESCO (2017), Cracking the Code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). UNESCO: Paris.


Closing the gender gap is not only just, it also helps accelerate the circular economy transition. According to a 2020 study “companies with improved gender diversity on boards from 2013 through 2018 were 60 per cent, 39 per cent and 46 per cent more likely than those without to reduce the intensity of energy consumption, GHG emissions and water use respectively”.5 This signals that the underrepresentation of women could, in fact,  hamper progress on the circular economy and  slow down the much-needed transition. The development of  policies that actively promote the recruitment, promotion and retention of women in leadership positions is therefore crucial. 

It is important to note, however, that the nexus between the circular economy and gender is also evinced outside the traditional realm of productive activities, such as at the domestic level and in alternative economies and spaces. Due to the traditional discriminatory gender division of labour, women have mostly been relegated to the reproductive and domestic role  in the realm of family and home life, while men often have a more prominent role in the public and remunerated productive domain. The non-remuneration of reproductive work (household management, care and cleaning and cooking, among others) has forced women to carry out these tasks efficiently: minimizing costs and maximizing the use of resources at their disposal. Therefore, passing clothes and toys from older to younger siblings, reinventing and creating meals with scarce resources, cultivating their own food, or engaging in other forms of trade such as sharing or bartering with neighbours, demonstrates that historically, women have been involved in alternative economic spaces. Nonetheless, women’s contributions to circular and environmentally conscious practices should not be limited to those resulting out of a situation of discrimination and disadvantage. Women should have equal access to opportunities that allow them to act as leaders of change for circularity in all fields and sectors. 

Gender barriers still exist within the circular economy, such as glass ceilings and sticky floors. This raises a series of fundamental questions: Why is applying a gender perspective to the circular economy necessary? What do significant changes in production and consumption patterns imply for women and men? How can we prevent a widening of gender disparities in the transition towards a circular economy? How can we build policies that actively promote the inclusion of women in all types of circular economy-related activities? How can we account for women’s specific practical and strategic needs in the context of this transition? How can we ensure that the opportunities the circular economy transition generates are equally accessible to and equally beneficial for both women and men?        

Beyond the discourse: Is the gender dimension included in circular economy strategies?

To address the pressing questions raised above, we explore whether the gender dimension is included in circular economy strategies and roadmaps of the Latin America region: Chiles Roadmap for a Circular Chile by 2040; Colombias National Circular Economy Strategy; Ecuadors Circular Economy White Paper; Mexicos National Vision Towards Sustainable Management: Zero Waste, Uruguays National Circular Economy Action Plan and in the European Unions Circular Economy Action Plan. 

We find a general disconnect between the productive sector and gender equality in policymaking. Only three of the analysed documents explicitly mention gender, and none refer to gender equality policies or strategies where the incorporation of a gender perspective would be necessary. The Circular Economy White Book for Ecuador claims that strengthening CE-related jobs, the formalization of informal recyclers and providing technical support to circular enterprises contribute directly to SDG 5.6 Mexicos National Vision Towards Sustainable Management: Zero Waste proposes “establishing coordination and follow-up mechanisms to achieve harmonization and articulation with programs and policies related to gender equality”.7 Lastly, the Roadmap for a Circular Chile by 2040 envisages a future in which the changes brought about by the transition have been the result of collaborative and participatory work ... considering the most vulnerable sectors and adopting a gender perspective” and that opportunities are accessible to marginalized groups and that they consider gender equity and equality, ensuring the fairness of the transformation process”.8

In short, the documents that allude to the gender dimension seem to only do so at the rhetorical level, given that no concrete strategies or action plans are articulated for the achievement of greater equality and inclusion of women. 

Gender equality as the basis for sustainable development

By failing to adopt a gender perspective in circularity-related public policies, we risk perpetuating–instead of challenging–current gender inequalities related to women’s participation, leadership and access to the opportunities and benefits the circular economy can generate. Furthermore, gender equality is a central pillar for achieving sustainable development, which is the circular economy’s ultimate aim. Failing to incorporate a gender perspective and harnessing women’s full potential as agents of change in circular economy strategies may reinforce the discrimination and disadvantaged position women have faced historically. If the circular economy is to be a game changer for production and consumption patterns, it must do so based on principles of equality.  

Policymaking in the circular economy sphere should be gender responsive, which necessarily entails an understanding of gender roles, the traditional, discriminatory gender division of labour, and inequalities that shape our current system to actively build strategies, measures and tools that help bridge gaps and overcome barriers to ensure a just circular economy transition for all. 

The authors would also like to thank Alma Espino, President - Member of the Board of Directors. Coordinator of the Development and Gender Unit at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Development Studies (CIEDUR) for her comments and insight throughout the process of writing this article. 

  • Manuel Albaladejo is Country Representative for Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
  • Virginia Arribas is Researcher in the Development and Gender Unit of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Development Studies (CIEDUR), Uruguay.  
  • Paula Mirazo is Economic Transformation and Industrialization Research Assistant at the Regional Office in Uruguay of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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