The Age of Women: why the world needs one

If women led the world, it would probably be vastly less toxic, far less prone to climate change, hunger, war and environmental devastation. Far less at risk from its own ‘success’.

I was drawn to this reflection by the research I did for Poisoned Planet[i], in which it became evident that the 150 billion tonnes of chemical substances emitted annually by human activity (our greatest impact of all upon the planet) are almost exclusively the handiwork of men – not women. This is not to say that women don’t benefit from these activities or even, often, approve them. But they rarely drive them – at least with such sanguine (and sanguinary) disregard for present and future generations.

Chemistry is a profession that has long enjoyed – or suffered – absolute male dominance. It began with products like dyes and textile treatments but rapidly progressed to blokey things like high explosives, poison gas and the ingredients for atomic and chemical weapons – and now the mass production of endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and neurotoxins on such a universal scale that they will probably affect every child on the planet for the rest of history, and are increasingly linked by medical experts like Harvard School of Public Health to pandemics of mental disease, as well as chronic disorders such as obesity. Today, while it is obligatory to test a new aircraft, car or mobile phone for safety, the majority of our 143,000 chemicals have never been fully tested, or in many cases tested at all, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) - but are released into our living environment, and us, anyway.

Globally only four out of 166 Nobel laureates for chemistry in the past century or so were women, and in the US women make up only 16% of tenured chemistry academics and only 9% of chemical company CEOs. It is probable that the gender imbalance in places such as Japan, India and China (the world’s badly-regulated chemical powerhouse of coming decades) is even greater. And although more young women are studying chemistry at university and occupy the lower rungs of the profession than in the past, they are not responsible for the big decisions about what gets put into the human living environment or the human race, and whether it has been properly safety tested – especially for children.

On the other hand a quick glance around social media and the cybersphere makes it clear that most of the organisations of parents, citizens, consumers and victims which are most concerned with health, children’s wellbeing and with rolling back the tide of toxic contamination in our lives are led by women. When it comes to assessing the risks and rewards of chemistry, male and female thinking are clearly starting to diverge.

Climate change, too, is a gender issue – as much as one of physics or economics. A look around the world makes it clear that the vast majority of people who dig up carbon for a living, or who cause it to be dug, or who then burn it excessively, are blokes. In Australia, for example, women make up only 14% of the total mining workforce and only 5% of the top five mineral extractive professions, according to the Minerals Council of Australia’s 2013 White Paper. It remains an industry dominated by masculine thought, and even more so globally.

Likewise the vast majority of those who clear-fell forests or remove topsoil and contaminate rivers and oceans are males. Though it is claimed that over half of the world’s 1.4 billion farmers are women, most of those operating the big soil-degrading equipment or serving as farm leaders are males.

Male thinking has a tendency to opt for immediate, vigorous mechanical or chemical action to solve a problem and obtain a short-term goal – whether it is defeating an enemy or growing a nation or building a trading enterprise. Female thinking often looks further and wider, to the impact on children, grandchildren, society and the Earth as a whole. Males tend to accept high short- and long-term risks for the sake of rapid perceived gains: they are happy to mine coal for instant prosperity – and gamble with the future of their own grandkids. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, nor a genuine stereotype – there are countless women and men who embrace the alternate mode of thought or are positioned all the way along the spectrum. But ask yourself this: if the vast majority of coal miners, chemists, timber workers, fishers, big farmers or bankers were women, how would they run these vital industries? How would they assess the balance of risk and reward?

Closer to home, is the apparent willingness of the Abbott Government to trade off a threat to future generations from climate change (which it acknowledges), for the sake of near-term fiscal gain purely a reflection of its ideology or economic philosophy – or also the result of a preponderance of bloke-think?

A generation or two ago this issue was less crucial. The population was far smaller, its global impacts way less, and the rewards for risk-taking were larger. Today male-dominated production is playing havoc with the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, with human health, with the survival of other species and entire landscapes. As the population grows to 10 or 11 billion and the global economy expands, these impacts will more than double.

Interestingly, women worldwide have already taken a decision to ignore men completely in the one area they have some control over – their own fertility. Female fertility – while still high in some places – is dropping everywhere, in spite of the patriarchal lectures and juicy bribes offered by male-dominated governments. Women have, apparently, already taken a species-level ‘decision’ that a safer future involves fewer people, better cared-for; though it may take another century or so to bring about. (Ironically, male fertility is dropping too - probably as a result of the toxic avalanche, which is chemically feminizing males and lowering sperm counts. But not fast enough to make a difference.)

So great is the human impact on the biosphere going to be by the second part of the 21st century that male-think – vital in earlier times for survival and growth – is going to become a disadvantage, and female-think (by men as well as women) a major dynamic in the prospects for survival and wellbeing of a civilisation that needs to share, recycle, sustain, heal, co-operate and mutually understand more than it needs to over-produce. All the more reason for concern that women are still excluded from power and policy by so many societies, corporations, religions and organisations, including our own.

This isn’t about equal opportunity, so much as the emerging rules for human survival and wellbeing in a finite and increasingly damaged world.

Men have been leaders in many of the past achievements of civilisation: the stone, bronze, iron, agricultural, manufacturing and IT revolutions were substantially masculine artefacts. To secure our future we need a new style of leadership – one which takes fewer risks, protects and cares more thoughtfully for posterity and the planet we depend on.

To survive, humanity now needs The Age of Women.


[i] Poisoned Planet, Allen and Unwin (Australia) 2014.

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