Celebrating Women of Waste : Breaking Gender Barriers in the Circular Economy

Abstract colorful art watercolor painting depicts International Women's Day, 8 March of different cultures and ethnicities together. concept of gender equality and the female empowerment movement.
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On International Women's Day, we celebrate the achievements and contributions of women worldwide. It's a time to recognize their resilience, strength, and unwavering commitment to equality and justice. It's also an opportunity to reflect on the progress made towards gender equality and to acknowledge the work that still lies ahead. Extending the essence of Women's Day, it's crucial to shine a spotlight on the often-overlooked role of women in the waste management sector. While waste management is often assumed to be gender-neutral, the reality is that gender disparities persist throughout various facets of this industry. Although women are visibly engaged at the household level, participating in activities like recycling and informal waste management, their representation in formal employment within the waste management and recycling sector remains limited. The division of Labor based on gender in waste management mirrors traditional societal stereotypes, often escaping notice as it reflects broader gender roles. Termed the "gender and waste nexus," this phenomenon perpetuates gender disparities both within waste management and society as a whole (UNEP, 2022).

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Entrenched Gender Bias

Conventional gender norms play a significant role in determining the allocation of tasks within waste management. Typically, men occupy higher-status roles like recycling management, while women are often relegated to tasks considered less prestigious, such as waste picking, sweeping, and waste separation. In formal settings, women are more likely to occupy roles in communications and administration, with fewer opportunities in management or technical fields (Godfrey et al., 2018). This division of Labor perpetuates inequality, as women are frequently excluded from higher-paying positions and decision-making processes (UNEP, 2022). Women are often concentrated on tasks that require precision and attention to detail, such as sorting and separating materials (Practical Action, 2019), while men are overrepresented in physically demanding roles and those requiring technical expertise, such as driving dump trucks and loading and unloading waste (GRID-Arendal, 2021). Despite their active involvement in informal waste management settings, women continue to face marginalization and are often replaced by men as the waste management sector formalizes. These disparities highlight the entrenched gender biases within the waste management sector, hindering women's advancement and perpetuating inequality. To combat this, raising awareness, providing training, and conducting research to collect gender-disaggregated data are vital steps in challenging and altering prevailing gender norms in the waste sector (UNEP, 2022).

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Unique Challenges in the Waste Sector

It is interesting to note that, in many countries, female students outnumber their male counterparts in degree-level education, the disparity in women's participation in employment and even more in the waste ecosystem remains glaringly evident. Cultural norms, combined with factors such as lack of accessible and safe transport, rigid work hours, childcare responsibilities, lack of childcare otherwise, and inadequate maternity leave policies, contribute to the persistently low involvement of women in waste management. Particularly in the waste sector, women are confronted with a unique set of threats and obstacles, including security concerns, remote work locations, the dominance of male spheres, social stigma, and logistical support issues.

In the waste sector, women face a distinct set of challenges that significantly impact their ability to participate fully in the industry. One such obstacle is the prevalence of remote work locations, where landfills and recycling units are often situated on the outskirts or away from urban centres. This geographical dispersion poses a considerable challenge for women, particularly in terms of travel and safety. For instance, women often encounter difficulties accessing reliable transportation options to commute to these remote sites, and the lack of infrastructure together with the security situations of the neighbours in these areas exacerbate safety concerns. A global survey by ISWA’s Women of Waste (WoW) task force highlighting the experiences of women quoted “Women still face very real challenges. The range of barriers to women's full participation is broad: from a lack of well-fitting safety equipment to persistent bias in legislation, culture and gender roles, to harassment and even physical assault at dumpsites. Women of Waste wants to change that" (WoW, 2021).

Additionally, logistical challenges further compound the barriers faced by women in the waste sector. Cultural and security barriers often dissuade women from travelling alone or using modes of transportation such as bikes or public transport, especially in professional settings. Instead, they are compelled to accompany a colleague or rely on car travel, which not only adds to logistical costs but also imposes restrictions on their mobility and independence. In many cases, these challenges are not encountered to the same extent by their male counterparts, who may have greater freedom to navigate their surroundings and transportation options without similar constraints.

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Cultural and security barriers often dissuade women from travelling alone or using modes of transportation such as bikes or public transport, especially in professional settings.

Furthermore, these challenges are not only limited to physical constraints but also encompass broader societal attitudes and norms that perpetuate gender disparities in the waste sector. For instance, women actively engaged in waste management in Pakistan have candidly shared their experiences, shedding light on the biases they encounter and the hurdles they must overcome on a daily basis. One woman of waste poignantly expressed, "Why are you in this field? Choose an easier one; it's not meant for women." Another recounted the difficulty of explaining her job to her family and gaining their support. These firsthand accounts underscore the daunting challenges faced by women striving to establish themselves in the waste management sector. By recognizing and addressing these challenges head-on, we need to work towards creating a more inclusive and equitable environment where women can thrive and contribute meaningfully to the waste management industry.

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To address these challenges and promote greater gender equality in waste management, it is imperative to initiate conversations with female peers, gain insights into the gender-specific obstacles they confront, and implement measures to support them effectively. This includes allocating resources and establishing safeguards in budgets and logistics to ensure women have access to the necessary support and protection. Moreover, investing in women-led enterprises and providing scholarships to disadvantaged groups can play a pivotal role in narrowing the gender gap and fostering inclusivity in the waste management sector.

As we celebrate International Women's Day, let's recognize the invaluable contributions of women in the waste management sector and commit to creating a more inclusive and equitable environment where women can thrive and make meaningful contributions to building a sustainable future.