Gender & Chemicals
Today, chemicals can be found in almost all products of daily use, in food as well as in clothing, building materials, cleaning products or cosmetics. They can cause health problems by triggering allergies and respiratory diseases or by affecting our hormone system. Many chemicals are considered carcinogenic. And they pollute our environment.
Whether at work or in care work, societal gender roles influence who is exposed to chemicals and to what extent. In turn, biological sex influences how chemicals affect bodily functions and accumulate in the body. In this regard, we have data primarily on the effects on women and men. In contrast, there is a considerable lack of knowledge about the effects on transgender or intersex persons.
For decades, experts and women's organizations have been calling for chemicals policy - whether it involves the formulation of laws and regulations, or communication about the risks of chemicals - to be conducted with a gender perspective. It has also been demanded that science take greater account of this perspective and provide appropriate data.
Market driven / labor economy
In many occupational areas where the proportion of women is disproportionately high, the use of products containing chemicals that are hazardous to health is high. This applies, for example, to the entire cleaning sector, as well as to hairdressers and beauticians, but also to many laboratory settings. In the more male-dominated professions, painters and varnishers stand out in particular, where chemicals can be absorbed through the respiratory tract. Not to forget the use of pesticides in agriculture, which can lead to cancer if protection is inadequate. In some countries, up to 85% of those who apply the pesticides are female (see WECF 2021, see Networks, Projects, Publications).
Chemical-intensive industries, such as textiles or electronics, also have a high proportion of female employees. Their risk of developing breast cancer is above average.
Care economy / care work
Those who perform care work - the majority of whom are still women - are also particularly exposed to the chemicals used for many household tasks. First and foremost are dishwashing and cleaning products. When it comes to the use of cosmetics, also characterized by many ingredients that are harmful to health, it is rather the role models that lead to their disproportionate use by women.
The resulting illnesses, especially respiratory, allergic and skin diseases, can lead to an increased need for care for all family members. In an effort to avoid these effects, increased time spent gathering information about the ingredients of furniture, decorative materials, toys, cleaners, or cosmetics can have a negative impact.
Institutionalized androcentrism/power of definition
The low proportion of women in decision-making positions in the chemical industry (see below) contributes to the fact that while the gender effects of chemicals have long been known, they are still understudied and rarely considered in legislation and regulation.
Chemistry is one of the few natural science fields of study characterized by a high proportion of women. Currently, this is around 45%, including the subjects of biochemistry and food chemistry, which have an above-average proportion of women. However, this is not reflected in the proportion of female professors in these courses (14.6%), nor in the proportion of women in positions of power in the chemical industry. In 2016, at the European level, the proportion of women at the board level was 28.6%, and at the executive level it was 10%.
Body, health, self-determination and privacy ('intimacy')
Due to their higher body fat percentage, women are more likely to accumulate harmful chemicals. Many substances found in cosmetics, for example, such as antioxidants, UV filters, parabens, solvents, synthetic fragrances and antimicrobial chemicals, can mimic hormonal activity and be carcinogenic. This is especially a concern when one considers the cumulative and combined effects with each other and with other chemicals.
In addition to physiological differences that affect the impacts of chemicals differently in men, women, and children, women are particularly vulnerable in certain situations, such as during pregnancy and lactation. Cleaning products can cause asthmatic symptoms and even chronic damage, which can also be passed on to the unborn child.
Also, vapors as well as spray cleaning products can be easily inhaled, causing damage to the lungs. A long-term study of professional cleaners showed that their lung function was significantly impaired and their lungs were as damaged as after 20 years of cigarette use. The lung function of those who cleaned a lot at home was also significantly impaired compared to those who did not clean at all (see also the dimension care work).
Symbolic order (cross-cutting dimension)
Gender identities affect the consumption of personal care products and cosmetics. Body image, and thus external appearance, is an area in which traditional categories of masculinity and femininity are staged and consolidated. This is taken up and reinforced by product manufacturers when marketing products. For example, women spend on average twice as much as men in the area of facial cleansing and care. Gender differences are also evident in products for body cleansing and care, although not as clear.
Although the health effects of many of these products have been known for a long time, strict legal regulations and their monitoring are still a long time coming. This, too, may be related to "symbolic order," in the sense of evaluating and hierarchizing relevance.
A healthy male body is equated in particular with physical strength and fitness, and thus associated with specific physical characteristics rather than holistic health. This is reflected in the widespread disregard for men's health complaints and infrequent seeking of medical advice. Although the number of functional sperm cells in men in Europe and other regions of the world has been steadily declining for decades, partly due to chemical exposure, and the likelihood of infertility has increased as a result, male reproductive health remains a taboo subject in our society. See also this blog post.
Combatting Global Plastic Pollution Feminist Perspectives for a Gender-Just Approach
Plastic pollution is a global problem. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that the environmental, social, economic and health risks of plastics are now as extensive and severe as those of climate change, the loss of ecosystems and the exploitation of natural resources. Many people, including policy makers, are becoming increasingly aware of the destructive consequences of plastic waste. But what does this have to do with gender inequality? To what extent do plastic hazards affect the sexes and genders differently? And why can the plastic problem worsen existing disadvantages and discrimination?
A critical look at the entire plastics cycle is of crucial importance from a feminist perspective, because the plastic problem cannot simply be reduced to consumer use patterns or to harmful microplastics in cosmetic products. On the contrary, every stage of the plastics cycle reflects different gender-specific experiences and exposures. From petrochemicals and microplastics to waste export and management, the plastics lifecycle has different and gender-specific consequences. The only way to develop just and sustainable solutions to the destruction of the environment is to start by recognising the extent to which discriminatory structures and gender inequality contribute to the plastic problem, and conversely, the degree to which the plastic crisis exacerbates gender power discrepancies.
The inbrief was written by Birte Rodenberg and edited by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It can be downloaded for free in German and English.
Pilot study: Gender analysis of German chemicals management in the GenChemRoadMap project
In national chemicals management, there has been a lack of ideas and approaches for the practical implementation of gender mainstreaming, as many of the actors involved - research institutions, chemical industry, governmental and non-governmental organizations - have only a vague idea of the potential of tools such as gender analysis.
The GenChemRoadMap project is aimed at both public and private actors involved in chemicals management. Based on a Gender Road Map, a guideline for action developed by MSP Institute e.V., and an accompanying workbook, initial impulses for the systematic integration of gender are set in workshops and longer-term technical support from the Federal Environment Agency during implementation.
In this context, the key actor at the national level, the national SAICM focal point at the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), will be provided with the urgently needed expertise on the interrelationships between gender and chemicals in close cooperation with the UBA gender equality team. The dissemination of the German experience in the SAICM process is also intended to inspire other nations to also consider gender in their chemicals management.
Study calls for more research on the impact of chemicals on women’s health
The study "Gender Review Mapping with a Focus on Women" published by IPEN (see below), which was prepared in collaboration with the "Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management", makes it clear that
- women in agriculture and food canning may be subject to high exposure to carcinogens and hormone disrupting chemicals (EDCs), increasing the risk of breast cancer, with the risk of premenopausal breast cancer being highest for food canning workers.
- there is a lack of research and information about women’s exposure to chemicals or nanomaterials and their effects on women’s specific physiology or endocrine system, as well as the long-term effects on their reproductive health. Gender-disaggregated data in labor statistics is unfortunately often lacking for occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals.
- women generally are disproportionately impacted by exposure to chemicals and wastes and have less access to participation in decision making.
Gender Review Mapping with a Focus on Women and Chemicals: Impact of Emerging Policy Issues and the Relevance for the Sustainable Development Goals
The aim of this report is to show the impact chemicals have on women as a vulnerable group highly exposed to hazardous chemicals and gender inequalities related to decision-making around the management of chemicals and waste. The report also means to provide concrete steps that can be taken to safeguard the health of women and empower women in decision-making and in their roles as agents of change. The overall objective is to provide evidence to all stakeholders working towards sustainable development of the importance of addressing this issue for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Online course "What has gender got to do with chemicals?"
For anyone who has ever wondered what gender has to do with chemicals and whether there are differences in exposure for women compared to men, this online course provides an overview of the areas where women are typically more exposed to chemicals than men and tips on how to better protect yourself. This course is part of IPEN's free Women and Chemicals training series. The course was developed by Johanna Hausmann, Senior Policy Advisor for Harmful Chemicals and Waste and Environmental Activist at WECF.
Women and chemicals
The second issue of HEJ!Youth magazine focusing on women and chemicals was published in July 2021. Short articles address various aspects of the issue, such as the situation of female workers in the electronics industry, who suffer from immense health problems related to exposure to toxic chemicals. In addition, the issue includes a portrait of biochemist Rosalind Franklin, whose research was instrumental in elucidating the double helix structure of DNA, and educates about chemicals in menstrual and cosmetic products. Women advocating for menstrual justice ('period equity') are also featured.
HEJYouth is a group of young activists working for a healthy and toxin-free future. In addition to the magazine, HEJYouth also runs a podcast and organizes webinars. For more information, click here.
"45min for Gender" webinar series
The MSP Institute's regular short webinars examine individual chemical topics and sectors from a gender perspective and discuss with experts how a gender-responsive legislative framework for the sustainable management of chemicals and waste can be created in the future.
- WECF – Women Engage for a Common Future
During the 1992 World Summit in Rio de Janeiro, women from the European region came together to form a network to ensure that the voices of women and marginalized social groups were heard politically. In 1994, Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF) (since 2016: Women Engage for a Common Future) was founded. From the beginning, an important focus of the network's work has been the issue of chemicals and their impact on the health of women in particular.
- MSP Institute
Since 2017, the MSP Institute has been working to integrate gender aspects into (inter)national sustainable chemicals management. The starting point of the work is that there are a number of gender aspects that are relevant to chemicals and waste management. However, these have not yet received the attention they deserve in the renewal process of the United Nations Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM for short) to ensure the best possible choices in policy-making and effective implementation.
- IPEN – International Pollutants Elimination Network
IPEN is a global network working for a healthier world where people and the environment are no longer harmed by the production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals. IPEN brings together more than 600 non-governmental organizations, mostly from low- and middle-income countries. They work to strengthen global and national chemicals and waste policies.
- Gender Just Chemicals Policy. Together for a Toxic-free future
WECF's background paper, published in 2021, provides information on why a gender perspective in chemicals management and policy is essential to better protect everyone from chemicals of concern. It discusses the different effects of chemical exposure on people who are female and male. When using terms such as "women", it should be noted that this refers to people with female bodies unless otherwise stated, as there is currently a lack of data on transgender and intersex people in the European Union.
- Gender and Chemicals. Questions, Issues and Possible Entry Points
This publication was produced as part of the “Gender and Chemicals: Issues, Stakeholders, Strategies” project conducted by the MSP Institute in 2017. The paper begins by discussing why gender and chemicals is an issue worth addressing. It then summarizes some of the existing evidence on biological sex and gender in the context of chemicals to identify entry points for further (gender) analysis. This is followed by a review of relevant international policy processes with the same aim of identifying entry points and opportunities to advance gender and chemicals issues and to advance the integration of gender in chemicals and waste management.
- Chemical Entanglements: Gender and Exposure
The Catalyst Journal publishes peer-reviewed essays and articles from the interdisciplinary field of feminist science and technology studies (STS) and aims to foster innovation in feminist STS and related fields of study and provide a venue for publishing activist feminist and critical theory by supporting theoretically imaginative and methodologically creative scholarly work that incorporates approaches from the fields of critical public health, queer studies, disability studies, sci-art, technology and digital media studies, history and philosophy of science and medicine, and more.
This 2020 issue (Vol. 6 No.1) includes fourteen essays and artworks that explore the theme of Chemical Entanglements in the Special Section, Critical Commentary, Critical Perspectives, Lab Meeting, and Cover: Gender and Exposure.
- Portal Gendering MINT digital - learning unit on gender & chemistry
The Open Educational Resources (OER) offered on the portal provide insights into the research and teaching area of Gender & STEM. At the same time, they encourage reflection on gender issues in the natural and technical sciences. The OER are designed to be used in university teaching, especially in science didactics, but also in social and cultural sciences. At the same time, the OER are suitable for self-study by all interested users. The portal includes a learning unit on gender and chemistry.