Chemical safety at work: What’s gender got to do with it?

Expert – Blog Series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by Halshka Graczyk – International Labour Organization (ILO)

Women working with chemicals; Source: ILO

Recognising diversity, including gender differences at the workplace, is critical for protecting the health and safety of workers, particularly when it comes to hazardous exposures from chemical substances. A number of social as well as biological factors impact the effect that chemicals have on worker health and safety. Not only may exposure scenarios be different depending on factors related to gender, the impact of exposure may be different dependent on biological sex characteristics.  

In regards to exposures, owing to differences in social and occupational roles, and prevailing harmful stereotypes, women, men and persons with diverse gender identities[1] face different exposure scenarios in regards to the chemicals encountered and the magnitude and duration of exposure. Recent ILO estimates reveal that female workers constitute the majority of the workforce in specific occupations, ones that may face increased exposures to chemicals, such health professionals; cleaners; and food processing, wood working, garment and craft workers (Figure 1). Female workers in the garment sector for example are disproportionately exposed to a number of hazardous dyes and solvents, some of which are proven carcinogens, as well as endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Figure 1. Sectors with prevalent female workforce; Source: ILOSTAT 2020)

Unfortunately, work predominantly undertaken by women is often presumed to be less hazardous than that undertaken by men, and may consequently receive less attention for critical workplace procedures, such as risk assessment, or worker training. In addition, work tools and personal protective equipment (PPE) have been traditionally designed for the Western male body. Tools and PPE with poor fit can lead to reduced protection and increase the risk of chemical exposure and accidents. In some cases, workers with poor fitting PPE may forgo using it at all. Female workers entering traditionally male jobs in areas like construction, laboratory work and emergency services are particularly at risk from inappropriately designed PPE.

When it comes to decision making at work, women may be less likely to be heads of operations and therefore have less decision-making power when it comes to hazardous exposures. Women are also less likely than men to be unionized and have high-level positions in workers organizations’ and less likely to participate in OSH committees.[i]

In regards to health effects, it is well evidenced that biological differences between sexes, such as physiological, chromosomal, and hormonal differences, create differing susceptibilities to the effects of toxic chemicals. Female workers are at particularly high risk during child bearing years and pregnancy, when even low-doses of chemicals might elicit dramatic and irreversible effects. This is particularly relevant for endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that are able to induce hormonal effects at extremely low dosages, affecting fertility, fecundity and fetal development.

In addition, females are more likely to have more adipose tissue and to store chemicals that bioaccumulate, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals like mercury. Female workers exposed to mercury in artisanal mining, in the dismantling of e-waste, or other sectors, may face severe consequences to their reproductive health, and exposure during pregnancy may result in spontaneous abortion, neurobehavioral consequences, or birth defects. The fact that mercury can bioaccumulate means that occupational exposures even years before pregnancy can still negatively affect the developing fetus.

Recent data shows that occupational cancers represent an important and growing cause for work-related deaths. While many occupational studies do not report gender disaggregated data, those that do cite an alarming trend of increased cancer rates in female workers exposed to chemicals, namely within rubber and plastics production, and in jobs involving exposures to solvents, dusts, heavy metals, and pesticides. A different cellular response to oxidative stress between men and women in cancer susceptibility has been hypothesized, raising the question of whether the classification of occupational carcinogens should be gender specific.[ii]

However it is essential to note that biological susceptibility should never be used as an excuse to discriminate against workers entering a job; instead jobs or tasks must be accommodated to protect workers’ health.

Despite evidence for gender-based differences when it comes to OSH and chemicals, it is clear that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Occupational health research for female workers has focused on limited sectors. Very few physiological or toxicological studies have been carried out on chemical exposures, and the studies for gender diverse persons are virtually non-existent. Moreover, women’s occupational illnesses are often under-diagnosed, under-reported and under-compensated compared with men’s, making it difficult to extrapolate from occupational disease registries.[iii]

ILO role and response

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was founded on the concept of guaranteeing protection for the life and health of all workers in all occupations, including workers exposed to hazardous chemicals. As such, the ILO has adopted more than 50 legal instruments on the protection of workers from chemical hazards, including Conventions, their accompanying Recommendations, and Codes of Practice. These legal instruments refer to “all workers” ensuring that all persons are protected from chemical hazards, in the workplace as well as in the wider community.

In addition to chemical instruments, the ILO Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183) sets out that pregnant women should not be obliged to carry out work that is a significant risk to her health and safety or that of her child. It outlines the need for the elimination of any workplace risk, additional paid leave to avoid exposure if the risk cannot be eliminated, and the right to return to her job or an equivalent job as soon as it is safe for her to do so. The accompanying Recommendation (No.191) provides for specific risk assessment and management of risks concerning pregnant women, including exposure to biological, chemical or physical agents which represent a reproductive hazard.

The ILO has also developed Guidelines for Gender Mainstreaming in Occupational Safety and Health to assist policy-makers and practitioners in taking a gender-sensitive approach for the development and implementation of OSH policy and practice. In taking a gender sensitive approach, one recognizes that because of different jobs that men and women participate in, and the different societal roles, expectations and responsibilities they have, they may face unique chemical exposure scenarios, thus requiring appropriately designed control measures. This approach improves the understanding that gender-based division of labour, biological differences, employment patterns, social roles and structures all contribute to gender-specific patterns of hazardous exposures.

Chemical safety at the workplace can no longer afford to be gender-blind. Unless we begin to recognize, respect and address gender diversity at work, and develop inclusive and responsive gender-sensitive OSH policies and practice, we will never be able to fully protect workers, their families and their communities from the scourge of hazardous chemical exposures that continue to occur worldwide.

[1] Gender identity may or may not correspond with the biological sex assigned, and should rather be understood as the individual personal experience of gender. Gender identity exists on a spectrum and is not necessarily confined to completely male or completely female. While the terms “women,” “men,” “female” and “male” are used here to describe research findings, gender diversity encompasses persons of all gender identities and/or expressions.

[i] ILO (2013).–en/index.htm

[ii] Ali I, Högberg J, Hsieh JH, Auerbach S, Korhonen A, Stenius U, Silins I. Gender differences in cancer susceptibility: role of oxidative stress. Carcinogenesis. 2016;37:985–992. doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgw076.

[iii] ILO (2013).–en/index.htm

Gender and Sustainable Chemistry: how women can benefit from sustainable chemistry …and sustainable chemistry from them

#Expert – Blog Series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by Creta Gambillara – International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3)

“We need chemistry to move forward the [UN] 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We need chemistry to eradicate poverty. We need chemistry to bolster health. We need chemistry to mitigate the impacts of climate change. In a word, we need chemistry for human rights and dignity, to leave no one behind. Not just any chemistry…

We need green chemistry…sustainable chemistry…chemistry that respects the boundaries of the planet…chemistry that is inclusive, that works for the benefit of all…Indeed, the modern world, as never before, needs green [and sustainable] chemistry.’

Irina Bokova, Director-General, UNESCO, 2017[i]

These few sentences by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, depict in a nutshell what sustainable chemistry is about. The transition to sustainable chemistry requires a new approach of systems thinking which builds upon green chemistry, addresses the full lifecycle of chemical products and embraces the triple bottom line of sustainability – people, planet and prosperity. Sustainable chemistry strives not only to provide safer alternatives, but also aims at contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through innovative and viable solutions that enable a circular economy.  

But what can sustainable chemistry mean from a gender perspective?

Sustainable chemistry (SC) provides a promising opportunity to mainstream gender-specific aspects in the chemicals sector and beyond. As a holistic approach, it encompasses ethic principles and social aspects. It addresses vulnerable groups and human right issues (women’s rights, rights of the child, workers’ rights), ethics of science (e.g. against military purposes), the prevention of future legacies, the precautionary principle and calls on the responsibility of all stakeholders involved in producing and using chemicals. 
Similar to the gender mainstreaming approach, SC helps us understand and tackle root causes of unsustainable behavior and make trade-offs visible.

Let’s have a look at the innovation field

Entrepreneurs, researchers and founders in industrialized countries and even more so in developing countries represent the change-makers and innovation drivers of their communities by solving key local and global societal problems through innovative products and processes, for example, in waste management and renewable feedstock.

Innovative solutions very often originate from the chemical sector, its research community and start-up companies in different areas. Unfortunately, these solutions do not easily find their way to the market, and particularly female researchers and founders face a long and stony way towards success, especially in searching for funding sorces, financial support from investors, training possibilities or lack of equipments and adequate lab spaces. Female founders are strongly underrepresented in technology-intensive areas, which is closely related to the low number of women with a background in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

According to the Silicon Valley Bank Report 2019 about Women in Technology Leadership 2019[ii], only 28% of all technology start-ups have at least one female founder. Kuschel et al (2020) “This underrepresentation of women in innovation-driven business startups highlights existing gender biases and systemic disadvantages in social structures, making visible the double masculinity that exists at the intersection of STEM and entrepreneurship.”[iii]

STEM fields show a high level of gender imbalance, chemistry included, and in all regions of the world. Traditional structures persist, and structural barriers hinder the equal engagement of women in entrepreneurship. Furthermore, they limit opportunities for women as entrepreneurs within fields “where earnings are higher, startups have higher growth expectations, and both public support systems and private venture capital tend to focus.“[iv]

The Female Founders Monitor 2019 makes it clear that while women are indeed more strongly represented than in previous years, they are still drastically underrepresented when it comes to founding young, innovative companies.

Looking at the green and sustainable chemistry startups landscape in Germany, for example, we see that green startups have a significantly higher female founder quota (22%) compared to non-green startups (13%)[v]. In fact, female founders are more motivated by social and societal issues, thus establishing new business fields at the interface between economy and society. Moreover, social entrepreneurship and green economy seems to be a high priority for women.
Hence, we can assume that increasing women’s leadership in STEM fields and fostering female entrepreneurship in green and sustainable chemistry could further strengthen the introduction of green applications and circular business models.

Why is progress so slow? What are the difficulties for female start-ups?

As Brigitte Zypries, former German Federal Minister of Economics and Energy, put it, “the existing [political] measures designed to help women to set up their own businesses are far from adequate. […] It is still made much more difficult for women to obtain the necessary funding. This is clearly reflected in access to venture capital or business angels. […] We must overcome these and other obstacles. Then it will be much easier for women entrepreneurs to think bigger and to realize their full potential.”[vi]

Let’s have a look now at education in chemistry

When looking at school or university curricula in chemistry, gender aspects are rarely considered.

Statistics on chemistry courses 2008-2018 by Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh) make it clear, that in Germany there has been a slight and steady increase in the proportion of female new chemistry students since 2011, from 36% to 43% in 2018, although the difference between the genders is greater when it comes to degrees: only about a third of these degrees are held by women (Bachelor’s: 37%, Master’s: 35%, doctorate 34%; as of 2018).

More attention is needed, for instance on gender relevant aspects in toxicology – also in connection with gender medicine, which is currently gaining popularity in medical research, (see, but also with regard to gender-aspects in chemicals management.

Sustainable chemistry offers a different way of thinking and teaching chemistry. By adopting a more comprehensive perspective, SC raises the awareness for the fact that the chemistry of the future has to find sustainable answers for global problems. Teaching sustainable chemistry means challenging chemists and engineers to design substances, processes and services by considering the whole lifecycle of materials, focusing on closing loops and circularity processes, on non-chemical alternatives and the producers and consumers themselves. It requires out of the box thinking and new curricula in chemistry education, where gender-specific aspects are included. A novel programme teaching this new holistic approach to sustainable chemistry was jointly developed by the Institute of Sustainable and Environmental Chemistry at Leuphana University and ISC3. The programme was successfully launched at Leuphana Professional School in March 2020.[vii]

Looking ahead

Much has still to be done to strengthen and mainstream the gender topic within the chemicals sector. Developing sustainable chemistry with its holistic approach can help mainstreaming gender-relevant aspects in chemistry – in education, innovation, entrepreneurship and beyond. 
It can help raising questions and highlighting the shortcomings that still exist.    
It can point out how women’s participation and leadership in STEM affects the chemical environment.
It can underline where there is lack of progress and it can help realize unused potentials for further development in chemistry.
Sustainable development cannot be achieved without sustainable chemistry, and sustainable chemistry cannot be implemented without the empowerment of women and gender equality.

The International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) is an international think tank, dedicated to shape the transformation of the chemicals sector towards sustainability. By promoting the emerging concept of sustainable chemistry as a new holistic approach, the ISC3 strives to contribute to the sound management of chemicals and waste as well as to the Agenda 2030 and the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ISC3 has taken on the gender topic in its portfolio as a part of its sustainability agenda with the goal of strengthening the specific gender aspects in entrepreneurship, innovation, research etc.

The author: Creta Gambillara has been working in the chemicals /textile sector for over 10 years, sustainability issues have been at the core of her advocacy activities for many years. Since 2019, she has been working as a Policy Manager at ISC3. International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3), Creta Gambillara, M +49 175 44 30 179; creta.gambillara[at],


[i] Address at the PhosAgro / UNESCO / IUPAC Award-Giving Ceremony (Grants for research projects proposed by young scientists in green and sustainable chemistry) St. Petersburg, 2 June 2017

[ii] Women in Technology Leadership 2019, Key insights from the Silicon Valley Bank Startup Outlook Survey

[iii] Stemming the gender gap in STEM entrepreneurship – insights into women’s entrepreneurship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by Katherina Kuschel & Kerstin Ettl & Cristina Díaz-García & Gry Agnete Alsos, Published online: 5 March 2020, in International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal (2020) 16:1–15,


[v] Green-Startup Monitor 2020 by Borderstep Institut für Innovation und Nachhaltigkeit gemeinnützige GmbH and Bundesverband Deutsche Startups e. V.

[vi] Female Founders Monitor 2019, by Bundesverband Deutsche Startups e.V. The translation into English is done by the author of this article


Nesting – Reducing the exposure to chemicals in everyday products with simple steps

#Expert – Blog Series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF)

Source: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash – an information program by WECF for young families, pregnant women and anyone who wants to know which harmful chemicals can be found in everyday products, how to protect themselves, and what governments do to protect consumers?

Going shopping without worrying because the products are safe and harmless to our health – that would be great. It would be particularly great if you have already too much on your mind and you only want the best – for example, for the baby that is expected or for the little offspring that is already in the world. But it would also be excellent if it would be “only” about your own health. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many of our everyday products contain chemicals that are suspected or known to be harmful to the environment and our health. 

We at WECF – Women Engage for a Common Future – have been campaigning for years for a ban on harmful chemicals in products. Therefore, we have developed our program – a “best practice tool” to inform and raise awareness. This should actually be a task for governments so that sustainable chemicals management is finally implemented. A crucial international process in this regard is the SAICM Beyond 2020 process. However, governments have not fulfilled their duty of care and prevention to the necessary extent so far. Thus, education and information are the only way to protect unborn children, children, women and men from harmful substances. 

Synthetic chemicals occur in nearly all areas of life. Unfortunately, this means that these chemicals are also used in the products that are intended for us consumers. Formaldehyde in cosmetics, softeners in plastics, per- and polyfluorinated fabrics (PFC) in outdoor clothing, or pesticides in food – depending on the type of product, we take them with us when we go shopping, we furnish our homes with them, we keep our homes clean by using them, wear them as a garment or apply them as cosmetics on our skin. When these substances escape from the products, we can absorb them through breathing, skin and food. Analyses of blood samples, the umbilical cord, sperm or fatty tissue show that every person is contaminated with dozens of harmful substances. 

There are about 100,000 chemicals on the market worldwide. Only a small number of them have been tested extensively for health effects and are regulated accordingly. This means that they may no longer be added to certain products or only in small quantities. However, many chemicals are already known to be harmful to health. They are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic for reproduction or endocrine disruptive (affecting the hormone system), but they can also trigger allergies, impair IQ development, etc. Nevertheless, they can be found in the products we use every day.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals of concern. That is why WECF is focusing on these groups in its chemicals work and with

Due to their higher fat content in the tissue, women accumulate more fat-soluble and bio-accumulating chemicals such as plasticizers, which are found in many plastic products and hygiene articles.

The different stages of physical development that women go through and which are controlled by the hormone system make them very susceptible to hormonally active substances: during puberty, lactation, menopause and pregnancy women react particularly sensitively to these substances. Pregnant women are also the first environment of their children. Exposure to hormonally active substances can disrupt hormonally controlled developmental processes and have critical health effects on the unborn child. The placenta is not a safe barrier for harmful substances, which are transferred from mother to child. According to the International Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians, many babies are already born with up to 200 substances in their small bodies.

Another problem is that we absorb a large number of chemicals every day, from a wide variety of sources, so that many different chemicals come together in our bodies. And it is not known how they interact! The so-called cocktail or sum effect, however, is scientifically proven to play a significant role in the risk assessment and should be a decisive factor in the development of regulations and “safe” limit values. 

It is the responsibility of governments to protect our health and the environment from harmful chemicals through regulations and laws. In many points, however, regulations are not sufficient – not even in Europe, where REACH, a world-leading chemicals legislation has been implemented, and the precautionary principle should apply. For example, hormonally active substances which are found in many everyday products are not sufficiently taken into account in REACH and other directives.

Many questions remain open for consumers: How can I protect myself? What can I consume as an alternative, and what not? Can I do all this without having to become an expert and complicate my everyday life? The simple and relieving answer to this question is: you do not need to be an expert status, but you need to be proactive: you have to inform yourself. WECF has developed the nest-building program in order to answer questions such as “Which product is the right one?” and to provide consumers with concrete help. 

For selected product groups, the program provides you with concrete, easy-to-implement suggestions regarding:  

  • Body care 
  • Detergents
  • Renovation and furnishing
  • Toys 
  • Textiles

A list of harmful substances helps to avoid them and stay on the safe side safe when shopping. Additionally, we provide advice on product groups for which there is no legal obligation to declare the ingredients and explain how to check if a product is as safe as possible. Politically, we are working to ensure that a declaration obligation is finally implemented.

In addition to the website, the entire nest-building package consists of, the brochure ” Beware! Toxic Chemicals in everyday life”, the app “giftfrei einkaufen” (shop without toxics – in German), a postcard or flyer as well as numerous compact guides on toys, hormone-like acting chemicals, care products, etc. The material is available in English and many other languages such as German, French, Dutch, Turkish and also Chinese. 

As briefly mentioned In the beginning, the SAICM process is intended to continue on the path to sustainable chemicals management globally in the future. SAICMs “Chemical in Products” (CiP) program is particularly important for consumers: according to the program, information about which chemical is contained in which product should be accessible, and at least regulated chemicals that are attributed potential health hazards should be labelled.

WECF is working with a number of other NGOs at the national and international level to implement the CiP programme. However, practice still lags far behind what is needed. In the meantime, it is all the more important to inform yourself and to shop as toxic-free as possible, for example with the help of

Resources for further information:

Plastic and Toxic Free Period: a new information resource and a clearinghouse for people who menstruate

#Expert – Blog Series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by Olga Speranskaya and Alexandra Caterbow, HEJSupport Co-directors

Source: HEJSupport

The future where plastics- and toxic free female sanitary products are affordable and available globally and where the environment is free from a top-ten source of non-value plastic waste is just around the corner. Many good alternatives exist, in few countries, some regulation is on its way and the topic surfaces slowly on the agenda of decision makers. Now is the time to bring solutions to the public and to decision makers and raise pressure on big manufacturers to produce healthy and environmentally friendly products.

With the new Clearing House website highlighting the issue, information about women and chemicals with the focus on toxic chemicals and plastic in menstruation products becomes clear and easy to understand. Readers do not need to spend time searching through numerous resources to find information they need. Everything is available in just one click.

The website is connected to global and national campaigns on toxic free menstruation products happening around the world and organized by our partners. It includes twitter messages on the issue posted from different countries and regions with hashtags such as #ptfperiod, #periodaction, #PlasticFreePeriods, #periodwithoutplastic.

The Clearing House website is the cornerstone of cooperation, outreach, information sharing, and awareness raising. It provides an excellent basis that helps to elevate national activities of single organisations to a global movement. The project resulted in building a coalition of NGOs working on plastic and toxic free period in many different countries, regions and globally. 

What role do hygiene products play in the life of people?

Hygiene products play an essential role in women’s life by helping them stay clean and confident. They are comfortable and convenient which makes women depend on them, sometimes daily. Conventional stores suggest a variety of hygiene products including external products such as sanitary pads and panty liners as well as internal tampons and menstrual cups. Women chose what suits better for their lifestyle.

The average woman will use 12,000 to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products in her lifetime and it can take up to 100 years or more for something like a plastic pad or applicator to break down. Noting that early puberty is becoming more frequent in our days (in part as a result of chemical exposures¹), the use of feminine hygiene products will be skyrocketing in the near future. During a woman’s fertile years, period-related garbage makes about 0.5% of her “personal landfill load” which is comparable to the percentage of the annual trash made from plastic plates and cups.

Can toxic chemicals in hygiene products impact the health of women?

Women and the environment are highly contaminated with hazardous plastic chemicals in feminine hygiene products. Conventional sanitary pads are made from up to 90% crude oil-sourced plastic and can contain associated plasticizing chemicals like BPA and BPS, and petrochemical additives which are known endocrine disrupting substances and are linked to e.g. infertility, heart diseases and cancer. Phthalates, mainly used as plasticizers, are a common ingredient in tampon applicators, and are known to disrupt hormone function and may lead to multiple organ diseases. Phthalates can leach from finished products when handled. Many of these chemicals can cross the placenta, some of them more readily than others. The recent research found troubling bisphenol concentrations in the placenta and cord blood² which

highlights the issue that chemicals a mother is exposed to can impact the development of the fetus.

How to manage hygiene products when they become waste?

If conventional hygiene products contain plastic, they cannot be recycled to reduce their load on the environment, as they are designed to collect human waste. In addition, these products are largely made of low-density polyethylene. While plastic bottles and containers can often be recycled, hygienic products are considered to be single-use, non-value plastic products which are subject to quick disposal. They end up in incinerators, landfills, illegal dumping grounds, water sources, seas and oceans. They cannot be composted or repurposed into new products. Waste pickers avoid collecting this type of garbage as it is disgusting and of no use to them. According to a Life Cycle Assessment of tampons conducted by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, recycling of low-density polyethylene is energy consuming as it requires high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy. As a result, used hygiene products usually end up either in landfills, sewer systems, waterways or are incinerated.

The multi-billion-dollar industry that manufactures feminine and other hygienic products, profits from the dominance of disposable products. They have succeeded in making consumers believe that disposables are not only the most convenient and affordable option, but also have no health or environmental risks.

Better solutions to conventional feminine hygienic products exist but are not available in many countries or are unknown to women making them a limited as a safer option.

What information does the Clearing House website provide?

To help people find information on hygienic products they need, the new Clearing House website provides resources regarding global campaigns, new science, toxic free alternatives and more. It also acts as the platform for sharing knowledge and experience, advocacy work, new ideas and advices for everyone who menstruates. In addition, it shares presentations at the recent webinar on toxic and plastic free menstruation products that we organised to discuss important issues about period products, their effects on the health of people and the environment, and what difference we can make to minimise the negative impact and ensure the availability of more sustainable, plastic and toxic free options.

For more information about the Clearing House website and how to become a partner, please contact HEJSupport team at info[at]




25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action: Feminist guidance – including for future chemicals policy

Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995

The year 2020 marks not only an important year for chemicals and waste, it is also a “super year” for gender equality: UN Women celebrates its tenth anniversary and the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Twenty-five years ago 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists from around the world came to Beijing to participate or demonstrate at the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995 to strengthen gender equality and the empowerment of all women. After two weeks of political debate and tough negotiations, the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, was adopted.

Even if you don’t remember the World Conference itself, we’re pretty sure you’ve heard the famous quote by Hillary Clinton, underlining that gender equality is at the very heart of human rights and the United Nations:

Hillary Clinton 1995, by EngenderHealth

As a defining framework for change, the Beijing Platform for Action made comprehensive commitments in 12 critical areas of concern. Even 25 years later, it remains powerful: The concept of gender mainstreaming was developed, which is the chosen approach of the United Nations system and international community towards realizing gender equality until today, and the interlinkages of “Women and the Environment” were highlighted for the very first time (UN Women, 2020) – a novelty in international policy.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the document to see why it is still so important – including for a future framework for the sound management of chemicals and waste:

In Chapter K “Women and the Environment”, the Beijing Platform for Action comprehensively defines the interlinkages between women and environmental policy:

246. “Women have an essential role to play in the development of sustainable and ecologically sound consumption and production patterns and approaches to natural resource management (…).”

249. “Women remain largely absent at all levels of policy formulation and decision-making in natural resource and environmental management, conservation, protection and rehabilitation, and their experience and skills in advocacy for and monitoring of proper natural resource management too often remain marginalized in policy-making and decision-making bodies (…).”

Clear political guidance was also given regarding the gendered effects of chemicals:

247. “Environmental risks in the home and workplace may have a disproportionate impact on women’s health because of women’s different susceptibilities to the toxic effects of various chemicals. These risks to women’s health are particularly high in urban areas, as well as in low-income areas where there is a high concentration of polluting industrial facilities.

Actions to be taken include: 

25.8 (…) Develop gender-sensitive databases, information and monitoring systems and participatory action-oriented research, methodologies and policy analyses, with the collaboration of academic institutions and local women researchers, on the following: The impact on women of environmental and natural resource degradation, deriving from, inter alia, unsustainable production and consumption patterns, drought, poor quality water, global warming, desertification, sealevel rise, hazardous waste, natural disasters, toxic chemicals and pesticide residues, radioactive waste, armed conflicts and its consequences; 

(…) Ensure the full compliance with relevant international obligations, including where relevant, the Basel Convention and other conventions relating to the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes (which include toxic wastes) and the Code of Practice of the International Atomic Energy Agency relating to the movement of radioactive waste; enact and enforce regulations for environmentally sound management related to safe storage and movements; consider taking action towards the prohibition of those movements that are unsafe and insecure; ensure the strict control and management of hazardous wastes and radioactive waste, in accordance with relevant international and regional obligations and eliminate the exportation of such wastes to countries that, individually or through international agreements, prohibit their importation; (…)”

25 years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action stated:

  • that women are agents of change,
  • that women’s full participation is crucial, and
  • that gender mainstreaming needs to be implemented in all policy fields – including chemicals and waste.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action remains as relevant as ever!  Let’s celebrate its 25th anniversary by finally implementing its recommended actions. 

Generation Equality Campaign, by UN Women

Today, on 9 March 2020,  the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW64) is happening, which marks the starting point for the celebrations and the UN Women special campaign “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future”. Sadly, due to the coronavirus, it was decided that the commission will convene for a shortened and procedural meeting only. “The meeting will include opening statements, followed by the adoption of the draft Political Declaration and action on any other draft resolutions. The session will then suspend until further notification. No general debate will take place, and all side events planned by Member States and the UN system in conjunction with CSW 64 will be cancelled” (UN Women). 12.000 participants were expected for this major event in New York this week – we all had to cancel our trips, and hope that we will be able to convene somewhere sometime soon. 

What is a Women and Gender Caucus?

#Explanation – Blog series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet


What’s a caucus?

In the context of international policy processes, the participation of non-government actors has played an increasingly important role. A variety of interest groups, stakeholders, constituencies and actors are active in processes that affect or concern them.

The term “caucus” originates from structures and mechanisms in political parties, e.g. in the US, a caucus is a „meeting held to decide which person a political party will support in an election” (Cambridge Dictionary). In international policy making, participating non-government actors are often organized in caucuses – i.e. groups of people with influence or an interest in something who meet to consider a particular issue or problem. If the groups meet very regularly, sometimes institutional groupings called ‘constituencies’ or ‘major groups’ emerge.

With Women and Gender Caucuses, Constituencies and Major Groups, feminists and women activists have established a structure to coordinate their tasks and political positions as well as to make their voices heard and advocate for gender equality within UN processes on two levels: On the one hand, their aim is to strengthen women’s active participation by sharing information and access to documents, by organizing possibilities to submit proposals or to speak at negotiation meetings, and enabling physical participation by organizing travel funding for colleagues, especially from the Global South. On the other hand, they combine expert knowledge of women’s organisations, gender experts and other academics to support gender mainstreaming activities within policy processes, often in direct contact with the respective secretariat and/or with other relevant stakeholders. Women and Gender Groups and meetings are mostly self-organised but recognized by the official institutions who regard them as liaisons or focal points to reach out and interact with particular stakeholder groups. Women and Gender Cau- cuses are usually open to all interested stakeholders working to promote human rights-based sustainable development with a focus on women’s human rights, the empowerment of women and gender equality. Sometimes, participation is limited to non-government or civil society organisations and in- dividuals, and many caucuses have developed their own rules, procedures, and governance, from electing co-chairs, through facilitating representative, joint submissions to negotiations to managing shared financial resources. During UN conferences, they met regularly to discuss the ongoing negotiations and to develop joint responses from a gender perspective, between conferences they mostly communicate via email list servers and online platforms.

A bit of history

Since many years Women and Gender Caucuses contribute to UN policies on sustainable development with successful advocacy activities:

In 1992, the Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED) took place and was one of the first breakthroughs in women’s advocacy for sus- tainable development: Preparing for the conference the Women’s Caucus, organized by the Women’s Environment Development Organization (WEDO), met every morning to discuss texts, interventions and strategies, based on its own Women’s Action Agenda for a Healthy Planet, developed at the Women’s World Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami in 1991. During the Earth Summit, the Women’s Caucus also played a key role with the Women’s Tent “Planeta Femea” of the parallel forum “Foro Global” with over 1.000 Women coming together from all regions of the world (Dankelmann 2011; WMG 2018).

The Earth Summit recognized nine stakeholder groups, so called “Major Groups”, to ensure a broad participation in the policy and implementation process: farmers, trade unions, indigenous peoples and their communities, children and youth, NGOs, local authorities, science and technology, busi- ness and industry, and women (WMG 2018). Agenda 21, one of the key outcome documents of the Earth Summit, includes chapters dealing with each of these Major Groups, recognizing their needs and roles, and underlining the need for their active participation in realizing sustainable development.

Major Groups, caucuses and constituencies today

Today, the Women’s Major Group (WMG) is an official participant in the UN processes on Sustainable Development and active at UNEP, with over 600 list server members who are organisations and individuals. The WMG is the focal point for UN-DESA, ECOSOC and the General Assembly for all UN Sustainable Development policies.

Its mandate covers Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators, the Technology Facilitation Mechanism and the High-Level Political Forum. It covers the Rio+20 outcome, with SDGs, Financing for Sustainable Development, Small Island Development States SIDS, Technology. Furthermore, it also covers the global and regional policy processes of the United Nations. The Women’s Major Group on Environmental Policies follows the policy processes related to the UNEP and those governed by UNEP such as Sustainable Consumption and Production (UN DESA 2018). Additionally, the WMG works closely with other Women’s and Gender Caucuses or Constituencies in other UN policy processes, e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Disaster Risk Reduction, Cities / UN Habitat, Financing for Development, Commission on Population and Development (CPD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (ibid.).

The Women and Gender Constituency (WGC) is, for example, one of the nine constituencies, i.e. stakeholder groups, that is part of the UNFCCC process. Established in 2009 by women and gender activists, who actively discussed whether and how the issue of gender should be given more attention at the climate change negotiations since 2003, the WGC now consists of 28 Women and Gender Organisations and Networks with advocates from more than 60 countries. Since 2015 the WGC has organized the Gender Just Climate Solu- tions Award to promote gender responsive climate awards, in 2017 the WGC managed to shape the “Gender and Work Program” that has been decided upon at the COP 20 in Lima in 2014 and the most recent highlight is the “Gender Action Plan” from COP 23 in Bonn 2017, which was finally adapted through much advocacy work after years of discussions (GenderCC 2018).

A Women and Gender Caucus for SAICM Beyond 2020

Creating an informal and open-to-all Women and Gender Caucus For the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste can create an inspiring, useful, and powerful space for discussion, information sharing and advocacy to push forward the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and ensure the recognition of the interconnections between gender and chemicals. Such a caucus – gathering at the SAICM meetings and communicating electronically in between can strengthen the participation of (indigenous) women and also help to increase the visibility of SAICM beyond 2020.

As a starting point, we invite all stakeholders to a first, informal meeting on gender, women and chemicals and waste at the OEWG3!

Date: Wednesday, 03rd April 2019, 08:00-09:00 pm

Location: Antel Arena, Montevideo – Room: tbc

We are looking forward to seeing you!


Dankelmann, Irine (2011): Women on the forefront at the Earth Summit ’92 in Rio. Online at: WEDO: the-forefront-at-the-earth-summit-92-in-rio-a-personal-journey-by- irene-dankelman/.

GenderCC (2018): Looking back at 10 years GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice. sary/10-years-fighting-for-climate-justice.html.
Hemmati, M. 2001. Women & Sustainable Development: From 2000 to 2002. in: F. Dodds & T. Middleton (eds.). Earth Summit 2002 – A New Deal. pp65-83. London: Earthscan, 2nd Edition

Hemmati, M. 2005. Gender & Climate Change in the North: Issues, Entry Points and Strategies for the Post-2012 Process and Beyond. genanet / Focal Point Gender Justice and Sustainability, Berlin
UN DESA (2018): Women. Online at: https://sustainabledevelopmen-

WMG (2018): History of Women’s Movement and Sustainable Devel- opment. 2018/01/History-of-the-Women%E2%80%99s-Movement-and- Sustainable-Development.pdf

The Gender Dimension: Why chemical exposure affects each sex differently

#Expert – Blog series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by  Brenda Koekkoek, SAICM Secretariat

Graphic by the SAICM Secretariat

It’s a fact that chemicals are in everything we touch and that chemicals are essential for our sustainable development and future. Yet while chemical exposure can pose a risk to all, it has been shown to affect men and women differently, whether due to physical conditions or in reproductive health.

The susceptibility to chemical exposure varies according to sex – starting in the womb, through childhood and the first years of development to puberty, when adolescents are particularly susceptible. In order to ensure the health of future generations, the different vulnerabilities of men and women must be understood and considered.

The gender dimensions of the sound management of chemicals and waste are highly relevant. Exposure to chemicals depends on geographical location, behavioural patterns, age, nutritional status, and other biological factors. Hence, sex and gender are highly influential in an individual’s physiological susceptibility to chemicals. For example, the varying roles of men and women in the workplace and at home help determine respective exposures and vulnerabilities to chemicals. Because of largely gender segregated labour markets, there are many occupations involving chemicals that affect either women or men to a larger extent.

Although often overlooked, domestic exposures to chemicals and toxins must also be considered. Men and women use different personal care products and cosmetics and are affected differently. For example, women tend to use more personal items than men, and with over 5,000 different ingredients used in the personal care industry, it increases their dermal exposure to chemicals. Work involving household cleaning products also leads to chemical exposures, and with changing gender roles, exposure patterns also change.

With the size of the global chemical industry projected to double by 2030, there is a growing concern for people working in chemically intensive sectors such as agriculture, construction, electronics and textiles. Women are also increasingly working in the informal sector and rarely receive basic training about the chemicals they use, which increases their vulnerability to pesticide-related health risks.

Now more than ever, it is vital that measures are taken to ensure that the needs of particularly vulnerable demographics are met, when it comes to the sound management of chemicals. In considering reproductive health as an example, both parents have susceptibilities that must be understood for the health of future generations.

One step in the right direction is gender mainstreaming. This is defined as a strategy for equally making both men and women’s concerns, needs, and experiences an integral part of policies and programmes in political, economic and societal spheres. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda aim to address inequalities among all population groups – especially women, children, and the impoverished. Particularly, SDG5 aims to achieve gender equality and improve women’s rights. Directly addressing the links between the environment and gender in the context of the SDGs will provide new opportunities to achieve these goals in a more sustainable and beneficial manner and can yield tangible results and will provide benefits for both women and men.

UN Environment and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) are working in partnership on gender and chemicals, in particular on raising awareness, promoting womens’ engagement and leadership in decision-making processes as well as contributing to activities related to the Strategic Approach emerging policy issues and relevant SDGs.  Furthermore, it is very positive that gender considerations have been increasingly incorporated into global multilateral environmental agreements, including the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Gender and the SAICM Emerging Policy Issues

SAICM stakeholders have identified eight emerging policy issues and other issues of concern since the inception of the Strategic Approach in 2006. In general, all of these have susceptibility and exposure considerations related to gender, which I would like to illustrate:

1. Lead in paint

Lead, a widely used toxic metal, contaminates the environment and causes extensive public health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable and the exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead may cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and minor malformations.

2. Highly hazardous pesticides

Understanding gender roles in agricultural communities can create opportunities to unpack root causes of unsustainable behaviour in communities and has potential to support transformational change. For example, a large number of women in South Asia, East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture and related tasks such as washing pesticide containers and thinning crops exposed to pesticides. The resulting exposure calls for the regulation of the use of highly hazardous pesticides.

3. Chemicals in products (CiP)

Efforts to label and classify chemicals help consumers make informed choices. By engaging with consumer product sectors, there are opportunities to empower workers and consumers, for example, to understand potential exposures to chemicals and to target initiatives to empower particular vulnerable groups. UNEP’s Chemicals in Products programme promotes transparency of information in supply chains and is currently focused on, but not limited to, the following sectors: textiles, toys, building materials, and electronics.

4. Hazardous substances within the life cycle of electronic products

The manufacture of electrical and electronic products relies on the use of over 1,000 chemicals, many of which lack comprehensive health and safety information due to weak regulatory policies. As the electronics industry has grown, women in Latin America and Asia have become the primary source of labour, and are now exposed to high levels of toxins such as lead and chromium.

5. Nanotechnology and nanomaterials

Nanomaterials, which can be found in many consumer products, can affect both male and female reproductive systems. These materials are prevalent in pharmaceuticals and textiles, and in the products related to information and communications technology.

6. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

EDCs affect the hormone systems of men, women and children. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics notes that the global rise in non-communicable diseases, as well as the increase in preterm births, low-birth-weight babies, and the early onset of breast development can be partially attributed to EDCs.

7. Environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants (EPPPs)

The sources of pharmaceutical pollution include drug manufacturing, human excretion, disposal from homes and hospitals, and wastewater from large-scale livestock operations. However, gender-specific effects of EPPPs remain largely unknown, due to the limited methods to measure such a wide-spread phenomenon.

8. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)

PFCs have become extensively used in both industrial and consumer products to make them resistant to stains, water, grease, or heat. Studies have shown that high levels of PFCs can be highly toxic, and animal tests have found PFCs to be potentially carcinogenic in the reproductive and fetal development stages, although these effects on humans remain inconclusive.

In general, all of the SAICM emerging policy issues and other issues of concern have susceptibility and exposure considerations related to gender, though no on-going gender activities are formally identified within the Strategic Approach context. A gender review across the current emerging policy issues and other issues of concern has been initiated as part of the SAICM GEF Project on global best practices on SAICM emerging policy issues.

What can we do for the future?

There are numerous relevant, diverse and influential stakeholders that can contribute and enable gender mainstreaming in chemicals and waste management.  These include, amongst others, national and local governments, intergovernmental organizations, regulatory bodies, regional bodies, donor organizations, NGOs, industry associations, farmer organizations, media, consumers, employers, educators and researchers, health professionals, workers and trade unions and indigenous peoples.

When it comes to designing the future for SAICM and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020, all stakeholders have the opportunity to tap into the potential to address gender issues, promote equality, and protect vulnerable populations in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Strong legislation, effective information systems as well as scientific evidence and knowledge for chemicals are at the core of the SAICM community efforts on emerging policy issues today and remain relevant in the future to protect human health and the environment from harmful effects of chemicals across the lifecycle.  There are additional opportunities for strengthening focus on developing, collecting and analysing gender-disaggregated data, indicators and other information to support decision-making.

Let’s work together in moving forward to apply a joint gender lens in our work-planning, prioritizing, implementing and decision-making!

This article is based on the policy brief by the SAICM Secretariat; published September 2018 at

Please follow SAICM on twitter @chemandwaste

To find out more about SAICM, please visit


Brenda Koekkoek, Photo by IISD

Brenda Koekkoek works with the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Secretariat, administered at the United Nations Environment Programme. Brenda has over fifteen years of environmental policy-related experience, particularly in relation to pollution. She is a Canadian national, previously working with Environment and Climate Change Canada.  Much of her work has focused on building strategic partnerships as well as overseeing stakeholder consultation processes.

Toxic Gender? The Role of Sex and Gender in Chemicals Management

#Expert – Blog series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by Arn Sauer, Jürgen Arning, André Conrad, Małgorzata Dębiak, Marike Kolossa-Gehring, Nadja Steinkühler[1] – Umweltbundesamt – German Environment Agency




Engagement with the role of sex and gender in chemicals management is not a new phenomenon either internationally[2] or in the German context,[3] but it is persistently complicated. The relevance of sex (physical/biological) and gender (social/behavioural) aspects to chemical risk assessment and management is usually discussed in three ways: 1) in relation to sex/gender and exposure; 2) in relation to sex/gender and issues of impact assessment and 3) in relation to the issue of gender balance and equal participation of women and men in chemicals management decision-making. The embodiment approach, based on epigenetics, developmental biology and neuroscience, has added to this discussion yet another dimension, in which the debate of “nature vs. nurture” has been reconciled. Social, cultural and physical environments influence gene activation and physical processes[4]; hence, biology is not destiny in the sense that an individual’s biological characteristics are not pre-determined, but are rather the co-products of genes and the individual’s own experiences as well as those of past generations. Despite these long-term and recently emerging, ongoing discussions, sex/gender or embodiment approaches have not yet arrived in the oft-cited mainstream chemicals policy.

Although these topics have not yet been tackled in a structured manner within the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt – UBA), the agency has had some initial experience in this area in the form of a pilot study on cleansing agents.[5] Results of the pilot study showed that impacts on women were significantly higher as compared to men, due to the higher exposure of women to cleansing agents. This higher level of exposure can be attributed to a gender-role typical division of household labour, in which women perform more household cleaning, have a more predominant role in choosing cleansing products, and are thus exposed to more advertising for these products. That the interrelationship of sex and physical susceptibility to chemicals beyond pregnancy in humans remains an under-explored topic cannot be attributed solely to a lack of awareness, but rather chiefly to inconclusive data, data gaps and governance issues within chemicals management. It appears difficult to gain insight into the importance and relevance of sex and gender issues in all sectors of chemicals management (research, policy design and governance),[6] which calls for heightened attention to these topics, and when they are found to be relevant, decisive action. But why is gender in chemicals management so “toxic” and complicated? What do we know and what do we have yet to learn?

What we know and how it is relevant

A recently finished project “GeUmGe-Net”[7] (an interdisciplinary research network on sex/gender in environmental health) demonstrated in a systematic review of publications in environmental toxicology, environmental medicine, environmental epidemiology and public health that sex/gender aspects are still widely ignored in these disciplines.[8] There are some things, however, that we do know: The established risk assessment schemes for chemicals are based on animal experiments and/or in vitro observations. Epidemiological data or other human data are used only in exceptional cases. It is hypothesised, and some indicative evidence exists to suggest, that different population sub-groups are more susceptible to chemicals than others either because they are exposed more due to habits, due to their different environments and professions (the gender dimensions) or because they exhibit higher chemical sensitivities (sex).[9] The chemical exposure and the chemicals’ effects on the target organism might depend on various factors, e.g. geographical location (nearby releases of chemicals from industries like petrol stations or refineries), behavioural patterns (i.e. usage of cosmetics, cleansing agents or paints), age (esp. in utero, in childhood and at a young age), nutritional status (e.g. due to the influence of nutrition on the immune system), biological effects (e.g. metabolism, endocrine systems, pregnancy) or the burden of chemicals within each individual body, as a mixture of different chemicals are always present and effective in each individual’s body at the same time.

The aforementioned early UBA pilot study on chemicals in cleansing and washing agents[10] addressed the difference in chemical burdens on women and men and possible consequences for chemical risk assessment. Statistical data taken in 2001/2002 from the initial study[11] showed that women spent seven times longer cleaning clothes, three times longer cleaning the living space and two-and-a-half times longer cleaning dishes, than men. The second statistical update of the German time study based on data taken in 2012/2013[12] indicates that, even today, differences between women and men— especially in households with children— remain significant. Despite some equality gains and the increased participation of women in the labour market, traditional roles and responsibilities have changed only marginally, particularly in family constellations. Socialisation theory is as prevalent as ever: The persisting division of labour between women and men at home, the labour market segregation with regards to different occupational choices as well as differences in spare time activities or consumer choices affect chemical exposure and safety. We know, moreover, that even performing the same tasks might make a difference and results in differences between women and men. For instance, it has been shown that the mortality rate in the cleaning industry in Belgium was higher for men than for woman if compared to non-manual workers of the respective sex.[13]. The authors discuss as possible explanations of the higher male mortality factors such as: the higher employment rates of men in highly-exposed industrial cleaning jobs, or the greater number of women working part-time, but also their greater readiness to leave jobs when experiencing health problems because they contribute less to the family income. This study poses a range of open questions; among others, it does not address whether the disparity in mortality rates could be attributed to a lower chemical risk awareness among men (who perhaps unconsciously adhere to constructions of invulnerable masculinity?), when handling cleansing agents. What is a certain and persistent finding in this and in other studies is that exposure to different materials, precautionary measures taken during exposure, as well as duration of exposure may vary according to gender. In combination with physical factors and different metabolic reactions to toxins between women and men (sex), these findings point to the need for a gender- and sex-sensitive chemical risk management.

Differences in external and internal exposure to chemicals that are due possibly to the influence of gender can be observed in environmental health monitoring studies: UBA’s German Environmental Survey (GerES), for instance, showed a higher average indoor air concentration of limonene in bedrooms of girls.[14] A possible explanation for this result is that girls use products like scented candles, fragrances or cleansing agents more often. In the German Environmental Specimen Bank (ESB), copper levels in blood plasma are substantially higher in women,[15] which can be explained by the use of oral contraceptives.[16]

In terms of perceived health impacts, the UBA’s environmental awareness study shows that women are more aware of health-related environmental risks. Thus, women tend to feel more exposed to environmental factors, such as chemicals in products and plastic particles in drinking water and food. These gender differences may be related to the fact that women generally have a higher awareness of the environment but also of their own health, whereas men (on average and along with other intersectional factors) are more negligent of their own health and do not attribute the same importance to environmental risk as do women.[17]

What we do not know (yet) and how to tackle it

With regards to sex, toxicological research appears to focus mainly on endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Some ubiquitous chemicals such as phthalates, used as plasticisers, and the plastic ingredient Bisphenol A have an impact on the endocrine systems of test organisms, and it is assumed that they can also disturb the endocrine systems of women and men.[18] What is known from environmental toxicology is that synthetic estrogens and other chemicals acting as endocrine disruptors demonstrate adverse effects on environmental species such as, for example, impacting life-cycles and reproductive success or by altering the sex ratio in fish.[19] In the heyday of high doses of contraceptives, women who were taking the “the pill” were thus advised to collect their urine separately and to dispose of it as hazardous waste in order to avoid impacting the environment. Compounds such as ethinyl estradiol (EE2) present in these medications are not, in fact, easily filtered out or degraded in our water treatment plants. Current contraceptives contain much smaller estrogen doses; however, the basic problem of insufficiently treated waste water and the addition of EE2 to the total environmental burden of estrogenic active chemicals remains. At the same time it stays unclear to what extent the estrogenic burden in surface water might result in relevant drinking water contamination with endocrine disruptors, with potential impacts on the human reproductive system, i.e. on male semen quality.[20]

Discussions within chemicals management around how to effectively tackle emerging issues such as endocrine disruptors have not yet come to a convincing conclusion. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is developing adequate testing and assessment methods for these chemicals of emerging concern as well as approaches for how to evaluate them.[21] Such chemicals of emerging concern are amongst others hormones, pharmaceuticals and hormone mimetic synthetic chemicals and their activity as endocrine disruptors. Regarding endocrinologically active chemicals, regulations like the ones for biocidal and plant protection products have classified certain chemicals as endocrine disruptors based on well-established scientific criteria accepted across the EU.[22] Still, our knowledge of endocrine disruptors is limited and confined to certain endocrine pathways (such as sex steroids and substances that affect the thyroid) and to only very few vertebrate species besides humans (mainly fish, amphibians and rodents). Thus, the regulation of endocrine disruptors in the environment still suffers from gaps in scientific knowledge and uncertainties, as well as from a lack of widely-accepted criteria for the identification of such chemicals across all relevant legislative frameworks. To tackle these issues, more research and the development of new or the amendment of existing endocrine-sensitive test methods are needed. Additionally, on the policy level, a consensus on the classification of endocrine disruptors based on well-substantiated science must be reached, irrespective of the regulatory consequences this classification may have for single substances under different legal frameworks.

Gender Balance and Participation in Decision-making within Chemicals Management

Last but not least, and similar to all science- and technology-dominated fields, chemicals management has much room for improvement in terms of the number of women in decision-making bodies. The target of gender balance seems hard to meet, but some promising initiatives have recently sprung up. The Quick Start Programme[23], for example, which funds small projects in developing countries, requires an ex-post evaluation of the gender balance in decision-making bodies. UBA research funding does not yet engage in similar activities; however, the UBA has a successful gender equality strategy for its own staff and is currently catching up fast in its last remaining field of gender imbalance on the managerial level. The UBA currently has its first female president, Maria Krautzberger, and in terms of top-level managers, the UBA has achieved gender balance. Steady improvement in gender representation within middle and lower management, with 40% female and 60% male managers overall in 2018, show that the UBA is closing in on its ultimate goal of equality, which it wants to reach during the next gender equality plan 2020-2023 (earlier than 2025, as demanded by the current coalition government)[24].


Sex and gender issues in chemicals management may have been “toxic” in the past, in the sense that they did not receive (enough) attention from various scientific communities and responsible agencies, but they cannot remain so in the future. The need for change is why it is so crucial that SAICM draws attention to sex and gender issues as it does in its paper “Gender and the sound management of chemicals and waste.”[25] This paper will also be discussed in the UBA with regard to how susceptibility and exposure are influenced by sex/gender, how these interactions affect domestic life as well as occupational health and what we can learn from these insights for future research and policy advice. The 2030 Agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)[26] provides a window of opportunity to mainstream awareness of the gendered effects also into chemicals use and chemicals management. The cross-cutting SGD 5 “Gender Equality” in particular, in combination with many other relevant SDGs,[27] will raise awareness of the need for integrated approaches and the adequate involvement of all sectors, stakeholders, and societal groups, and will also be relevant to the sound management of chemicals beyond 2020.

As a country of the Global North, Germany’s main areas of concern with regards to chemical safety and sex/gender could be related to chemicals in products (e.g. cosmetics and beauty products) and endocrine-disrupting chemicals together with environmentally-persistent pollutants, as these are either not being filtered (completely) by water treatment plants or persist and accumulate in fatty tissue. Yet another potential area of inquiry is determining the toxicological endpoints of chemicals (with regards to germ cell mutagenicity, reproductive toxicity, organ toxicity and carcinogenicity) and their possible sex/gender interactions and differences, as attested by the Scientific Group on Methodologies for the Safety Evaluation of Chemicals (SGOMSEC).[28] Some of the open questions in toxicology and exposure science might hopefully be answered in UBA research projects. The UBA is already taking part in the collaborative research project INGER (Integrating Gender into Environmental Health Research),[29] aiming the conceptualisation of gender theories in human biomonitoring studies. The UBA’s department for toxicology and environmental health has also designed a governmental founded project for the statistical analysis of toxicological studies according to sex related differences in toxicity in rodents that should start in 2019.

In terms of research governance, and independent from chemicals management like in the current SAICM processes, the UBA has introduced a gender mainstreaming strategy, according to which all newly designed research projects are subject to a gender relevance test. If gender is found to be relevant to the project, a full gender impact assessment should be performed in order to integrate sex and gender issues into research questions, methods and results. Accordingly, in 2018, the UBA has introduced a gender relevance tick box: once ticked, the UBA gender quality officer will then be involved through the course of the project. She and her research officer for gender mainstreaming are thus able to give feedback and support, if needed, in developing the research concept. In the environmental research funding programme of the UBA, for example, a total of 16% of all submitted proposals in 2018 were earmarked as gender relevant. This general research quality assurance mechanism will hopefully also contribute to more gender- and sex-sensitive chemical and toxicology research in the future.

What could be improved with regard to participation in chemicals management is the involvement of women’s organisations and female experts in conducting such research and providing policy advice. Here, a gender balance in all key commissions and scientific boards is already required by law,[30] and now needs to be carried out in practice. In terms of equal opportunities and the participation of women in chemicals management, the UBA has made great advances in the past and will continue to do so, due to its gender equality plan and established quotas therein.


Arn Sauer, Jürgen Arning, André Conrad, Małgorzata Dębiak, Marike Kolossa-Gehring, Nadja Steinkühler from the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt).


[1] Acknowledgements: This article benefited immensely from discussions with Dr. Petra Greiner, Caren Rauert and Dr. Hans-Christian Stolzenberg. We also thank Kai Egener for editing the article.

[2] United Nations Development Programme / UNDP Environment and Energy Group (UNDP) (2011): Chemicals and Gender. Gender Mainstreaming Guidance Series – Chemicals Management. UNDP: New York,; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2007): Chemicals Management: The why and how of mainstreaming gender. UNDP: New York,

[3] See for example relevant for the German context: Gertler M. (2004): „Umwelt, Geschlecht und Gesundheit“ – Ein Geschlechtervergleich aus umweltmedizinischer und toxikologischer Perspektive [doctoral Thesis].Bayerische Julius-Maximilians-Universität zu Würzburg: Würzburg; or: Buchholz K. (2006): Genderrelevanz und Genderaspekte von Chemikalienpolitik. In: Ebeling S., Schmitz S. (Hrsg.): Geschlechterforschung und Naturwissenschaften. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften: Wiesbaden, p. 139-160.

[4] Bolte G., David M., Dębiak M., Fiedel L., Hornberg C., Kolossa-Gehring M., Krauss U., Lätzsch R., Paeck T., Palm K. & Schneider A. (2018): Integration von Geschlecht in die Forschung zu umweltbezogener Gesundheit. Ergebnisse des interdisziplinären Forschungsnetzwerks Geschlecht – Umwelt –Gesundheit (GeUmGe-NET). Bundesgesundheitsbl. 61, p. 737–746.

[5] The project was conducted by Dr. Marike Kolossa- for the UBA unit responsible for Washing and Cleansing Agents in 2004, compare Röhr, Ulrike (2017): Geschlechterverhältnisse und Nachhaltigkeit [“Gender Relations and Sustainability”, a later publication of the project report from 2004 with updated preface], Umweltbundesamt: Dessau-Roßlau, p. 14; 45-46, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[6] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) / Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) (2017): Gender and the sound management of chemicals and waste. Second meeting of the intersessional process to consider the Strategic Approach and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. Item 4 of the provisional agenda. Considerations for Beyond 2020 (SAICM/IP.2/6). UNEP: Stockholm.

[7] Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

[8] Bolte et al. 2018, see footnote 4.

[9] IPEN & Pesticide Action Network (2017): Beyond 2020: Women and chemical safety. SAICM: Geneva, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[10] German Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt) (2017): Geschlechterverhältnisse und Nachhaltigkeit [“Gender Relations and Sustainability” publication of project report from 2004 with updated introduction]. Umweltbundesamt: Dessau-Roßlau, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[11] German Statistical Office (destatis) (2004): Wo bleibt die Zeit? destatis: Wiesbaden, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[12] German Statistical Office (destatis) (2015): Wie die Zeit vergeht? destatis: Wiesbaden, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[13] Van den Borre L. & Deboosere P. (2018): Health risks in the cleaning industry: a Belgian census-linked mortality study (1991–2011). Int Arch Occup Environ Health 91(1), p. 13-21.

[15] Conrad A., Schröter-Kermani C., Rüther M., Uhlig S., Bartel-Steinbach M., Lermen D., Göen T. & Kolossa- M. (2015): The German Environmental Specimen Bank: Further Insight into Inter-individual Variation in Human Biomonitoring Data. Presentation at the 25th Annual Meeting of International Society for Exposure Science. 18.-22.10.2015, Henderson/Nevada.

[16] Berg G., Kohlmeier L., Brenner H. (1998): Effect of oral contraceptive progestins on serum copper concentration. Eur J Clin Nutr. 52(10), p. 711-715.

[17] UBA (2017): Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2016. Umweltbundesamt: Dessau-Roßlau, p. 30, (last accessed 2019-01-31); Fink, E. (2015): Gesundheitsverhalten aus der Genderperspektive – Das Konzept des „doing genders“ und die Perspektive der Intersektionalität als Erklärungsansatz. Gesundheitswesen (77), p. A28.

[18] Konieczna A., Rutkowska A., Rachoń D. (2015): Health risk of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA). Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 66(1), p. 5-11.

[20] See for example Bonde J.P. (2010): Male reproductive organs are at risk from environmental hazards. Asian J Androl. 12(2), p.152–156.

[21] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2012): OECD Guidance Document on Standardised Test Guidelines for Evaluating Chemicals for Endocrine Disruption. Series on Testing and Assessment (ENV/JM/MONO(2012)22). No. 150. OECD: Paris, (last accessed 2019.01-31).

[22] Regulation (EU) No 528/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2012 concerning the use of biocidal products and how they are made available on the market; Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market and the repeal of Council Directives 79/117/EEC and 91/414/EEC.

[23] SAICM (2018): Quick Start Programme Overview. SAICM: Geneva, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[24] CDU/CSU, SPD (2018): Ein neuer Aufbruch für Europa. Eine neue Dynamik für Deutschland. Ein neuer Zusammenhalt für unser Land. Koalitionsvertrag zwischen CDU, CSU und SPD. 19. Legislaturperiode [„Coalition treaty between CDU, CSU and SPD“], p. 24, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[25] SAICM (2017): Gender and the sound management of chemicals and waste (SAICM/IP.2/6). Second meeting of the intersessional process to consider the Strategic Approach and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. Item 4 of the provisional agenda*. Considerations for Beyond 2020. Stockholm, Sweden, 13.-15.03.2018, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[26] Compare the Sustainable Development Goals, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[27] SAICM & IOMC (2018): Chemicals and Waste Management: Essential to Achieving, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Information Document SAICM/IP.2/INF.5. SAICM: Geneva, (last accessed 2019-01-31).

[28] Gochfeld, .M. (2007): Framework for gender differences in human and animal toxicology. Environ. Res. 104: 4 -21.

[29] The collaborative research project INGER is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (01GL1713) and consists of the project partners University of Bremen, Institute of Public Health and Nursing Research, German Environment Agency, department of toxicology and health-related environmental monitoring, Helmholtz Centre Munich, Institute of Epidemiology, and Humboldt-University of Berlin – Gender and Science, see

[30] Bundesgremienbesetzungsgesetz (BGremBG), (last accessed 2019-01-31).

From Agriculture to Gold Panning: Gender and Chemicals is a Global Concern

#Expert – Blog series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

by NDEYE Maïmouna DIENE

Gender and chemicals

Metallurgical, pharmaceutical, veterinary, cosmetics, agro-food, photographic reproduction, plastics and rubber industries… and also the sectors of agriculture, mechanics, automotive and aeronautics, construction, textiles, electronics and in many other sectors of production, trade and services, in multiple SMEs and large enterprises, chemicals are present in all sectors of activity, even though this is often ignored by those who handle them.

The issue of gender and chemicals is poorly addressed in national and international anti-chemical programs and policies. Why is there a special interest in these questions? Because understanding the gender dimensions of health impacts of chemicals and determining how gender roles and occupations influence exposure to chemicals has become a human rights issue.

From agriculture to gold panning, women’s exposure to chemicals is a real fact

Photo by PAN Africa

Recall that for several decades, chemicals have been used in virtually every sector. Over the years, it has been recognized that chemicals have a wide range of adverse effects, ranging from health hazards such as cancers and physical hazards such as flammability to environmental hazards such as widespread contamination or toxicity for aquatic life.

In many developing countries, women’s work is essentially devoted to agriculture. Agriculture uses large quantities of artificial chemicals as fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides and as regulators of plant growth. For example, in Senegal, rural women represent more than 52% of the population (National Agency for Statistics and Demography, ANSD, 2009) and they are mainly active in the agricultural sector. In phytosanitary treatments, they use large quantities of pesticides.

However, the health effects of pesticides have mainly been studied in male populations of farmers and farm workers. Hence there is a lack of knowledge of the effects on women, and of exposure routes other than occupational exposure itself, during the preparation of the mixture and its application.

According to the literature, exposure of women to pesticides would increase the risk of reproductive disorders, later translation disorders. A report published on July 2, 2010 by CHEM Trust points out that some studies show an increased risk of cancer in children when the mother is exposed to pesticides.

Many workers in gold panning activities are women. They participate in large numbers in artisanal mines, ranging from 40% to 50% in the sector as a whole, reaching up to 90% in some areas, usually gold-bearing (African Center for Mining Development, 2016); and they perform various functions in gold washing and ore processing, as well as in work related to goods and services.

Artisanal mining can have significant health effects: it can cause respiratory diseases (cough, pneumonia, angina…) due to the inhalation of dust and often fatal accidents, due to archaic mining techniques (Artisanal Gold Mining, 2015).

PAN Africa’s experiences, challenges and successes in mainstreaming gender in its projects

PAN Africa began in the 1980s the fight against inequalities between men and women specifically in the field of chemicals and especially pesticides. Thus, PAN Africa in collaboration with partners at national and international level developed programs and projects that have always taken into account the issue of the integration of gender and chemicals. Initiatives were taken and consisted in working with women’s associations and groups from Senegal, Mali, Benin, and elsewhere.

Projects and programs have been focusing on awareness raising, capacity building and advocacy for gender mainstreaming in chemicals. Thus, as part of its Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW) program funded by the Netherlands between 2012 and 2016, PAN has worked to strengthen women’s capacities on gender, leadership and advocacy issues, chemicals and sustainable agriculture. The Rural Women Empowerment Program ( is a good example of training on gender issues and chemicals.

For a better consideration of gender in chemicals, PAN Africa with the support of the Marisla Foundation, is implementing since 2012 training activities for women farmers on agro-ecological practices for a reduction in the production and use of pesticides, reducing the exposure of women to pesticides. The project also sought to raise men’s awareness of the importance of women in agro-ecology and the search for alternatives to synthetic chemical pesticides.

PAN Africa in collaboration with the Government of Senegal in the framework of the Minamata Initial Assessment (MIA) also carried out information and awareness activities on the issues of exposure of women and children in the artisanal mining sites in Senegal but also on gender issues.

Information event at the World Women’s Day – Photo by PAN Africa


Training on POPs in Senegal – Photo by PAN Africa

Women’s empowerment on gender issues and chemicals is not well developed. It is in this context that PAN Africa, with the support of the Global Environment Fund, has granted funding to a group of women who have conducted training activities on gender, POPs and alternatives to POPs in Senegal.

From my point of view, advocacy actions are needed in order to make SAICM and conventions such as Stockholm, Minamata and Basel more serious about gender. It is more than urgent to develop programs and set up specific funds for gender and chemicals issues. The momentum has certainly begun, yet timidly. I hope that concrete actions will be implemented in the years to come.


NDEYE Maïmouna DIENE is the regional coordinator of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Africa, located in Senegal. She is specialized in Ecosystems and Environment and also engineer of Sustainable Development, Health, Environment, Territory and Society. Ms. DIENE has extensive experience working on environmental and social issues related to chemicals, their health impacts and warning systems and prevention of health risks and also a strong background in women’s empowerment, gender and chemicals.

More information about PAN Africa and their work you can find on their website: or you can contact them via e-mail: panafrica[at]

What is a Gender Action Plan?

#Explanation – Blog series: How to create a gender-just healthy planet


A “Gender Action Plan” (GAP; or “Plan for Gender Action”) is the road map for gender activities that an institution has adopted for itself. Its purpose is to make the institutions’ activities “gender responsive and transformative, and thus more effective, efficient and successful“ (UNCCD 2018) by redressing existing gender inequalities and re-defining womens and mens gender roles and relations through guidance on gender mainstreaming. The basic ideas of a Gender Action Plan are that policy interventions decrease women’s burden and that women not only contribute, but also benefit from it (ibid). Therefore, its objectives are:

  • to develop, or deepen, the understanding on the issue of gender within the institution;
  • to ensure that the policy programs and activities include a gender perspective;
  • to promote the considerations of gender issues at all policy levels; and
  • to support staff in achieving a sustainable work-life balance (see e.g. BRS 2016).

Generally speaking, the key elements of a Gender Action Plan include:

  • Vision
  • Principles
  • Policy objectives
  • Time-bound targets to be achieved (short- and long-term)
  • Outputs to achieve policy objectives
  • Stakeholder responsibilities
  • Mechanisms for Implementation (working with women organizations, mobilize financial resources, reporting and monitoring, etc.).
  • Priority areas of actions (as identified during gender assessment)
  • Resources needed/budget planning

How to develop a gender action plan?

The first step is always a gender analysis with a gender impact assessment. After carrying out this assessment, you hopefully will have in hand a list of identified gender gaps. Now, the task is to prioritize these gaps depending on various factors, for example: the urgency of the problem, global relevance, access to financial resources, time, etc. On the basis of a list of prioritized gender gaps you can engage your stakeholders in a participatory process to formulate a vision of a gender-responsive/transformative policy – like the BRS-GAP Vision: “Gender equality is an integral part of the implementation of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, including the secretariat activities“ (BRS 2016).
Then, the real work begins: it is time to develop the gender-responsive policy objectives, short and longtime time-bound targets and outputs – that is, clear statements on what you want to achieve until when, how you want to do this related to the mandate of your institution, who is responsible, and how much human and financial resources have to be allocated to it. In case you were able to identify urgent policy problems during the gender impact assessment, it is recommended to use these as prioritized areas of action.

Several UN Conventions and Organizations have their own Gender Action Plans: The CBD Convention welcomed their first Gender Plan of Action already in May 2008. The BRS Secretariat developed their Gender Action Plan in 2013, the UNCCD in September 2017 and the latest milestone for feminist policies was the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November 2017 (COP23), when the first UNFCCC Gender Action Plan was adopted – just to name a few. An increase of women’s participation in policy processes, the development and implementation of diverse gender actions and projects as well as an increase of gender equality considerations in national policy plans are some of the positive results achieved through Gender Action Plans until now (IUCN Gender Global Office 2018a).

A future framework on the sound management of chemicals and waste needs a Gender Action Plan!

“Gender Action Plans can serve to unite policies, programmes and stakeholders/staff around a common issue—and, specifically, map steps necessary to meet a goal.”  (IUCN Gender Global Office 2018b)

By using the experiences of other sustainable development related institutions with Gender Action Plans, SAICM Beyond 2020 needs to developed a Gender Action Plan in consultation with governments, international organisations and stakeholders as the basic frame for gender activities, in order to create a gender-just healthy planet.

other #explanation blogs:

References and links to several Gender Action Plans:

IUCN Gender Global Office (2018a): EGI Analysis & Knowledge Products. Global Gender Office.

IUCN Gender Global Office (2018b): Gender Action Plans. Gender Global Office.


UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD 2018):

UN Convention on Biological Diversity):

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change:

Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS 2016):