Why men’s reproductive health needs more attention

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

by Pia Cimander, Student Assistant at MSP Institute

Photo by https://unsplash.com/photos/p4TaofaaUQM.

When a heterosexual couple is planning on having a baby, it is most likely that the woman will stop taking her contraception and stop unhealthy habits such as smoking or drinking alcohol. The people surrounding the woman are likely to encourage her with this and giving her lots of (sometimes unwanted) advice for a healthy (pre-)pregnancy. But when the attempts to conceive a child fail, it is usually the women who undergo examinations and tests to identify the reasons.[i] However, a 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States[ii] showed that only one third of infertility cases are caused by female reproductive problems: one third of infertility cases are caused by problems on the male side, and one third by factors on both sides or reasons unknown.[iii]

Research has identified the time period around conception as being crucial for the processes mediating parental influences on the health of the next generation. Parental lifestyle can adversely influence long-term risks of offspring cardiovascular, metabolic, immune, and neurological morbidities.[iv] Smoking, drug abuse, alcohol consumption and exposure to harmful chemicals at home or at the workplace can influence pregnancy outcomes such as miscarriage, lower birth weight, birth defects and childhood illnesses.[v]This means as well, that men’s’ sperm quality suffers from such influences (e.g. endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including bisphenol A)[vi] and can reduce the number of functional sperm, which can affect the unborn children’s health.[vii] With better general education on men’s health, the likelihood of health risks in the important phase before conception could be reduced – which, of course, would be very much in the interest of parents-to-be. But these issues seem to be quite taboo. Why? What is it about male reproductive health that there is almost no public awareness or discourse?

Men’s health is often associated with fitness, an athletic body shape, and a certain body type. Thus, health is associated with specific physical characteristics rather than holistic health. This is also reflected in the widespread disregard of health complaints and the infrequent seeking of medical advice among men.[viii]

A 2019 study by the American Mens Healh Journal explored the lack of using health care in a group of married and heterosexual men. Large disparities  were associated with men having a higher risk for mortality and morbidity. One of the reasons is that men use less preventive health care services than women and don’t seek immediate treatment for many health problems. This is often due to traditional gender roles and also influenced by structural inequalities like social class, race or age in an intersectional way.[ix]

In a 2019 survey in the US, 14,9% of men aged over 18 were found to be in fair or poor health.[x] The lack of health education seems to be one of the main reasons for this.[xi] Medical research and the medical profession seem to have largely ignored men’s health and men’s reproductive health since the beginning of medicine as a formal profession in the 19th century and the development of medical specializations.[xii] The American Medical Association was founded in 1847 and soon after, medical doctors started specializing.[xiii] The female reproductive health was identified as seperate field of health research and medicine, but not male reproductive health.[xiv] Hence, one of the reasons for the widespread lack of male health education is inadequate research. Closing the knowledge and education gaps and focusing on men’s health to the same extent as women’s would not only help to reduce prejudice and facilitate access to male-specific medical help, but also identify and anticipate potential factors that cause reduced fertility.

In addition to the lack of knowledge among citizens, cultural concepts and structural inequalities also lead to health problems among men. There is a global increase in male sexual disorders[xv], including penile disorders, erectile dysfunction, balanitis, prostate cancer, genital urethral discharge and sexually transmitted infections. These conditions might not be life-threatening, but they are rarely reported and associated with social stigma, especially where open communication about sexual health are uncommon. Couples facing infertility may experience shame, especially in traditional societies where the importance of masculinity and patriarchy remain strong and childlessness is greatly stigmatized.[xvi]  In a report about the US Military Health System that examined male infertility in active US armed forces between 2013 und 2017, non-Hispanic black men aged 30-34 had the highest infertility rates.[xvii] The reasons why men from non-white and non-Western backgrounds tend to have a higher risks of infertility may be multiple and include, for example, health education and health care, lack of awareness and traditional taboos. In a webinar of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment held in May 2021[xviii] , additional reasons were highlighted, among them being a lack of trust in the U.S. medical health care system among black populations which can results in less frequent participation in studies. Reproductive research often focuses on with comparatively wealthy, white individuals who can afford specialized diagnostic and treatment. Reports such as the one by Nathan McCray, Heather Young and Michael Irwig from 2020 on the association of race, obesity, and sperm quality among men are still rare – more (intersectional) data and research on men’s reproductive health is urgently needed .[xix]


When focusing the attention on reproductive health, we should not only see it as a women’s issue. Especially when it is about reproductive health, awareness-raising on how men’s health can affect fertility and children’s health could make a big difference. There is a need to promote male health. Medical research and development needs to improve so that men have easy access to information and care from the beginning, including through sex education. Men’s (health) participation in the period before child conception is essential. For example, health apps and fertility trackers could also be tailored to men. On a societal level, structural investments need to ensure everybody’s access to high quality and affordable health care. As societies, we need to overcome stigmatization and stop seeing men only as strong and unbreakable whose health is solely linked to physical fitness. It won’t be possible to reduce reproductive risks to zero. But paying more attention to men’s reproductive health has the potential to improve many lives in this generation and for generations to come. 

Of course, there are many more aspects and things to know about male reproductive health. Below are some useful links and references to help you dive deeper into the topic:

Dr. Shanna Swan, Stacey Colino (2021): Count Down How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female ReproductiveDevelopment, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race: https://www.shannaswan.com/

IPPF-International Planned Parenthood Federation: Launch of first global sexual and reproductive health service package for men and adolescent boys: https://www.ippf.org/blogs/launch-first-global-sexual-and-reproductive-health-service-package-men-and-adolescent-boys

Male childlessness: “You think, If I’m not reproducing – then what am I?” The Guardian, 17.11.2018, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/nov/17/male-childlessness-not-reproducing-what-am-i

Male Reproductive Health Crisis: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Racial Inequities: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtvYHzCFTag&t=3569s (Last accessed: date)

MEMAH – Men Educating  Men About Health: https://meneducatingmen.org/health-education/

RW Fisher, Jane; Hamarberg, Karin: Psychological and social aspects of infertility in men: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735147/ (last accessed: 15.12.2021)

Richard G. Bribiescas (2017): How Men Age. What Evolution Reveals about Male Health and Mortality: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9781400883264/html

Campbell, Leah: Why Aren’t More men Aware of Their Fertility Status?: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-arent-more-men-aware-of-their-fertility-status (last accessed: 15.12.2021)


Amoo, Emmanuel; Omideyi, Adekunbi; Fadayomi, Theophilus et al. (2017): Male reproductive health challenges: appraisal of wives coping strategies, Reproductive Health 14, 90. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978.017-0341-2.

Ariba, AJ; Oladapo, OT; Iyaniwuar, CA et al. (2007): Management of erectile dysfunction: perceptions and practices of Nigerian primary care clinicians. South African Family Practice, 49:9, 16-16d, DOI:10.1080/20786204.2007.10873632.

Collaborative on Health and the Environment (2021): Male Reproductive Health Crisis: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Racial Inequities, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtvYHzCFTag&t=3569s, last seen: 08.11.2021.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2016): URL, https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/menshealth/conditioninfo/infertility#f4, last seen: 28.10.2021.

Fleming, Tom; Watkins, Adam; Velazquez, Miguel et al. (2018): Origins of lifetime health around the lifetime of conception: causes and consequences, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30312-X.

Howard, Jacqueline (2018): How dad’s pre-conception health can affect the baby, too. URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/16/health/dad-health-baby-preconception-study/index.html, last seen: 04.11.1021.

McCray, Nathan; Young, Heather, Irwig, Michael (2020): The Association Between Race, Obesity, and Sperm Quality Among Men Attending a University Physician Practice in Washington, DC, American Journal of Men’s Health, 14/3, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1557988320925985.

Mitchell, Kirstin; King, Micheal; Nazareth, Irwin et al. (2011): Managing Sexual Difficulties: A Qualitative Investigation of Coping Strategies, The Journal of Sex Research, 45:4, 325-333, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2010.494332.

National Center for Health Statistics (2021). URL: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/mens-health.htm, last seen: 04.11.2021.

Noone, Jack H.; Stephens, Christine (2008): Men, masculine identities, and health care utilization, URL: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2008.01095.x, last seen: 28.10.2021.

Novak, Josh R.; Peak, Terry; Gast, Julie, Arnell, Melinda (2019): Associations Between Masculine Norms and Health-Care Utilization in Highly Religious, Heterosexual Men, In: American Journal of Men’s Health, 2019 May-Jun; 13 (3), URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6560804/#bibr18-1557988319856739, last seen: 02.11.2021.

Resolve: Male Factor, URL: https://resolve.org/infertility-101/medical-conditions/male-factor/, last seen 05.11.2021.

Ross, C. E., Masters, R. K., & Hummer, R. A. (2012). Education and the gender gaps in health and mortality. Demography, 49(4), 1157–1183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-012-0130-z.

Shannon, Jette (2011): Exercising caution: the production of medical knowledge about physical exertion during pregnancy, DOI: 10.3138/cbmh.28.2.293.

Sharma, A., Mollier, J., Brocklesby, R., Caves, C., Jayasena, C. N., & Minhas, S. (2020). Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Reproductive medicine and biology, 19(3), 243–253. https://doi.org/10.1002/rmb2.12326.

Stephenson, Judith; Heslehurst, Nicola, Hall, Jennifer et al. (2018): Before the beginning: nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health, DOI: https://doi.org./10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30311-8.

UN Environment Programme (2021): Human right to a healthy environment: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/landmark-un-resolution-confirms-healthy-environment-human-right

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021): URL: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/, last seen: 28.10.2021.

Williams, Valerie; Atta, Irene; Stahlman, Shauna (2019): Brief Report: Male Infertility, Active Component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2013-2017, URL: https://www.health.mil/News/Articles/2019/03/01/Male-Infertility?type=Infographics, last seen: 04.11.2021.

YaleNews (2020): ‘GUYnecology’: Why men’s reproductive health matters, URL: https://news.yale.edu/2020/09/15/guynecology-why-mens-reproductive-health-matters, last seen: 04.11.2021.

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[i] Resolve: Male Factor, URL: https://resolve.org/infertility-101/medical-conditions/male-factor/, last seen 05.11.2021.

[ii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021): URL: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/, last seen: 28.10.2021.

[iii] Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2016): URL, https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/menshealth/conditioninfo/infertility#f4, last seen: 28.10.2021.

[iv] Fleming, Tom; Watkins, Adam; Velazquez, Miguel et al. (2018): Origins of lifetime health around the lifetime of conception: causes and consequences, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30312-X.

[v] Howard, Jacqueline (2018): How dad’s pre-conception health can affect the baby, too. URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/16/health/dad-health-baby-preconception-study/index.html, last seen: 04.11.1021.

[vi] Sharma, A., Mollier, J., Brocklesby, R., Caves, C., Jayasena, C. N., & Minhas, S. (2020). Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Reproductive medicine and biology, 19(3), 243–253. https://doi.org/10.1002/rmb2.12326.

[vii] Stephenson, Judith; Heslehurst, Nicola, Hall, Jennifer et al. (2018): Before the beginning: nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health, DOI: https://doi.org./10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30311-8.

[viii] Noone, Jack H.; Stephens, Christine (2008): Men, masculine identities, and health care utilization, URL: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2008.01095.x, last seen: 28.10.2021.

[ix] American Journal of Men’s Health (2019): Associations Between Masculine Norms and Health-Care Utilization in Highly Religious, Heterosexual Men, URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6560804/#bibr18-1557988319856739, last seen: 02.11.2021.

[x] National Center for Health Statistics (2021). URL: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/mens-health.htm, last seen: 04.11.2021.

[xi] Ross, C. E., Masters, R. K., & Hummer, R. A. (2012). Education and the gender gaps in health and mortality. Demography, 49(4), 1157–1183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-012-0130-z.

[xii] YaleNews (2020): ‘GUYnecology’: Why men’s reproductive health matters, URL: https://news.yale.edu/2020/09/15/guynecology-why-mens-reproductive-health-matters, last seen: 04.11.2021.

[xiv] Shannon, Jette (2011): Exercising caution: the production of medical knowledge about physical exertion during pregnancy, DOI: 10.3138/cbmh.28.2.293.

[xv] Mitchell, Kirstin; King, Micheal; Nazareth, Irwin et al. (2011): Managing Sexual Difficulties: A Qualitative Investigation of Coping Strategies, The Journal of Sex Research, 45:4, 325-333, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2010.494332.

[xvi] Amoo, Emmanuel; Omideyi, Adekunbi; Fadayomi, Theophilus et al. (2017): Male reproductive health challenges: appraisal of wives coping strategies, Reproductive Health 14, 90. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978.017-0341-2.

[xvii] Williams, Valerie; Atta, Irene; Stahlman, Shauna (2019): Brief Report: Male Infertility, Active Component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2013-2017, URL: https://www.health.mil/News/Articles/2019/03/01/Male-Infertility?type=Infographics, last seen: 04.11.2021.

Collaborative on Health and the Environment (2021): Male Reproductive Health Crisis: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Racial Inequities, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtvYHzCFTag&t=3569s, last seen: 08.11.2021.

[xix] McCray, Nathan; Young, Heather, Irwig, Michael (2020): The Association Between Race, Obesity, and Sperm Quality Among Men Attending a University Physician Practice in Washington, DC, American Journal of Men’s Health, 14/3, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1557988320925985.

Research Results: Gender Equality and International Environmental Agreements

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

by Megan Kalsman

Chemicals can have a disproportionately high impact on women’s health and wellness.

I observed this firsthand while employed by the City of San Francisco Department of the Environment in California, US. One of my responsibilities as a Commercial Toxics Reduction Assistant Coordinator included working with local governments to certify nail salons to encourage using fewer toxic chemicals and increasing the use of personal protective equipment, e.g., masks and gloves. I met with salon owners and nail technicians who had miscarriages, skin problems, and other health issues from exposure to the many chemicals used in nail salons, such as polish removers, thinners, acrylics, etc. The nail salon community in California employs a high proportion of women whose primary language is not English. Communicating the health risks to this population proved especially challenging but was ultimately very rewarding. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative is just one example of environmental and gender justice which ultimately inspired me to continue my research on gender and chemicals. 

As part of my master’s degree program at Lund University in Sweden, I completed a research project focused on gender equality and Multilateral Environmental Agreements (“MEAs”). I was intrigued by the ongoing work surrounding gender and chemicals on an international level and found that various MEAs have been incorporating gender equality into their processes. The research aim of this project was to gain an exploratory perspective on gender equality aspects in MEAs and how advancing gender equality goals can be mainstreamed in the United Nations (UN) political and administrative system. The thesis focused on international policies in recognition of the large impact that global environmental agreements have on national governments and the significant potential for positive change.

This led me to my three primary research aims:

(1) Investigating the terminology used in MEA treaty texts and how word choices can lead to various interpretations. 

(2) Looking at the major activities and themes from those which had MEA gender action plans. 

(3) Uncovering the challenges and barriers faced by the MEA Secretariats (the UN bodies which assists in the planning and implementation of the agreement [1]) and recommending opportunities for gender mainstreaming going forward. 

The study analyzed nine different MEAs with a focus on chemicals and waste related agreements. For a comparison aspect, two ozone depletion agreements, one biodiversity convention, and one climate change convention which have had some inclusion of gender equality aspects in their work were also analyzed. Although this research focused on chemicals and waste agreements, I learned from various practitioners that other environmental areas such as climate change and water management issues had been somewhat explored and documented, whereas chemicals and gender interlinkages was a newer area of focus [2]. I interviewed MEA secretariats who had worked on or around gender aspects in efforts to gain a detailed perspective on their challenges, barriers, and potential opportunities to increase gender mainstreaming.

Research results:

When examining the language and terminology used in MEAs around gender, I found that women were referenced in the treaty texts sparingly. Women were often mentioned as part of a list – mostly included in vulnerable populations amongst workers, children, the elderly, etc. This portrayed women as part of a community that needs protection, rather than as agents of change. However, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) global policy framework turned out to be an outlier in the MEA comparison. This framework included a significantly higher number of mentions around gender and women in the SAICM texts (Dubai Declaration on International Chemicals Management, Overarching Policy Strategy, Global Plan of Action, Annexes and Resolutions by the International Conference on Chemicals Management) compared to the other more traditional style MEAs. SAICM is a non-binding framework [3] which makes it unique from the other eight agreements reviewed. 

At the time this research was conducted (Spring 2021), there were four different MEA gender action plans found among the nine selected agreements. One of which was still in the review process and not yet finalized. Two chemicals and waste MEAs, one biodiversity, and one climate change agreement gender action plans were assessed. The top five most referenced activities were communication and awareness, stakeholder collaboration, baseline and reporting progress, implementation, and linkages to social and environmental issues amongst many other action items. 

From speaking with the MEA secretariats, ​​major takeaways were that the work to include a gender perspective is occurring, but the lack of funding and resources remains a persistent challenge. Despite this, gender action plans and action plan updates are still progressing, and data collection continues. Areas of opportunity that came up during these discussions were the importance of stakeholder collaboration and the benefits of working with other actors in the women and environment nexus and others such as the medical field. 

Research recommendations:

  • Gender and women considerations should be included in the SAICM Beyond 2020 texts. This can set a precedent for future gender mainstreaming work to be completed. If it’s not in the treaty text, the work might not get done.
  • SAICM should develop a gender action plan with particular attention to accountability measures, specifying targets and intended results, reporting on effectiveness of the plan, and a focus on communication and awareness with stakeholders and the public. 
  • Prioritizing funding for gender mainstreaming work within the UN system is crucial. For example, obtaining funding for pilot projects may demonstrate the viability of the work that parties are doing around gender equality — see for example the 2017 BRS Gender Heroes pilot projects [4]. Continuing collaboration with stakeholder groups and MEA secretariats is key to push the gender mainstreaming work forward. 

Conclusions and major takeaways:

Gender mainstreaming work is ramping up within the chemicals and waste-related international environmental agreements. However, with the SAICM intersessional meetings postponed until further notice, this work must continue or risk losing momentum. I strongly believe in the importance of sustaining and growing an intersectional perspective in this work. Key stakeholders from different backgrounds need to be heard and “in the room” when decisions are being made. Integrating a gender lens within environmental agreements and this important work will promote moving the needle towards a more sustainable and just future for all.

To read this thesis in its entirety, visit here.

[1] https://www.informea.org/en/terms/secretariat

[2] WECF & UNEP. (2016). Women and Chemicals: The impact of hazardous chemicals on women A thought starter based on an experts‘ workshop. 66. https://www.wecf.org/77912/

[3] https://www.informea.org/en/treaties/strategic-approach-international-chemicals-management

[4] http://www.brsmeas.org/Gender/CaseStudies/CaseStudiesonintegratingagenderperspective/tabid/8000/language/en-US/Default.aspx

Interested in the research results? Contact Megan Kalsman here.

A new generation of equality in the world of chemistry

#Youth voices: How to create a gender-just healthy planet

Interview with Elisabeth Keuten, Member of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force

MSP Institute: Hi Elisabeth, you are one of the thirty-nine international members of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force in the Beijing+25 process. You address a broad range of gender inequalities and their impact on the young generation in that work. Where do you see the connection between gender and chemistry? And can you think of any examples from your everyday life how this connection affects young people?

Elisabeth Keuten: When I think about chemistry, the image of a white man in a white coat comes to my mind. Chemistry is a male-dominated discipline with women[i] playing only a minor role. How come?
As a young feminist, I would like to take a moment and reflect on the causes of this gender gap in chemistry and other so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines: Chemistry is part of STEM and mainly considered of interest to boys and men, for example, here in Germany. Although girls are also often fascinated by STEM topics, most of them do not pursue their interests further at school, and that is a trend that continues into college education.
In fact, here in Germany, only 37% of undergraduate students, 35% of postgraduate students and 34% of chemistry PhD students are women, which is a stark underrepresentation (Lüttmann 2019).
I am not a student of chemistry, but I can imagine that young women in STEM disciplines have to deal with various challenges. Not only are young students often overwhelmed by the difficult contents of their studies, but gender roles hinder them even more – my impression is that young women are often feeling insecure when it comes to active participation in academic courses, especially in male-dominated disciplines. As a consequence, their self-esteem may suffer during their studies and that may also affect their academic performance.
On top of all this, women are structurally discriminated by the university system itself – and also by our overall patriarchal society![ii]

MSP Institute: That sounds pretty challenging! What are you as the Youth Task Force trying to do about it?

Elisabeth Keuten: Yes, indeed, that is the harsh reality: not one single country has reached gender equality! Therefore, the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), being an international movement focusing on gender equality, is dealing with the lack of gender equality and representation. Within this forum, six working groups, so-called Action Coalitions of different actors – UN Member States, international organisations, UN agencies, philanthropies, civil society organisations, youth organisations – focus on different thematic areas.
The Action Coalition “Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality” addresses the above-mentioned difficulties in an action-oriented manner. Actors engaged in this group, including UN Member States Armenia, Finland and Tunisia, will work together for the next five years to advocate, finance and support gender equality in technology and innovation – and thus also in STEM.
Challenges for women in STEM have often been overlooked, attracting attention much later than issues on gender-based violence or bodily autonomy, for example. As reflected in the youth report[iii] of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force, STEM is receiving more attention now, but this needs to further increase over the coming years.

MSP Institute: What would be your suggestions for the future?

Elisabeth Keuten: The question to be asked is how to overcome these problems of inequality? I propose to continue making small but steady steps and working on concrete issues.
For example, more women’s working groups in chemistry could create “safe spaces” of mutual support and opportunities of empowerment. In my experience, such groups can create an appreciative and safe atmosphere, where one can freely discuss all kinds of questions. While empowerment of women should take place in dialogue with men, I believe it is vital to establish safe spaces for exchange.
In order to avoid a widening gender gap in chemistry, girls should be actively encouraged to explore scientific subjects at school and in extra-curricular activities. Teachers and parents who are supportive can create a learning atmosphere that helps to increase girls’ interest and performance.
Additionally, career fairs and campaign days may raise awareness of possible future careers in chemistry. Increasing scholarships for women in STEM should also be considered; some do exist but they need to be publicized further in order to increase uptake.
External contributions like scholarship programs not only provide financial resources but also create extra-curricular workshops and seminars as well as networking opportunities with other women in STEM. Such training and networks can help facilitate early career steps.
Lastly, the impact of role models is often underestimated, yet they can also help to encourage pupils and students. Eminent figures of female chemists can open new dimensions to those who are considering chemistry for their future careers. Not only can professionals offer their perspective on the male-dominated discipline, but encourage and share knowledge as well as coping strategies.
Policy-makers, as well as media, should support these small steps within programs, project publications and funding opportunities. And together with international high-level cooperation, as in the Generation Equality Task Force, I believe that global changes towards more gender equality in chemistry are indeed possible! Chemistry as a discipline and career will certainly be an example of changes towards gender equality in the coming years and decades.

MSP Institute: We strongly believe that too! Let’s join forces for a new generation of equality in the world of chemistry. Thank you very much, Elisabeth, for sharing your insights and views!

[i] Please note that we include trans*, non-binary and those identifying as women when saying “women”, “girl” or “female”.

[ii] Further information on the impact of structural disadvantages of women in the academic field, see Royal Society of Chemistry (2018) and UNESCO (2010).

[iii] The Youth Report reflects the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted in 1995 and points out missing areas of concern.

We spoke with Elisabeth Keuten

Member of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force

Twitter: @EKeuten

References and further information

Lüttmann, Christian (2019): Dauer, Abschlüsse, Frauenquote – Das Chemiestudium in Zahlen. Online at: https://www.laborpraxis.vogel.de/dauer-abschluesse-frauenquote-das-chemiestudium-in-zahlen-a-844354/

Generation Equality Forum (2020): Accelerating Progress for Gender Equality by 2030.Online at: https://forum.generationequality.org/

Generation Equality Forum (2020): Action Coalitions.Online at: https://forum.generationequality.org/action-coalitions

Generation Equality Youth Task Force (2020): 25 Years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: A Youth Report. Online at: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/setions/news%20and%20events/stories/2020/youthtfglobalreport.pdf?la=en&vs=1607&fbclid=IwAR2LgW64IMH3b8uj4IHL6EYV5wh3iAhibZlVZmEifBQB0PuJSZ7h5jh2bv4

Royal Society of Chemistry (2018): Breaking the Barriers: Women’s Retention and Progression in the Chemical Sciences. Online at: https://www.rsc.org/globalassets/02-about-us/our-strategy/inclusion-diversity/womens-progression/media-pack/v18_vo_inclusion-and-diversity-_womans-progression_report-web-.pdf

UNESCO (2010): Gender Issues in Higher Education: Advocacy Brief. Online at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/in/documentViewer.xhtml?v=2.1.196&id=p::usmarcdef_0000189825&file=/in/rest/annotationSVC/DownloadWatermarkedAttachment/attach_import_0fef4c38-4e16-41a5-ad4a-fb92bcab4eb2%3F_%3D189825eng.pdf&locale=en&multi=true&ark=/ark:/48223/pf0000189825/PDF/189825eng.pdf#%5B%7B%22num%22%3A81%2C%22gen%22%3A0%7D%2C%7B%22name%22%3A%22XYZ%22%7D%2Cnull%2Cnull%2C0%5D

Photos by: Bree Evans and by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Grooming, bleaching & Co: How gender, chemicals and cosmetics are linked and what that means for our health

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

by Pia Cimander, Intern at MSP Institute

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Source: Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

Soooo many cosmetics…

Walking through the aisles of a German drugstore, you’d notice the vast amount of cosmetics and care products piled up around you. Prices vary from cheap (bottom) to expensive (top), and products shine in all colors of the rainbow. For every part of the body, for every part of the face, and for every age. Products “for men” are strictly separated, from all the rest. i.e. the ones probably intended for women. The compartment with products for men is much smaller, there are fewer products and the packaging is also less conspicuous.
Whether distinguishing cosmetic products “for men” and “for women” is necessary is open to question, but the fact that the product range for women is so much larger should be examined and the reasons for this scrutinized.
Whatever the reasons, however, there are enough customers buying these products – despite the fact that ingredients are often poorly researched and components poorly declared.

The market is booming, but at what price?

In 2019, sales in the market for cosmetics and toiletries in Germany alonge were around € 15 billion [1]. Worldwide, annual sales amount to around € 220 billion, with an upward trend [2]. Women are the largest consumer group of cosmetics and personal care products. They use an average of 15 different such products every day. These contain up to 100 chemicals, many of them toxic or potentially toxic [3]. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) [4] and the Endocrine Society [5], EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) in cosmetic products increase the likelihood of serious and even potentially fatal diseases and health disorders.

There are many reasons why women around the globe buy so many cosmetic products, including: the market and marketing suggests that women need all kinds of cosmetics and care products. Shampoo, for example, should simply clean hair of residues, grease and dead skin flakes. Instead, there is a suitable shampoo for every hair type, every taste and every feel. In addition, there are always new trends, also reflected in cosmetics. For example, As society is increasingly concerned with a “healthy” lifestyle, a clean and vegan diet and minimalistic styling, this is also reflected on the shelves of drugstores. In addition, so-called influencers increasingly impact purchasing and consumption behavior. When a certain product is advertised and shown frequently, the consumers’ interest increases and sales rise as well [6]. In addition, a well-groomed appearance is demanded by society, especially of women, and employers, for example, also usually attach great importance to this[10],[11].

Bleaching for beauty and jobs?

A particularly unsettling example of risky cosmetics in order to meet societal ideas of beauty and status is the increasing use of skin-lightening products, cures and creams, which are becoming more and more popular, especially in Asian and African countries. With an expected turnover of US$ 31.2 billion by 2024, they represent the fastest growing sector in the beauty industry [9], with the largest markets in Asia, particularly in the Philippines. However, they pose an enormous risk for their mostly female consumers [7]. So if potential employers mention a “well-groomed appearance” in their job applications, it can be assumed that, among other things, this also refers to the lightest possible skin [10],[11],[7]. Creams, cosmetic treatments and even intravenous cures are offered at almost all price ranges. One example is the so-called “Cinderella drip”, an intravenous treatment that destroys the skin’s natural melanin through the antioxidant glutathione and thus lightens the skin. Glutathione and its long-term effects on the human body have been poorly researched; they are not recommended by the FDA for medical use [8], for example. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns against such creams, especially against the mercury salts they may contain, which have been found several times in skin-lightening products, as mercury inhibits the formation of melanin and thus leads to a brighter skin tone. The Minamata Convention on mercury sets a limit of 1 mg/kg (1 ppm) for skin-lightening products, but many cosmetic products contain mercury in higher concentrations than this to enhance the whitening effect [9]. Many skin-lightening products are available via a ‘black market’ precisely because of these health hazards.

Major problems with the (illegal) trade of skin bleaches and side effects caused by their use can also be found in African countries. Such products are advertised on large street adverts as well as on television, and on the Internet. Many influencers report (mostly on YouTube and Instagram) talk about their successes with skin-lightening creams, tinctures and capsules, some of which they distribute themselves.

Lightened skin can help less privileged women as a “stepping stone” into a profession, because light skin stands for social advancement and is considered attractive by society [7]. However, the use of cheap creams and duplicates is highly dangerous and can lead to extreme damage such as possible mercury poisoning.


Reasons for wanting to lighten the skin are firmly anchored in colonial history, and the racist structures of our globalized world [12],[13]. Questioning the resulting ideals of beauty and overcoming discrimination is the task of society and politics.
Changing our ideas of beauty, however, will take time. Meanwhile, transparency and control of ingredients of bleaching products as well as of cosmetics of any kind needs to increase significantly, and people need to become aware of risks and side effects. Otherwise, the price people are paying for looking “beautiful” or “successful” is way too high.

SAICM Issues of Concern

In the SAICM process, chemicals in cosmetics are considered in the discussions on “Issues of Concern”, and the Emerging Policy Issues “chemicals in products” and “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” are of particular relevance to cosmetics and care products. This is an important stepping stone for getting things right. A comprehensive, ambitious and gender-responsive SAICM Beyond 2020 is very much needed.

Sources and further information:

[1] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/699406/umfrage/umsatzprognose-im-deutschen-kosmetik-und-koerperpflegemarkt/#:~:text=Im%20Jahr%202019%20lag%20der,bei%20rund%2015%20Milliarden%20Eur.

[2] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/258378/umfrage/weltweite-umsatzverteilung-im-kosmetikmarkt-nach-produktgruppen/#:~:text=Die%20Statistik%20zeigt%20eine%20Sch%C3%A4tzung,Prozent%20davon%20entfielen%20auf%20Hygieneartikel.

[3] https://www.forumue.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/10-Stimmt-die-Chemie-Hausmann.pdf

[4] WHO/UNEP, “WHO | State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012,” WHO (World Health Organization, 2013), http://www.who.int/ceh/publications/endocrine/en/

[5] Endocrine Scientific Statement (review), 2015: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26544531

[6] https://www.kosmetikverband.de/infodienst/detail/influencer-marketing-authentizitaet-als-marketinginstrument

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYTIh2cXfvM

[8] https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/injectable-skin-lightening-and-skin-bleaching-products-may-be-unsafe

[9] https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-CED-PHE-EPE-19.13


[11] https://www.hrmguide.com/diversity/colorism.htm

[12] https://www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/the-philippines-an-overview-of-the-colonial-era/

[13[ https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/XIfdHRAAAKbQ_FWB







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). https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/resources-library/publications/WCMS_324653/lang–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). https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/resources-library/publications/WCMS_324653/lang–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 https://www.journals.elsevier.com/gender-medicine), 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]isc3.org,  www.isc3.org


[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 https://www.svb.com/globalassets/library/uploadedfiles/content/trends_and_insights/reports/women_in_technology_leadership/svb-suo-women-in-tech-report-2019.pdf

[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, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11365-020-00642

[iv] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11365-020-00642-5

[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

[vii] www.leuphana.de/sustainable-chemistry

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

www.nestbau.info – 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 www.nestbau.info – 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 www.nestbau.info.

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 www.nestbau.info 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 www.nestbau.info.

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 www.ptfperiod.info 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 www.ptfperiod.info and how to become a partner, please contact HEJSupport team at info[at]hej-support.org

(1) https://www.nwhn.org/early-puberty-for-girls-the-new-normal-and-why-we-need-to-be-concerned/

(2) https://www.pnas.org/content/117/9/4642


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: https://wedo.org/women-on- 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. https://gendercc.net/who-are-we/10-year-anniver- 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- t.un.org/majorgroups/women.

WMG (2018): History of Women’s Movement and Sustainable Devel- opment. http://www.womenmajorgroup.org/wp-content/uploads/ 2018/01/History-of-the-Women%E2%80%99s-Movement-and- Sustainable-Development.pdf