© Yannick Schutz / Arctic Council
Assessing gender issues in the Arctic is a challenging and important step towards gender equality.

Gender equality is a fundamental human right, yet significant work remains before equality is achieved. This is also true in the Arctic where many peripheral communities witness worrying trends and unique environmental and social challenges that intersect with gender equality. This is despite several Arctic States, such as the Nordics, topping the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.

To strengthen social wellbeing and sustainable development in the Arctic, the Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) set a goal to make gender equality an integral part of Arctic policy through the Gender Equality in the Arctic (GEA) project.

Gender equality and the Arctic Council

Embla Eir Oddsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network, is Chair of SDWG’s Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group and the lead of the GEA project. The project released its second report at the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in May 2021.

Among other things, the report indicates how gender equality in the Arctic is just as important as it is complex. Reflecting on the status of gender equality in the Arctic and how the Arctic Council can continue to address it, Embla Oddsdóttir says, “These are questions that we ask ourselves every day, and there is no one answer as the region is multicultural and complex. What we need most of all now is more information and better data. Perhaps then we can start answering these questions.”

While all Arctic States have certain obligations for promoting gender equality, Embla Oddsdóttir highlights that policy development in the Arctic generally doesn’t consider diversity.

“Gender equality is important for the Arctic Council to address because it can serve as a model. It’s an important venue to promote the message that inclusivity is important for the wellbeing of communities, especially when it comes to policy development in the region.”

Embla Oddsdóttir

As climate change brings with it challenging environmental, social and economic changes, diversity in access to and participation in policy development is critical. “Our core belief is that if you want to achieve sustainable development, you need a diversity of voices in policy- and decision making, not least when it comes to adaptation and mitigation strategies,” said Embla Oddsdóttir.

Gender issues in the Arctic

The 2021 Gender Equality in the Arctic (GEA) report includes six thematic chapters relating to gender equality, from law and governance to security and the environment. With that, there are certain issues related to gender equality that are felt more strongly in the Arctic.

One such issue is mobility and migration in the North, which is highly gendered. A dedicated chapter to migration in the GEA report highlights that women outnumber men in terms of out-migration, and in most Arctic regions there are more men than women. The skewed sex ratio is among factors that may reinforce inequalities and be a driving force of female out-migration.

Related to out-migration is brain drain. Many people born in the Arctic move South to seek higher education or employment, and many don’t return North. Although industries such as mining and offshore oil and gas constitute a significant part of the Arctic economic backbone and provide job opportunities, too often these industries are male-dominated, with women representing only one-fifth of employees in the oil and gas industry. “If you have continued project development that attracts a male labor force and continued higher education levels of females that then move away from small Arctic communities, that’s obviously not sustainable development,” said Embla Oddsdóttir.

The GEA report also emphasizes that gendered violence continues to be a serious issue across the Arctic. Indigenous women and girls face disproportionate violent victimization in the context of ongoing settler colonial relations. However, violence hasn’t yet been covered in a comparative fashion across the Arctic. Therefore, it’s crucial to examine and understand relations among its people, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, between genders and between regions.

Gender empowerment, a term closely linked with fate control, is also key to community sustainability and resilience. The chapter on empowerment emphasizes the need to maintain a focus on empowerment while acknowledging human diversity to ensure culturally, economically, and politically relevant approaches in each Arctic region and community.

Challenges with gender data

Adequately assessing gendered realities in the Arctic remains an immense challenge due to a lack of cohesive data. When looking at the Arctic, eight nations must be assessed – all of which have different definitions and perceptions of gender and gender issues – in addition to multiple regional and local units. But developing a cohesive approach to gender-related data won’t be simple.

“What needs to be considered is how gender is developing in very diverse ways. We need to consider how to move away from binary conceptions of gender into a more inclusive conception of gender.”

Embla Oddsdóttir

Assessing gender equality in the Arctic is also challenged by a general lack of data. “Part of the problem is that agencies responsible for national data can’t aggregate the data because in some cases, population sizes are too small, and privacy issues come into effect,” said Jennifer Spence, Executive Secretary of SDWG. “They often don’t even collect the data, let alone tackle the issue of data consistency across jurisdictions. Data simply doesn’t exist in a lot of northern contexts because of the remoteness and small size of populations, which exacerbates the issue.”

In some instances, there are vast discrepancies between numbers reported in official national statistics versus, for example, in grassroots-type initiatives or reports, such as in the case of gendered violence. “This creates a shadowy figure, and no one completely knows the real numbers. It therefore becomes very difficult to analyze where the situation is the most critical so that you can prioritize and address it,” said Embla Oddsdóttir.

Improving gender equality in the Arctic

In addition to policy-relevant highlights, the GEA report includes two main recommendations specifically for the Arctic Council. One of those is to improve gendered and intersectional data, including specific data on Indigenous populations. National agencies collaborating to develop indicators to facilitate future research and policy development will be a critical component.

Another GEA recommendation is related to gender mainstreaming. According to the report, this could be achieved by the Arctic Council systematically engaging with and mainstreaming gender across its work.

“I believe that if we manage to continue to bring people together to discuss and work on issues of gender, then we’ll gradually see a positive change. But gender equality is a topic that generally is an uphill battle. It takes a very long time for change to happen. What needs to come first is the form, and then the culture. You can start with formal equality in terms of political and legal documents, but what lags behind that is generally people’s mindsets and cultures.”

Embla Oddsdóttir

Reflecting on the report’s contribution to a more gender equal future, Embla Oddsdóttir says, “We see the GEA project and report as being one more step towards the end goal of gender equality and sustainable development.”