BES-Net Op-Ed Series on COVID-19 (#2): Ecosystem Services, Gender and COVID-19


This BES-Net Op-Ed series #2 provides insight on how the emergence of zoonotic diseases may impact on existing gender inequalities in biodiversity and ecosystem services access and use. It has probably not escaped the attention of most readers that, in the face of a global pandemic, thus far, countries with female leaders appear to have fared noticeably better than most, and far better than those with populist national leaders. Countries with women in leadership have suffered around six times fewer confirmed deaths from COVID-19 than countries with governments led by men. Whilst the pattern is clear, causality, even the direction of causality is not so clear, as well described in this Harvard Business Review article.
Whilst female leaders have been good for their citizens in the pandemic, the global impacts of the virus have not been gender-neutral. Although infection rates and morbidity data show that men are more likely to contract and die from the COVID-19 virus, the longer-term socio-economic impact of the pandemic is disproportionately falling on women’s shoulders in most countries, as strongly argued by Melinda Gates in this powerful essay.
The little mention of natural resources, biodiversity or ecosystem services in the Melinda Gates essay raises the question of how COVID-19 might affect women through differential impacts via nature’s services. Somewhat surprisingly, it appears that consideration of the gender dimension in ecosystem services is still something of a research “blind spot”, with few detailed studies. For example, Cruz-Garcia et al. (2017) identified only five out of 49 case study scientific articles on ecosystem services and wellbeing that considered gender, and a systematic review by Yang et al. (2018) found only 0.7% of ecosystem services research examined gender dimensions.
These few studies also reveal that gender differences in ecosystem services perspectives, benefits, and control, are context-specific, not universal.  Table 1 provides a framework against which potential gender bias in ecosystem services could be identified along with possible mitigation mechanisms, recognising that these may arise from deeply-embedded cultural norms.
Table 1. Gender dimensions of ecosystem services interventions

Level of intervention Gender dimensions Possible implications if gender dimension is ignored
Outcomes Wellbeing is socially constructed; men and women value different aspects and have different needs Dimensions of wellbeing valued by women (e.g. social relations above private profit) may be undermined
Access and property rights Costs and benefits are determined by how people access resources, technology, and knowledge, and how this is shaped by formal and informal property rights – all are very strongly gendered Women are barred from accessing key resources because of technology (e.g. fishing gears, boats) or from managing assets (e.g. trees) because of informal and formal rights
Decision- making and voice Formal and informal institutions at all scales are dominated by men; women’s voices and views are excluded Women are under-represented in forest, water and fisheries user groups and management associations; women are side-lined into women-only groups
Priorities and interests Men’s values and interests dominate Men prefer activities that generate cash rather than subsistence production; for example, timber and charcoal over fuelwood
Framing and power Ecosystem services that generate cash are preferred over direct provisioning services by men Women’s preferences are subordinate to those of men

Source: Adapted from Brown, Katrina, and Matt Fortnam (2018) ‘Gender and Ecosystem Services: a Blind Spot’, pp. 257–72 in “Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (OPEN ACCESS)”, ed. by Kate Schreckenberg, Georgina Mace, and Mahesh Poudyal, Routledge.
Based on an in-depth review of the ecosystem services and gender related literature, Yang et al. (2018) highlighted that there are significant differences between men and women in terms of their interactions with almost all ecosystem services and types, while these gender-related differences can be location and culturally context-specific (see Table 2).
Table 2. Summary of findings for Ecosystem Services-Gender papers

Ecosystem Service (ES) category ES type Link with gender issue via literature Gender bias in ES importance (♂-male; ♀- female indicates direction and strength of gender bias)
Provisioning indicate Fuel and timber
  • In general, men had more knowledge on/perceived stronger importance about/use more of this ES type especially for timber and charcoal production (Kalaba et al. 2013a; Kalaba et al. 2013b; Martin-Lopez et al. 2012; Mensah et al. 2017; Mutandwa et al. 2016).
  • But in some cases, women had more knowledge on domestic fuelwood supply (Hamann et al. 2015; Juma 1998; Tadesse et al. 2014; Paudyal et al. 2015).
  • No specific studies identify significant gender differences on knowledge/perception of this ES type.
  • In some cases, men perceived stronger importance about fisheries/seafood (Jefferson et al. 2014; Juma 1998; Martin-Lopez et al. 2012; Ronnback et al. 2007) but women had higher willingness-to-pay (WTP) in other cases (Shen et al. 2015).
  • Women usually had greater knowledge on/perceived more importance about domestic food supply (Juma 1998; Singh et al. 2015; Veuthey et al. 2012).
Medicinal products
  • Women were predominantly active in this ES type. They usually know more medicinal plant species, and also more medicinal uses per species especially species associated with childbirth and childhood ailments (Al-assaf et al. 2014; Deb et al. 2011; de Santana et al. 2016; Diaz-Reviriego et al. 2016).
Water supply
  • In most cases, women perceived stronger importance about/had higher WTP for this ES type. This is mostly due to women and young girls acting as the primary stewards of domestic water supply (Hamann et al. 2015; Kisaka et al. 2015; McKay et al. 2013; Paudyal et al. 2015).
  • Men had higher WTP for policies that preserve pollination services by bees (Narjes et al. 2016).
  • Women’s workload related to the collection of water, fodder and fuelwood increased by hydropower development (Buechler et al. 2016).
Insufficient data
Regulating Extreme events mitigation
  • In most cases, men had more knowledge of/perceived more importance about this ES type (Allendorf et al. 2013b; Allendorf et al. 2017; Ronnback et al. 2007 Warren-Rhodes et al. 2011).
  • Two cases show that women gave higher WTP to this ES type (Calvet-Mir et al. 2016; Vivithkeyoonvong et al. 2017).
Water quality control
  • In general, women had more knowledge of/perceived more importance about/ had higher WTP of this ES type (Kisaka et al. 2015; Martin-Lopez et al. 2012; McKay et al. 2013; Shen et al. 2015).
  • One case shows that women had lower WTP for this ES type than men (He et al. 2015).
Erosion control and soil formation
  • In most cases, women had more knowledge of/perceived more importance about/had higher WTP of this ES type (Calvet-Mir et al. 2016; Martin-Lopez et al. 2012; Oteros-Rozas et al. 2014; Villamor et al. 2016).
  • Only two cases show that men acknowledge more of this ES type than women (Briceno et al. 2016; Ronnback et al. 2007).
  • Women had higher awareness of reducing waste and odour and use of chemicals from forest than men (Zoderer et al. 2016a; Zoderer et al. 2016b).
Insufficient data
Recreation and tourism
  • Most studies concluded that there is no gender difference in this ES type (Dallimer et al. 2014; Martin-Lopez et al. 2012; Mensah et al. 2017; Petrosillo et al. 2007; Pinto et al. 2016).
  • However, a few studies do show some gender differences (Garcia-Llorence et al. 2016; Swapan et al. 2017).
  • Although only two studies focus on this topic, women appreciated more about this ES type (Jefferson et al. 2014; Sang et al. 2016).
  • One case study shows that women had higher awareness of this ES type (Baker et al. 2015).
Insufficient data
  • Some studies show that women had more positive attitudes towards cultural connections to ecosystems (Mathooko et al. 2009; Singh et al. 2015).
Insufficient data
Supporting Habitat conservation and maintaining biodiversity
  • In general, women perceived more importance about /had greater awareness of/ were more willing to contribute their time to this ES type (Briceno et al. 2016; Gao et al. 2014; Mensah et al. 2017; Mudaca et al. 2015; Palliwoda et al. 2017; Swapan et al. 2017; Yang et al. 2010; Zoderer et al. 2016a; Zoderer et al. 2016b).
  • Some studies do show that men tended to have higher awareness of this ES type (Allendorf et al. 2013a; Oteros-Rozas et al. 2014; Warren-Rhodes et al. 2011; Yang et al. 2015).

Source: Adapted from Yang et al. (2018).
As COVID-19 continues its spread around the globe, attention needs to be paid to how it may exacerbate existing gender inequalities in biodiversity and ecosystem services access and use (see also the One UN Climate Change Learning Partnership [UN CC: Learn] training module on gender and biodiversity here).
As we move forward with the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, perhaps the fact that six of the eight “leaders” of the biodiversity-related conventions are currently women augers well for better consideration of the “gendered nature of ecosystem services” (Fortnam et al. 2019) in any post-COVID recovery.
Further reading:
Brown, Katrina, and Matt Fortnam (2018) ‘Gender and Ecosystem Services : a Blind Spot’, pp. 257–72 in “Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (OPEN ACCESS)”, ed. by Kate Schreckenberg, Georgina Mace, and Mahesh Poudyal, Routledge. (open access)
Cruz-Garcia GS, Sachet E, Blundo-Canto G, et al. (2017) To what extent have the links between ecosystem services and human well-being been researched in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Ecosystem Services 25: 201–212 (Author copy available here)
Daw, Tim M (2015) ‘Evaluating Taboo Trade-Offs in Ecosystems Services and Human Well-Being’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201414900 (free access)
Daw, Tim M, et al. (2016) ‘Elasticity in Ecosystem Services: Exploring the Variable Relationship Between Ecosystems and Human Well-Being’, Ecology & Society, 21, art11 (open access)
Fortnam, M et al. (2019) ‘The Gendered Nature of Ecosystem Services’, Ecological Economics, 159, 312–25 (open access)
Yang, Y C Ethan, Simone Passarelli, Robin J Lovell, and Claudia Ringler (2018) ‘Gendered Perspectives of Ecosystem Services: a Systematic Review’, Ecosystem Services, 31, 58–67. Author copy available here.

Article By: 
David Duthie, BES-Net Senior Knowledge Management Consultant