Gender and the green transition

Note: gender includes a range of identities, not simply the traditional men/women gender or male/female sex binary. However, more nuanced gender disaggregated data often does not exist, so this piece uses the language from the source data.

Nesta’s report, Going Green: Preparing the UK workforce for the transition to a net-zero economy, explores how sectors and workers can adapt to a net zero economy in the UK and ensure people are reskilled to do a ‘green job’. Green jobs are in industries where their carbon intensity (CO2/output) is below the median; such as professional, scientific and technical activities. Brown jobs are above the median, like mining and quarrying.

For this to be a successful transition, every sector needs to address workforce and skills issues relating to gender. Improving work and skills outcomes for men and women will make the UK’s workforce more inclusive, economically competitive and better prepared to meet the country’s low-carbon targets.

Here we look at some of the trends and issues concerning gender in the green transition.

Women represent a higher share of ‘green jobs’ but they tend to be more junior and less well paid

Females represent 57.9% of green jobs but many of them are in jobs that are valued less. Those in brown jobs will also face unique barriers to upskilling as the economy transforms.

  • Women often represent more supporting roles than senior ones. For example, in state-funded secondary schools (classified as a green sector), women represent 87% of administrative staff, 73% of all teachers, 53% of deputies and assistant headteachers, but only 38% of headteachers. While it is improving, still just 75% of businesses in the UK have at least one woman on their senior management team, and they represent just 22% of senior management roles in the UK. The notion that women enter the workforce as a hobby is still widespread, and that their devotion to their home lives will trump their professional aspirations. As a result of this unhelpful stereotype, women are often overlooked for opportunities, and remain clustered at lower and less-well paid positions.

  • The gender pay gap is larger in green jobs than brown jobs. Although the gender pay gap exists in almost every sector in the UK (except mining and quarrying, and water supply), the gap is more than double on average for women in green jobs (20.9%) than women in brown ones (9.9%). All employers should consider publishing what they pay, because this empowers women to have a more fair and honest conversation about their compensation.

  • Women in brown sectors are less likely to upskill. Both males and females have similar levels of upskilling, at around 18% for green jobs but 12.5% for brown jobs. As Nesta has discussed, females in all sectors report family responsibilities (41% more than males) and costs (20.4% more than males) as barriers to upskilling. These trends are largely due to women taking on more family responsibilities than men do - on average doing childcare and housework two more hours each day - and still being paid less. These significant gender differences will need to be addressed to ease the transition from brown to green jobs.

Men represent a larger share of brown jobs and the transition will be tough

The conversation around gender and the workforce often defaults to the role of women. Assuming that women are the only people affected by gender issues in the workplace ignores the fact that men may also be disadvantaged at times. This is especially important for the green transition because men represent 66% of brown jobs.

  • Men are more likely to take high-risk, higher-paid jobs due to expectations from prescribed masculinity. Men often see their jobs as fundamental parts of who they are because society has framed them as the primary breadwinner in the home. In practice, this means that men often decide their career path based on earning potential over other factors, such as wellbeing. The case study below on Canada illustrates how young men take on physically demanding, high-paying brown jobs that don’t require an education. These high risk jobs mean men are often seriously injured or left without other options if their job disappears.

Alberta Canada’s “Mancession” in 2014-16 is a prime example of how this transition to a greener economy is gendered. Men represented 75% of Alberta’s oil and gas workforce, the source of high paying jobs in the province but a sector that is susceptible to economic swings. Young men were hit the hardest from a recession that started in 2014, with their employment rate dropping from 67% in 2014, to 60% in 2016, and to 55% in 2018. Many of them didn’t have a basic high-school education and had to start their careers again. However, like in the UK, sectors which traditionally employed more women, and the parts of the affected sectors women worked in, were not as impacted.

  • Job loss is particularly damaging for men’s mental health. Unemployed men are more likely to be depressed, and report other mental health and relationship worries. At the same time, four in five suicides are by men, which is the biggest cause of death for men under 35 in the UK. Experts are already worried about the forthcoming mental health crisis from mass layoffs due to COVID-19. If jobs disappear due to a green transition, the UK could be facing an even graver mental health crisis.

  • The transition to a net zero economy may mean safer jobs for men. In terms of workplace accidents as a percentage of employment, 1.1% of males are injured in brown jobs, vs 0.7% of females, and 0.5% in green jobs, vs 0.3% of females. Even in industries with more women employed in them, men are more likely to be injured. For instance, males represent 21% of jobs in the high-risk human health and social work sector, but account for a third of accidents.

  • Men in brown jobs have lower levels of education. 56.9% of males in green sectors have a tertiary education, but only 32.3% of males in brown sectors do.

  • Males also have unique barriers to upskilling. They are 34.6% more likely than females to report a lack of support from their employer or public services as a barrier to upskilling, and 18% more likely to report their schedules as one.

The green transition, like every policy decision, has gendered implications

Building on the mission-oriented approach discussed in Nesta’s Going Green report, the Government of the UK could take a more concerted effort to address the socially codified gender issues in the green transition. For example, it could develop complementary packages within existing training programmes to focus on women. This might include funding for reskilling, additional childcare support, or mentorships, and then actively working to attract them to use these supports. To better support men, existing employment programs could better integrate mental health supports. The Government also needs to re-examine the right to take time off work, which is incredibly important but is too restrictive in its current state.

We also need better data. Understanding gender differences for the green transition is not possible without disaggregated data broken down by detailed sub-categories such as marginalised group, gender, region or level of education. If you do not collect gender data, policymakers won’t be able to make evidence-based decisions about a range of issues such as the gender pay gap, women’s unpaid labour, women’s time poverty, digital inequality or the digital gender divide. Navigating these is essential for a successful green transition.

To learn more about our efforts, visit our FutureFit project page – a major training intervention focused on upskilling and reskilling workers and doing innovative, robust research about what works.


Jillian LeBlanc

Jillian is a seasoned feminist policy specialist with a background in digital communications. She has worked with organisations such as Equal Voice National, the Government of Canada a…

Charles McIvor

Charles McIvor

Charles McIvor

Policy Adviser, Future of Work

Based in Nesta's Research, Analysis and Policy team, Charles conducted policy analysis regarding the impact of technology on work and jobs.

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