What has being female got to do with living sustainably?

This presentation draws on newer understandings of what it is to be female, particularly dealing with change and the different responses that women have in their ‘tool-kit’ – for example tend-and-befriend as well as fight-or-flight. In the presentation I have linked this to the need to respond to the emerging stressors in our society and world in a sustaining way. Females are by their nature and nurture better prepared for this task and I am calling on women to draw on this power to help out.

You will need the Powerpoint Pack that will open in a new window when you right click on the following link and choose open in new window Female sustainable living 

SLIDE 1: OASES Breakfast – June 1st 2013

What’s being female got to do with “sustainable living”?

This presentation is intended to give a view of some of the possible ‘ideas’ and possible ‘connections’ between gender and sustainability – it is not intended to provide answers but to generate questions…

But first some excerpts from a YouTube called The Power of Networks – Watch from 0 -> 1 minute then from 6:25 -> 9:00 minutes

I am an engineer, I am interested in transforming engineering from its past/current state into one that consciously deals with the “progressive composition of a common world” (Latour 2001), Latour has been called The Prince of Networks in a book of that title by Graham Harman. “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (from Irreductions, Latour). A key Matter of Concern for me and us is – how to organise a sustainable technological world? We are not going to remove technology it is too embedded and I will, and we need to, use all resources that are available to consider this question, including being female and what that offers to this concern.

Our environmental problems have been driven, in part, by the attitude reflected in these two images of chaining (a means of measuring) and controlling nature. It has been to some extent a valuable strategy – we can see the benefits of this approach (clean water, reduced diseases, comfortable shelter, consistent food production on a grand scale, lots of products…), but it is not all beneficial. Having a position where the environment is seen to be external and of limited value has brought us to the sorts of environmental problems that we see, but also some of the social problems i.e. we can see how our working conditions should be OH&S etc but we purchase goods that have been produced overseas without (much) thought for the working conditions that occur to produce these ‘cheap’ products. Again engineering and the technology (together with other aspects of our western, industrialised approach, of course) that underpins it have been ensuring that this is possible.

We also have Borlaug’s Dilemma and Jevon’s Paradox that producing goods and food more efficiently does not mean that we will use less, indeed it means that those goods become more embedded in our systems and ways of being so that we actually use more. (see Anthony James article about the book The Conundrum on this topic).

Over the last 20 or so years engineering institutions have begun to move on from this position of chaining and controlling nature but there is still a lot to do to have these ideas embedded in engineering practice. It is flowing into engineering education but there are many professional engineers who still do not ‘get’ this shift.

In Australia women are only about 17% of engineering students – they are heavily weighted into a small set of disciplines – environmental, civil, chemical. Burrowes & Webster

Engineering has been described as “A professional ideology that stresses the centrality of technology over personal relationships”

The number of women employed as professional engineers in Australia is around 5%.

Engineering Education Review 1996 “Recognise the community as a major customer of engineering services.” Women are consumers of engineering “products” – not understood

Note that I have used the words climate change rather than climate warming – this is purposeful. Warming by its use of global averages suggests that there is a clear trajectory and allows the climate change deniers to find all sorts of ways to argue a way out. Climate change points to the fundamental thing that is occurring – rapid change and increased variability. It could be better described as unusual climate change or rapidly increasing climate change. It is the rapidity of the change that is the problem – natural systems cannot respond to the speed of these changes….we are seeing this occurring in increasing variability – seismic changes (change on a log scale, exponentially increasing…). More record breaking hot days, cold days, storms, cyclones, fires, ice packs and tundra melting, etc but also in social systems – the Global Financial Crisis and its continuing flow on effects is an example of this…

We will return to these ideas of variability and change at a later stage in this presentation.

Change is important…

Our western, industrial approach has disassembled the world, held it still to research it. Sustainable living requires a reassembling of the world – re-cognising the connections between things.  If we act locally it can connect globally…The Power of web of life… to regenerate and revive….

I connect with Australia as it is where I live, it is my ‘local’ and thus of great import…

In Australia as a western, industrialised, well-off nation this means different things than if we were a ‘developing’ nation.

We need to “make changes to how we produce, consume and breed if there is to be future for our grandchildren that has any meaningful resemblance to the more desirable aspects of our own present and the lives that we are currently able to live.” (Stoner & Wankel, p. 3)

We need to work out how to moderate our behaviour so that there is more for others. We need to work out what the carrying capacity of our land is and how we can support others in the world including future generations with our huge wealth (both natural and man-made), while re-generating and renewing.

Pick up the point about “or not”, sometimes it is better to do nothing than to do something. Let it be. I am thinking now of gardening – not mowing and letting nature return, you may like my friend Anne get native orchids growing. Also sometimes it is better to rejuvenate an existing thing (e.g. a building) rather than pulling it down and beginning again.

So now with these ideas in mind I come to these books. I was drawn to this book (The Female Brain) when I saw it sitting on the shelf to be catalogued at OASES Graduate School. It was better than I expected from the cover and the blurb (I guess it was dressed up to look a certain way so that people would buy it). As a result I bought The Male Brain also.

These books are excellent in some respects – bringing together of the range of research, the reminders of the underpinning differences between males and females BUT there are many aspects that are not useful – too determined/deterministic, too clear cut. The use of ‘over-the-top’ and very specific examples is problematic and leaves her open to attack (which she has been). The covers and the blurbs are indicative of this deterministic aspect.

Note that the research in The Male Brain is closer to half the book. Why might this be so? Up until recently the vast majority of research of humans was done using males because the female cycles disrupt the research. Males were seen to be the prototypical humans.

We all begin life as unisex, or female, then a wave of testosterone occurs and the foetus is altered in males, the female foetus continues on its path.

The changes that occur colour(s) the lens through which each of us views and engages in the world.

Why might this occur? What might this be about?

Some things to remember about being a girl or boy…

These tables that follow are perhaps the most important part of these books The Female Brain – Phases of a Female’s life, and the Male Brain – Phases of a Male’s life.

Will focus on the female part but have added the male here to compare and for you to consider.

The cycle – see Slide 12 – re-minding that this is the case, it is not a trivial matter, we need to not ignore this…it is important.

Three different major hormones are cycling over this monthly cycle – complex changes occurring. (There are more neuro-hormones involved – increasing the complexity)

Testosterone, a single major hormone, drives males (again though there are many more neuro-hormones involved – increasing the complexity, but not as complex as the female cycle).

Girl’s brains develop 2 years earlier than boys’ – why? If girls end up pregnant they will have the responsibility of the child – they cannot deny it. Their body prepares them in pregnancy for caring for the child that is coming (see later)

Why do girls establish friendships with a range of other females?

Women experience their body and the world differently from day to day. Change is a normal part of life. Change is reality.

This image shows three of the blood hormones – oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone. These have different characteristics and therefore different effects (from The Female Brain):

  • Oestrogen is there all the time but comes in waves, it is a feel-good brain chemical – like dopamine and oxytocin
  • Progesterone appears intermittently, sometimes reversing the effect of oestrogen; other times a mellowing agent
  • Testosterone is fast, assertive, focused, all-consuming, masculine; forceful seducer; aggressive, unfeeling; has no time for cuddling

These 3 in the appropriate ratios have these changes/waves occur.

But this is not all there are at least six other neuro-hormones that come into play at various times, but this is a story for another time….

This cycling is extraordinarily important – a females body is preparing on a monthly basis for a baby – each month if this doesn’t occur there is a mini-death (there is no life beginning and menstruation occurs flushing these preparations from the body).

Most research in the past assumed that males and females were the same. Researchers avoided females in their trials and experiments as this cycling was seen to be difficult to deal with. So much research up to some 30-40 years ago was done on males and the results were assumed to be applicable to females. Even though research into females has begun since the 1960 & 70s there are a lot of embedded assumptions that resulted from this history that need to be overcome.

The cycling continues, women see the world differently from day to day as their hormones, brains and bodies change.

A balancing act is occurring between all the aspects of life – relationships, a mate, choosing a career (compatible with raising a family) Note the need to keep all aspects in play….unlike males who can focus…

SLIDE 14: Some notes
Reminders about what I talking about here…

SLIDE 15: Significant factors for

The ‘we’ here is women as I am of this gender.

In many ways this whole cycle has developed around getting pregnant and then caring for children – over millennia.

Here is the first time that focus comes in and it is focus on taking care of self to take care of others

Note that women widen their relationships. For the majority of women the care-taking role becomes primary other things ‘fit-in’ or are balancing around this.






Let’s have a look at some of the stressors that are appearing in the world:

  • Climate change – variation in weather cycles, seasons etc. – changes to fertility
  • Increasing loss of ecosystems through deforestation etc. will continue to reduce fertility
  • Shifting populations
  • Increasing populations
  • Increasing poverty in some countries
  • Increasing lifestyle disease
  • Increasing age of population in some countries – reduced number of tax payers
  • Increasing use of (high) technology to ‘solve’ illness & disease together with attendant costs

“The bio-behavioural mechanism that underlies the tend-and-befriend pattern appears to draw on the attachment-caregiving system, and neuroendocrine evidence from animal and humans suggest that oxytocin, in conjunction with female reproductive hormones and endogenous opioid peptide mechanisms may be at its core. This previously unexplored (2000) stress regulatory system has manifold implications for the study of stress.” (Taylor et al)

“Preponderance of research exploring its parameters has been conducted on males, especially male rats! Until recently, the gender distribution in the human literature was inequitable as well. Prior to 1995 women were 17% of participants. In the last 5 years, the gender balance has reached 66:34. But women in these studies are overrepresented in studies of affiliative responses to stress and men are overrepresented in neuroendocrine responses to physical and mental challenges”. (Taylor et al)

“Rationale for exclusion has been that females have greater cyclical variation in neuroendocrine responses (due to the reproductive cycle), their data present a confusing and often uninterpretable pattern of results. The fight-or-flight response may also be affected by female cycling, and, as a result, evidence concerning a fight-or-flight response in females has been inconsistent. However, what if the equivocal nature of the female data is not due solely to neuroendocrine variation but also to the fact that female stress response is not exclusively, nor even predominantly, fight-or-flight?”

Tend and befriend

Expanding empathy from self concerns to the whole of civilisation.

Females more able to do this because of their nature and nurture

Need to develop places/spaces where females can bring all their power into being (preferably with others – males)

Note that once the pressures of the cycle and the possibility of children is gone women become more like men and are more focused on doing what they want to do…unless of course there are elderly parents or even a spouse that needs care in which case we continue to follow this role.

This is a reminder to myself that this is a time when I can follow my vocation.

Huge chance to take stock of what you are capable of and to use this in ways that meet your vocation

SLIDE 26: a nice image
Females have these innate capabilities – empathy, ability to cope with change in themselves – on a daily, monthly, lifetime basis and in others – children, partners, parents, other family; at work – majority of the ‘caring professionals’ are female They/we know that there is no clear trajectory of life and that we do not stay the same over our life.

Take the lead in bringing this wider, global, inclusive empathy into all the spaces and places that we work, play and live. Fold this into your vocation….even now if you are at the post-menopausal stage – you can choose your own path free-er of the caring responsibilities of the earlier part of your life.


About Jenni

I am interested in working with others to enhance the sustainability of human systems. My practice is to engage with people by drawing on their own ways of knowing and understanding. I orient people toward the “pull” of future intentions, rather than the blind "push" of past habits and "best practice". I encourage people to break out of their cognitive silos, to think laterally and to focus on the whole problem systemically in all its inter-disciplinary complexity. My practice works through the essential processes of innovation – mobilising resources, enrolling peers, engaging allies and building public support. This form of engineering practice is about manoeuvring, dissolving boundaries, always being in action, and recognising that function, congruence and transformation are emergent properties generated through active learning by doing.
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