About this case study

Developed by the Center Virchow-Villermé and La Sorbonne and supported by Michelin Foundation, the Paris’s case study seeks to investigate the role played by women in civil society organisations in Paris that are active on climate change.

The case study asks:

  • Are grassroots organisations more engaged on climate issues when they are led by women?
  • Which types of actions do women engage in?
  • What drives women to engage in community leadership?

Paris Climate Action Plan

The city of Paris adopted its first Climate Action Plan in 2007 and committed to a 25% reduction of GHG emissions by 2020 compared to 2004 levels. Paris’ carbon footprint is assessed every five years. In the latest assessment, conducted in 2014, the city’s carbon footprint was at 25.6 million tons of CO2 equivalent. Two thirds of GHG emissions (global Paris emissions) come from food and flights used by Parisians for business or leisure. The food consumed by Parisians and visitors generates annual emissions exceeding 4.7 million tCO2, which accounts for 18% of Paris’s carbon footprint. The remaining third, is related to local emissions, mostly related to buildings (accommodation, services, commercials…) and Paris’s inner transportation.

City GHG and pollutants emissions have been substantially decreasing for more than a decade, and the Paris Climate Plan, the revised edition of which was adopted in 2018, sets out ambitious objectives to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020, and by 50% by 2030 (compared to 2004). The plan also includes energy sobriety goals, with a target of 35% decrease in energy consumption by 2030, and 50% decrease by 2050, and get clean air by 2030.

Mitigating GHG emissions is a co-shared responsibility. The Municipality of Paris is directly responsible for less than 2% of GHG emissions (related to the municipal fleets and buildings) of Paris’s carbon footprint. Through targeted actions, the Paris city council can mitigate around 20-25% of Paris’s carbon footprint, most of these actions relate to local emissions. The reduction of the remaining emissions depends on action taken at a National level, private initiatives and choices led by companies and residents in their daily life.

To achieve the emissions reduction targets it is essential for the Mayor of Paris to include all residents in efforts to implement the Paris Climate Plan. To increase residents engagement, in May 2018, the Mayor of Paris launched the “Volunteers for the Climate” programme to support, emphasise and disseminate Paris Climate Action Plan and to accelerate the transition to a low carbon society. Currently, more than 15,000 Parisians have become “Volunteers for the Climate” and over 100 associations support the programme.

Mapping civil society organisations

This study targets women leaders in civil society organisations, from grassroots organisations to large NGOs. It uses a combination of three methods: (1) a systematic mapping of civil society organisations active on climate change in Paris, (2) semi-structured interviews with leaders of these organisations, and (3) focus groups with organisation members and leaders.

Researchers mapped 104 civil society organisations that engage in climate action in Paris, interviewed female leaders and conducted focus-groups with residents to investigate the role of women within these organisations.

Organisations range from large environmental NGOs to small grassroots organisations.  The mapping revealed that women lead 43% of environmental organisations and 25% of these women leaders also founded or co-founded the organisation. Some of them felt that founding an organisation was the only route to leadership positions, which they were denied in their prior/other workplaces.

Lack of a gender perspective in the environmental NGOs activities 

Although women’s leadership in environmental organisations is considerably higher than that of other civil society organisations, only 20% of the organisations surveyed included a gender perspective in their activities. Where a gender perspective was present, it tended to focus on the role of women in sustainable agriculture or gendered vulnerabilities to climate change impacts in the Global South. Most organisational leaders felt that gender inequalities were less present within their organisations and in civil society more broadly, and are less relevant to climate action.

The exception was organisations that promoted cycling. They were more interested in explicitly addressing gender in their work, viewing cycling as a tool for female empowerment – especially for migrant women without driving licenses – and advocated for more cycling infrastructure. From their perspective, the absence of safe cycle lanes was discriminatory against women and getting more women cycling was a necessary condition for cities to be truly ‘bike friendly.’ Moreover, they saw the value of increasing women’s participation in urban design and planning decisions, as they credited women with raising awareness about built environment issues that men often overlook, such as adequate street lighting.

While organisational leaders interviewed did not feel a need to integrate a gender perspective into their work, all-female focus groups of ordinary residents expressed that a gender perspective is critical to climate action. Some women felt that sexism and the oppression of women were rooted in the same causes as environmental degradation and the exploitation of nature, and therefore one could not address gender equality without addressing climate action. Many women in the focus group felt that women’s engagement in climate action was increasing, especially in developing countries, and getting even more women engaged in climate action would be a game-changer.

The three biggest challenges women leaders of environmental organisations face

The three biggest challenges women leaders of environmental organisations face are public speaking, managing donor relations and having enough time to do it all. Most women cited public speaking as a significant barrier to their leadership development. Some women attributed this to low levels of self-confidence; others felt that public speaking came more naturally to men than women; and others felt that women face more scrutiny and judgment based on their appearances, which makes them more reluctant to be exposed, especially in the media. Meanwhile, many women felt they had to work harder than men to justify their project(s) to donors, who are mostly men. Furthermore, some women were told to tone down their ‘girl power’ rhetoric to avoid scaring off donors.  

Not having enough time was another barrier to women’s leadership in environmental organisations. The study found that women leaders were more likely to be involved in their community in other ways, such as in the parent-teacher association at school or the neighbourhood council. In addition to their professional responsibilities and various community commitments, women also had to juggle their childcare and domestic responsibilities. Single mothers, especially, felt that they would be able to be more engaged in climate action if they had more time.


Based on these findings, the researchers recommend the following actions to increase women’s leadership in climate action:

  • Pay attention to stereotypes in public debates on climate change. Stereotypes confine women to certain sectors of climate action (such as food and health) and exclude them from others (such as energy and innovation). Public outreach and discussion at climate events can help change this discourse.
  • Raise awareness about the importance of a gender dimension in climate action in industrialised countries. Gender-related climate action tends to focus on women in the rural Global South, ignoring industrialised cities in the Global North, including Paris.
  • Make women leaders as visible as possible. Women leaders inspire other women to seek leadership positions. Mentoring schemes therefore should be amplified.
  • Support women to assume leadership positions. More programmes like the former “Leadership pour elles” are needed. The programme launched in 2014, but is no longer available. It should be reactivated or a similar programme initiated.
  • Collect gender-disaggregated data and integrate a gender dimension in key official documents and climate policies. This provides city leaders and other stakeholders with data, indicators and vocabulary to devise strategies that increase women’s inclusion in climate action. The integration of a gender dimension in official documents can provide a key leverage for civil society organisations to take action.
  • Support women with domestic responsibilities to facilitate their participation. Lack of time remains one of the biggest obstacles to women’s involvement in climate leadership. Supporting women with domestic responsibilities – such as providing child care and organising meetings and activities in the evening and weekends – would help women to participate.

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