The Biggest Barrier I Had to Face as a Woman Working in the Ecological Transition in the Mediterranean

Ananda Alonso Nacher

MedWaves, NEP/Mediterranean Action Plan Regional Activity Center for Sustainable Consumption and Production

Even if a woman is born in a developed country, in the bosom of a respectful family that educates her to become what she sets out to be, it is true that, from a young age, she will be educated in differential socialization. This involves educating boys and girls differently, so that the former receive messages that encourage them to take risks, be brave and take on leadership positions, while the education of girls focuses on care, reproduction and the private sphere. Once aware of this, women can fight to get out of their comfort zone and assume leadership that does not have to respond to authoritarian male stereotypes, but rather can be based on values, such as care, solidarity and support for other women. In this way, little by little, there will be more and more female leadership role models that will inspire the new generations of the Mediterranean.

Since I was very young and I first watched the news on TV about the abysmal inequalities that exist between countries, classes and genders, and the terrible impact that our current way of life is having on our planet, I knew I could not ignore these problems. I wanted to dedicate my life to making a positive change, fighting for social justice and protecting our environment. But I was just a young girl, what could I do? At that time there were still no role models like Malala or Greta Thunberg, so it was very difficult to imagine that anyone would listen to a girl like me.

I decided to get trained in something that would allow me to contribute to this positive change through my profession. I soon realized that these big problems could not be solved by any country unilaterally. The world is dominated by private interests and rivalries; we are not able to see that we are all in the same boat, and if we do not cooperate for common goals, it will be difficult for us to keep it afloat. That’s why I studied Political Science and International Development Cooperation. I knew that the current development model did not make sense. Exploiting natural resources as if they were unlimited while polluting our air, land, seas and rivers with tons of microplastics and toxic chemicals is not only destroying our ecosystems and creating a climate and biodiversity crisis (we are facing a sixth mass extinction) but is costing us our own health and quality of life.

For all these reasons, it is not surprising that I felt at home when I started working at MedWaves, the UNEP/Mediterranean Action Plan Regional Activity Center for Sustainable Consumption and Production (former SCP/ RAC). We work with Mediterranean countries to promote the change towards sustainable consumption and production patterns, thus responding to the mandate of the Barcelona Convention to protect the marine environment and the Mediterranean coastal region. After all, as the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. The truth is that not generating pollution in the first place would be much more effective than cleaning all the pollution that we continuously create. This may seem like a utopia but it is getting closer to being a reality thanks to concepts such as the circular cconomy, in which waste and pollution are eliminated by design, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, and natural ecosystems are regenerated (for example, by returning nutrients from organic matter to nature through compost). The ecological transition in the Mediterranean, in addition to applying the circular economy, must be based on renewable energy and taking into account social justice. In this way, we will simultaneously address the triple environmental crisis (climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution) and the social and economic crises, which above all affect women and young people.

My work within the MedWaves Center, specifically, is as a Project Manager in the policy area, where we support policy-makers in the Mediterranean region at all levels (from local to national) to stimulate environments that favor the establishment of green, circular, zerowaste, low carbon and non-toxic economies. I am also proud to be part of the Center’s gender task force, which aims to analyze all current activities and processes at the Center and design a strategy to ensure that all our actions contribute to reducing gender inequalities in the Mediterranean. Despite the fact that it has existed for less than a year and we are still at the beginning of this mission, I am comforted to see that more and more organizations like ours are mainstreaming gender equality in their programs, and it doesn’t just stop at nice speeches or some occasional activity for women.

The truth is that not generating pollution in the first place would be much more effective than cleaning all the pollution that we continuously create

Just looking at the data in the Mediterranean region is enough to realize that the problem of gender inequality has very negative consequences, affecting all countries to a greater or lesser extent. For example, the labor participation rates of women in the Southern Mediterranean region are still among the lowest in the world, below 33% (SOED, 2020). According to the World Bank, achieving gender equality for the current generation of working-age women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region could add up to $3.1 trillion (USD) to regional wealth. But the benefits would not only be economic, women are part of the solution to environmental and social problems. The region cannot achieve a successful transition to a green and circular economy without the active participation of half of its population. Female workers, entrepreneurs and researchers contribute to innovation and economic prosperity. Their participation is crucial to the development of a sustainable and inclusive economy in the region.

Unfortunately, women continue to face a multitude of barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Perhaps in the Southern Mediterranean countries cultural and social barriers have more weight and are more evident than in the Northern countries, but even in the latter there are significant barriers for women to reach leadership positions, such as gaps in hiring and internal promotions, and a persistent gender pay gap.

And this is where we come to the title of this article. As there are already quite a few reports with data on gender inequality, I considered that instead of just talking about them in general terms, perhaps it would be useful to share my personal experience as a woman working for the ecological transition in the Mediterranean. Of course, each woman’s situation is different, so surely many women will never have experienced anything like what I am going to explain. However, I do believe that it may be an experience shared by some of us, and if this article can help other women to identify this barrier and try to overcome it whenever it arises, I will consider myself satisfied.

So when I think about the barriers that I have encountered to reach my goal of working on something that I am passionate about, in this case in the ecological transition, I think that I have had it relatively easy compared to many women. I have been lucky enough to grow up in a society and in a family that supported gender equality and encouraged me to study and become what I wanted, something that is not necessarily the case of many women. It is also true that it was a rather humble family and they did not always have the resources to support me or the “contacts” that other families may have, but again I have been lucky enough to be born in a rich country that is a member of the European Union and has an extensive program of scholarships and grants, so it was enough for me to get good grades and always be on the lookout for these programs to be able to access study opportunities and internship programs. Finally, another factor that I must be grateful for is having a feminist husband, who insists on dividing the housework equally and who encourages me to develop my full potential whenever he has the chance. Now, this time I won’t give all the credit to luck, as my judgment has played a big part in this factor. For me it was very important to choose above all a partner who respected and supported me, and I sincerely believe that this is one of the best decisions a woman can make to have a good quality of life.

If these are all the barriers I haven’t had to face as a woman, then what has been my biggest barrier? This is the first question I asked myself upon hearing the title of this post, and the answer that came to mind surprised me: Yes, I have faced some sexist attitudes throughout my life, but often my biggest barrier has been myself. And I suspect this has been because of my socialization as a woman.

I have grown up in a society in which boys are educated to be brave and take risks, their success and production are promoted, and leadership is instilled in them from an early age. Meanwhile, the socialization of girls continues to focus mainly on care and reproduction, they are inculcated to serve others and to be discreet, to take care of the private sphere. This is beginning to change, but it can still be seen in most of the movies and series that we consume, in the toys that are sold and in the attitudes that many parents inadvertently reproduce by treating their sons and daughters differently. Furthermore, women are constantly bombarded with unattainable standards of beauty and perfection that are not required of men. All this is called “differential socialization”, and unfortunately it is a big factor working against gender equality.

The result is that many women develop a lack of self-confidence, and even if they do very well in their studies, they are not as interested in or capable of occupying leadership positions as their male counterparts.

I take this opportunity to clarify that I do not intend to judge women who have no interest in developing their professional career. Any goal that allows you to feel happy and satisfied with your life is valid, but I want to invite you to reflect on whether the times you’ve turned down opportunities has been because you weren’t really interested or because a voice told you that you couldn’t do it, that you weren’t going to be up to the task.

Many women fall into these gender stereotypes without realizing it, always placing themselves in the second row to make room for their male colleagues

Unfortunately, this has been my case. While I saw how most of my male colleagues loved speaking in public and did not hesitate to participate in meetings, I have never felt comfortable in the public sphere. I have always preferred to go unnoticed and avoid being the center of attention. So, if it were up to me, I would spend my life without leaving my comfort zone, writing reports behind a computer. Of course, this is partly due to my introverted personality, and there are many men who will feel the same way, just as there are many women who have no problem being the center of attention. But I have observed that many women fall into these gender stereotypes without realizing it, always placing themselves in the second row to make room for their male colleagues in the first row of a meeting or a group photo, for example.

I am also not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. I sincerely believe that this humility and sense of selfless sacrifice being instilled in women are positive notions that, if taught equally to women and men, would have led to much better governance and even prevented more than one war. But what worries me is that if only part of the population (the female in this case) is educated in this way, it ends up becoming a gender stereotype that leads to inequality, so that women tend to end up in assistance positions and it is very difficult for them to reach leadership positions with greater decision-making power and autonomy.

Another serious problem derived from this differential socialization is the “impostor syndrome”, when you experience a lack of selfesteem that leads you to constantly doubt your abilities. This affects both women and men, but studies suggest that it occurs much more in the former. Thus, studies such as one by Cornell University in 2018 establish that “men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate them.”

I want to encourage women who are in the same situation as me and who do not see mentors like these in their work not to hesitate to contact other women who inspire them

In my case, I can say that I have often been my own worst enemy, constantly questioning every decision, telling myself that I am not good for a certain position so it’s better not to apply, that I am not going to be able to do a certain task as well as it should be done, so I postpone it day after day until I miss the opportunity to do it.

It was only when I began to read about the subject, to see that it is not something that only happens to me but to many women, that I was able to identify these negative thoughts and confront them. I realized that this limiting attitude would not allow me to develop professionally and thus fulfill my goal of contributing to society with a positive impact. So I tried to get out of my comfort zone, for example, offering to speak in public at events, no matter how panicked I was.

It has also helped me a lot to have encountered women in leadership positions who have acted as role models and have shown me that “leadership” does not have to be the stereotype of an authoritarian male role model, but that women have a lot to contribute by being ourselves and supporting each other. I think of Ayshanie Medagangoda-Labé, now UNDP Representative in Nepal, and Magali Outters, Policy Team Leader at MedWaves, and I could not be more grateful. I want to encourage women who are in the same situation as me and who do not see mentors like these in their work not to hesitate to contact other women who inspire them, even if it is in other areas.

To conclude, I would like to clarify that overcoming this barrier is not an easy process; in fact, it is something that I still continue to face every day. When I was invited to write this article, without going any further, the first thing I did was suggest someone else who could do it in my place. But thanks to the insistence of the European Institute of the Mediterranean, and thinking that my personal experience could be of some use to other women, I have once again managed to ignore that voice saying that I will not be able to do it. I hope that more and more women learn to identify that voice as the result of the socialization that has been imposed on us, that they manage to develop their full potential and above all that we make sure that we do not instill it in the following generations of women. I am sure that this will be a great contribution to a more prosperous, healthy and inclusive Mediterranean region.