February 11, 2022
Today marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day to celebrate the contribution of women and girls to science, and call for the “full and equal access to and participation in science”. It is a good opportunity to reflect on how women and girls have always been present in climate science, though not always recognized. In this blog post, we discuss the importance of increasing the share of women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in order to unearth better evidence to inform climate and environmental policy.
The contributions of women in climate science stretches back to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1856, Eunice Foote demonstrated how certain gases were affected by the sun and theorised the interaction of these gases with the Earth’s atmosphere. Although Foote’s discoveries did not receive proper recognition, they laid the foundation for understanding the impacts of greenhouse gases. Fast forward, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) raised the alarm on the indiscriminate use of pesticides and sparked a generation of grassroots activism, which led to the founding of Earth Day and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Both Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle have bolstered public awareness about the importance of protecting our natural habitats.
Globally, as well as in Canada, women still remain important scientific voices in climate science, climate justice movements, and climate adaptation. Cheryl Holder is working towards improving climate literacy and bringing awareness around how particular groups and communities experience exacerbated vulnerability to climate change. Asmeret Asefaw’s research on the soil system has shed light on the role of effective land restoration in carbon dioxide sequestration. Suzanne Simard (Finding the Mother Tree, 2021), through her research on the interaction between trees, has influenced people worldwide with the way she communicates complex and technical ideas. Beyond contributions to scientific research, women scientists can be found marching on the streets, organising across the country and supporting youth in their calls for action.
Women are also bridging the gap between research and community or policymaking, through outreach and science communication. Notably, Katharine Hayhoe is working towards providing relevant information on the impacts of climate change while better connecting scientists and different stakeholders. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and policy expert, started a non-profit think tank, Urban Ocean Lab, to create policies for the future of coastal cities. It is important to recognize that the social sciences play an equally critical role in bridging this gap between climate and environmental sciences and policy-making and science communication. Specifically, social sciences fill the gap of understanding the social consequences of changes in natural environments which is necessary to change behaviours and drive widespread institutional, political, and policy change. Tackling an issue as multidimensional and complex as climate change requires interdisciplinarity.
Smart Prosperity’s Research Network has a significant number of women and gender diverse scientists and students advancing cutting-edge research on climate policies and decarbonization. Christina Hoicka, Runa Das, Maria-Louise McMaster and Yuxu Zhao examine the role and diffusion of low-carbon innovations in the energy system and sustainable energy transitions. Nancy Olewiler and Soma Barsen explore Canadians’ behaviours, attitudes, and policy preferences about synthetic (plastic) microfibre pollution. Heather Millar, Samantha McRae and Elizabeth Polk study the conditions that make clean electricity standards more likely to endure. Colleen Kaiser examines the fitness of Canada’s policy mix for promoting a transformative low-carbon transition in the transportation sector. These are just some illustrative examples. It is impossible to list women’s contributions to Smart Prosperity’s Research Network and to climate and environmental science as a whole.
Good climate policy relies on scientific evidence. To make better decisions, policymakers require information about risks and vulnerabilities to climate hazards, best practices for climate adaptation strategies, and the costs and benefits of various mitigation efforts. The scientific activities that yield evidence useful for policymakers are not the outcome of individual geniuses. This is an old trope. Science is a collective and increasingly interdisciplinary effort. Teams composed of members of diverse backgrounds are more innovative, outperforming more homogeneous teams. As such, women’s participation in STEM is a necessary condition for increasing the representation of more voices and experiences in expert knowledge-making, decreasing the risk of male bias in scientific data generation, analysis, and communication. Given that women and girls are placed in a position of more vulnerability to the effects of climate change, incorporating their perspectives and concerns into knowledge-making is crucial to discovering gendered impacts and designing gender sensitive strategies.
Increasing women’s representation in STEM is not just a moral issue of improving access to opportunities and resources. It makes economic and scientific sense. For example, when women play a role in technological design, outputs are generally more affordable, effective, sustainable, and user-friendly. Women in research also improves results in innovations that account for gendered experiences.
The unequal representation of women and their intersectional experiences have deeper consequences. Through their books, Caroline Criado Pérez (Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, 2019) and Ruha Benjamin (Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, 2019) respectively shed light on how seemingly neutral and objective data, technologies, and algorithms are encoded with gender and racial biases. The lack of gendered and racial perspectives could exacerbate inequalities and replicate historical and existing systemic barriers. Representation is not just important to plug data gaps or rectify flawed information, it is also necessary to create innovations, tools, and policies that are reflective of diverse groups and intersectional experiences, and that redress inequities.
In short, today is a day to celebrate women and girls’ scientific contributions. It is a day to commit to increasing the representation of various voices in climate and environmental science and to ensure that these voices and perspectives are heard. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it improves the research questions we ask, our technologies, and our solutions to climate and environmental crises. Too much is at stake to disregard the brainpower, talent, and voices of all genders. Our response to the climate and economic crises we face will be stronger if we properly recognize and uplift women and girls in science.