Women in environmental science: Power of equality

28th February 2020

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Cecilia Medupin reports back on Women in Environmental Science's 2019 workshop, which examined the roles of women in the discipline

Women in Environmental Sciences (WiES) was initiated in 2018 to bring together women of diverse ethnicities, working in diverse environmental disciplines, so they can address key environmental issues and the way they relate to women. Its 2019 workshop was held at the University of Manchester and attended by more than 130 academics, early career researchers, postgraduate students and people with a general interest in the environment.

Workshop presenters came from academia, the local community and policy and research organisations. We had representatives from private and corporate organisations, from professional and research institutes including IEMA, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, and Earthwatch Oxford, and from charity organisations such as Ignite Futures (Nottingham), Friends of the Earth and Manchester Community Choir. In terms of higher education we had representatives from institutions including Aberdeen, Bangor, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan, Salford and Sheffield universities, as well as the Open University and the Manchester Environmental Research Institute.

Meeting of minds

The aims of the workshop were to promote inclusiveness, widen participation and foster interesting discussion in order to help people understand the various aspects of environmental science, policy and application – while considering the role of women. The sessions included presentations and breakout sessions in a free and relaxed atmosphere where new connections could be made. Participants motivated each other and gained insights into leadership, career prospects and the challenges women face in diverse environments.

During the meetings, the talks and knowledge-exchange sessions addressed themes such as the empowerment of women, leadership, energy, climate change and education, health, water, agroecology and urban green infrastructure, as well as the reflections of female leaders holding environmental roles in policy, academic research and industry. There were also links between the sessions' themes and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), explored through questions such as:

  • What are the drivers for social-ecological systems breakdown in different contexts, eg farming (SDGs 1 and 2), and what is our role, as researchers and practitioners, in facilitating inclusive processes to reinvigorate these relationships?
  • What does a mixed-energy economy mean for women, particularly those from disadvantaged communities or developing countries (SDGs 7 and 5)?
  • What are the challenges encountered by women in environmental professions (SDGs 5 and 8)?
  • How can we educate women, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, to protect their health when responding to environmental changes in a sustainable way (SDG3)?
  • How can we explore citizen science to make science more accessible and empower under-represented groups (SDG 4)?
  • What support do women need to transition into working in industries (SDGs 5, 9 and 10)?

We also explored case studies from the global south where the role and involvement of NGOs and self-help methods were shown to be effective, useful and empowering to local communities – especially for those leaving disaster-prone areas. Discussing these issues raised awareness of global challenges and helped participants to relate the experience to local challenges.

Questions were taken after each talk, answered by speakers and members of the audience. Furthermore, delegates were able to further discuss issues during the lunch and networking sessions.

Before the workshop ended, the key outcomes from the sessions and the links between each session and the UN SDGs were summarised thus: if environmental challenges are to be effectively addressed, gender equality and the empowerment of women need to be integrated through the SDGs at local and national levels. Therefore, female early career researchers and other professionals are encouraged to continually engage in WiES discussions and contribute their skills irrespective of challenges faced within their organisations and communities.

Key outcomes

All presentations and breakout sessions were very interesting and engaged participants. A summary of the sessions was collated and presented to the participants, with key take-home messages as follows:

  • Trust and respect are important for building relationships between researchers and non-practitioners
  • Women have a longer life expectancy than men, and the presence of quality green spaces will enhance their living
  • Citizen science is important for continuing environmental research, empowers society, enhances participation and inspires action
  • We can all do more!
  • Women have choices.
  • Be inclusive – involve your communities (of different ethnicities and genders). Inclusiveness and widened participation are important for sustainable leadership and followership in any organisation
  • Do the eco-proofing – for every activity you are involved in, ask: do I consider the environment in what I am doing?

Participants thoroughly enjoyed the workshop and stated that they would have liked to have had more time for interaction. When asked about the highlights, responses included:

“Breakout session was a great opportunity to interact and give voice to opinion on key issues. Don't often get this.“

“The selection of the speakers, with different work and interesting experience.“

“Embracing the complexity of the topic.“

“Extra breakout time was very helpful, it allowed people to get over the first few minutes of being shy and start to really contribute. And we had a great group.“

“Discussing these issues raised awareness of global challenges and helped participants to relate the experience to local challenges“

Future plans

In the future, we would like the support and encouragement of different institutions and organisations so that we can extend the event beyond four hours to a full day. This will enable us to address issues at length and allow delegates travelling from a distance to participate in the event. We would like to promote this group widely through the media and through outreach activities locally and globally, and to carry out some of the proposals outlined. The group is preparing a comprehensive report, which will be available later in 2020. This will encompass the outcomes from the 2018 and 2019 workshops and contributions from the presenters and facilitators, with the aim of effecting positive policy change in organisations and communities as it relates to women.

Women in environmental sciences now has a dedicated JISCmail account where information can be shared and ideas exchanged. Subscribe at bit.ly/30WB8hL, and encourage other people to sign up.

View presentations from the day at youtu.be/AwnE3DlfxR4

Dr Cecilia Medupin, MIEMA is the convener of Women in Environmental Sciences, and a lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester.

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