Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Engage women in science

It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict. — Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, former U.N. force commander, 2008

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegOn Nov. 6, 238 scientists (predominantly women) signed a proclamation titled “A call for inclusive conservation” in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Nature (Volume 515, pages 27-8). It was 1920 when women first got the vote in the United States. Now, almost 100 years later, women are asking for a place at the stakeholder table for conservation and sustainability of our natural resources.

I am one of the women who signed this document. In my work as a conservation biologist, I often find myself as the only woman at the table — or more likely, the lone female on a jungle expedition. Despite the many advances of women in the boardroom and on the corporate payroll, the world of conservation brokers — especially in developing countries — remains male-dominated.

There is nothing wrong with men devoted to conservation, but why not engage the other 51 percent of the population?

In this group-authored article, it is argued that advocates for conservation solutions have “descended into vitriolic, personal battles in universities, conferences, research stations, conservation organizations, and even the media.” And further, that article explains that such debates have been dominated by a few voices, most of which are men.

Throughout the history of women in environmental sciences, equity of gender has been slow. Examples include the recent allegations by women citing harassment in forest service firefighting crews, and young women biologists dealing with sexual assault during field research.

In the latter example, Dr. Kathryn Clancy and co-authors wrote in the scientific journal PlosOne (July 2014) that 26 percent of women surveyed confronted this hurdle, where male advisers and co-workers violated their female colleagues as part of their “career advancement.”

As Dr. Clancy points out, there have been several decades of silence about what goes on in the field and the laboratory, but women are increasingly speaking up. For women to become leaders in both science and environmental issues, they require equal opportunities both in their training grounds and in their workplace.

In their Foundation Report of 2013, Bill and Melinda Gates linked their goals to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, one of which was “promote gender equity and empower women.” If America cannot achieve this in her own developed landscape, then the opportunities for women in developing countries are likely to be significantly less.

The CWSEM (Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine) is one of the few standing committees to have the backing of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, according to Science Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt. Why?

McNutt says women remain underrepresented in the STEM disciplines, and that professional female scientists still retire with 29 percent less income than male counterparts. CWSEM seeks to find better ways for women in science careers to achieve their full potential, despite the rigors of child-rearing and work-family balance.

If you look at photos depicting the history of America’s early space missions, the launch room was full of predominantly white males, some celebrating the moment with cigars. If you fast forward and look at India’s recent space exploration called MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission), their launch room was full of excited women in saris, many who comprised the engineering team for this exploration.

In juxtaposition, several hundred miles away from India’s innovative space-exploration hub, women in rural sectors still endure daily hardships of fishing in mudflats, carting water long distances, and harvesting crops with handheld tools.

Our diverse world stands at a critical juncture where the inclusion of women for science and environmental decision-making could emerge as a positive force for conservation; but we still have a long way to go.

Despite historical setbacks, the women authors of the Nature magazine article propose an equal role for both genders and diversity as brokers in conservation of our planet’s natural resources. This proposed voice for women is not surprising, because for many generations females have been the stewards of nature — as water-carriers, gardeners, firewood gatherers; this gives women first-hand knowledge about the diminishing supplies of natural resources in many relatively harsh environments.

We need the brightest minds of both genders engaged in sustainable solutions for our planet’s future. There is no time to delay.

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.