Within even the last 12 months, there’s been a shift in how we talk about climate change. What we once framed as a serious but distant threat is now an imminent catastrophe, with implications that are hard even to imagine. And as the crisis deepens, all the other issues we face—from public health to national security to immigration—will become that much more complicated to address. It’s no surprise that as sea levels rise, people who live in coastal cities will be at greater risk for flood or that parts of sub-Saharan African will have to contend with famine sooner than the Pacific Northwest will. Those are discrepancies we can plan for. What's less understood is the extent to which climate change overall will have a disproportionate impact on women.
As scientists put it, climate change and gender are inextricably linked. In less-developed regions, it falls to women to gather food and water for their families. If crops can’t grow, those women will lose both their livelihoods and their food source. At the same time, as extreme weather events become more frequent, huge populations of women and families are forced to leave their homes. Women will bear the brunt of the crisis. “If we don’t consider gender roles in our understanding of climate change and its solutions, we might end up exacerbating gendered inequalities,” says Miriam Gay-Antaki, Ph.D., a university teacher in human geography at the University of Edinburgh, who studies the intersection of gender and climate change.
But here’s the (additional) problem: Even as scientists know that to be true, the vast majority of people who work in climate science are men. And sexism and prejudice within their ranks have an impact on the research that the field produces. Because climate research involves a range of disciplines, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what percentage of climate scientists identify as women, but most estimates put it at under 20 percent. The homogeneousness of the field is more than a “bad look.” It results in derivative, narrow research that is less equipped to examine how climate change will take its toll on different populations.
“It’s absolutely vital that climate scientists and researchers mirror the populations that are impacted by climate change,” says Victoria Herrmann, Ph.D., president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, a think tank focusing on Arctic security issues. “There’s a pretty good research base now to know that personal histories and experiences influence your own research methodology, your research bias, and your research results. No individual comes to research with complete objectivity.”
Scientists should know that, but women like Herrmann report that it’s still hard to have their perspectives heard in rooms full of men, who seem to consider their own perspectives the scientific default. Despite the fact that she manages a team of 25 researchers, Herrmann has heard men refer to her as an intern. Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., an assistant state climatologist who leads drought monitoring research within the Colorado State Climate Center, is excluded from important conversations at work frequently enough that she’s developed a kind of gut check: “Would this have happened to me if I wasn’t a woman?” (Answer: Probably not.)
This difference between how male and female climate scientists are treated begins early on, and starkly unfair experiences are not easily shaken. When Bolinger was enrolled at Florida State University to earn her master’s degree, an older male professor suggested she submit research papers under her initials because she’d be more likely to get published if people didn’t know she was a woman. “The best way to keep women in STEM when they’re going through school is to make sure the environment is open and welcome. And that can’t just be done by women,” Bolinger says. “It’s going to move a lot more smoothly if it’s men who point out when they see things that are wrong, or men who are making sure that their women colleagues are at the table with them like they deserve to be.”
For better climate science, however, Herrmann recommends an improved status quo not just within the lab but outside it as well. She notes that scientists tend to dismiss people who haven’t earned traditional credentials; she’d like to see that change. “The climate change experts that come to mind when I do my work are not MIT scientists or Stanford scientists. They are the community champions,” she says. “They are the women who are on the ground. They may not have the scientific-education background, but they’re the experts in how climate impacts are affecting their local ecosystems, their landscapes, and their communities.”
Women have spearheaded grassroots movements within their communities for centuries, and climate change is no exception. Perhaps women are more attuned than most to what it will take to ensure a safe and sustainable future for their children. Or at an even more fundamental level, perhaps women are used to overcoming barriers and see climate change as just another impossible problem to solve. But whatever the reason, it’s evident that women’s voices are crucial to the development of real solutions, and the field puts itself at a disadvantage if it discounts their contributions.
At the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rachel Cleetus, Ph.D., policy director for the climate and energy program, stresses that their climate team—which is primarily composed of women—is “always looking for that human connection” when conducting research. Most recently, UCS put together a report on sea level rise, with the specific emphasis on how it would affect coastal community residents and their homes, offering those people the best information possible so they can make decisions about their futures.
“We have to be galvanized to action, not curled up in the corner and afraid. And there are a lot of solutions we have available to us,” Cleetus says. “Having that message of hope is something women can bring to this conversation. This is about transformation—societal, economic, technology transformation—but it’s about hope, ultimately.”
Elena Hilton is a writer and reporter based in Florida whose work has also appeared in Esquire and Rolling Stone.