UNEP-WCMC celebrates and supports women in science

Female scientist in lab coat checking artificial neurons connected into neural network. Computational neuroscience, machine learning, scientific research. Vector illustration in flat cartoon style

11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, advocating for the full and equal access to, and participation in, science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages. Despite significant progress in their participation in higher education, women are still under-represented in science: at present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women.

These issues have always been core at UNEP-WCMC, and the Centre is proud to support female scientists at all stages of their career. Of the 170 scientific staff at the Centre, 110 are female scientists, and women make up half of our Senior Management Team.

To highlight the fantastic contributions of women in science and raise awareness about the ongoing need to improve access and broaden participation, we asked two leading scientists at UNEP-WCMC to reflect on their careers and what advice they would give to women keen to enter the field of science and conservation.

Dr. Samantha Hill is Deputy Head of Science at UNEP-WCMC and leads the Centre’s work on nature trends. Her research uses models and other quantitative analyses to explore how human actions impact and are dependent upon biodiversity and how we can use this knowledge to ensure that both humanity and nature’s needs are met into the future.

Dr. Fiona Danks is Head of the Science at the Centre. Her role involves developing fundraising efforts, networking and collaborating both within and beyond UNEP-WCMC. She also contributes directly to scientific projects, many focusing on biodiversity monitoring and mapping, cumulative threat and ecosystem services mapping and modelling and impacts of conservation interventions, such as protected areas.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

Samantha: I have always enjoyed being in nature, from observing ants in back garden as a child to exploring untouched corners of Canada as a youth and adult. I do not think I knew from a child that I would be a scientist: science was certainly not my favourite subject at school and my biology teacher even told me that I definitely should not study biology! But I was driven by an awareness of how nature was being lost by human actions and felt that I wanted to help.

Fiona: I started off planning to do medicine or veterinary medicine but realised I was most interested in bigger things, such as our ability to use tools and science to further our understanding and ability to protect the natural world and its incredible life forms. I was one of only two students at my undergraduate university to do a double major with geography and environmental and evolutionary biology. It was an obvious combination to me, especially with the advent of geographic information system, a key tool that I could see being powerfully applied to ecological problems and questions.

What are your proudest and most memorable experiences as a conservation scientist?

Samantha: My most memorable experiences are all in the field. I am constantly in awe of the adaptability and resilience of nature and love being surprised in the field. I remember finding kingfishers flying and feeding within a completely devastated piece of canal in London, and new-born hatchling turtles finding their way to the sea in amongst high rise hotels in Greece. But I feel most proud of the work that I have undertaken that has informed international policy reports. I feel that this is the best way that I can help to make a difference for those creatures that have awed and inspired me. 

Fiona: Perhaps being chased down a mountain by an ornery hormone-riddled young muskox bull in Northeast Greenland might be a most memorable experience! More seriously, I think it was generally my fieldwork experiences, whether they be in remote regions of Alaska or Greenland, living with nomadic reindeer herders in Russia, or meeting owners of private protected area lands in Belize. All these experiences connect you to places, creatures, and people. Doing my Masters in Conservation Leadership at Cambridge University was without a doubt another one of the best experiences I have had. Until that point my background was primarily academic, so the course exposed me to the practical conservation world, pertinent global issues and taught me practical tools.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles linked to be a woman in science?

Samantha: Yes, especially during my studies and early post-doctoral work, where I experienced difficulties with trying to advance in a male-dominated sector: I had quite a few experiences of overt sexism, for instance a professor telling our lab group that he had rejected the most qualified candidate for a post-doc position because she was returning from maternity leave and would not be focussed on the work. I have repeatedly observed female colleagues leaving science due to these difficulties, notably being talked over or being assumed to be an assistant in research and therefore listed lower down in author lists or not invited to workshops... However, I think in general the stereotype of the bullying, egotistical research leader is changing, and this is positive for men and women. I was very lucky to be supported by my family and by a handful of senior scientists who provided not only encouragement when needed but also provided excellent role models for me to aspire to. I know that, compared to many other female scientists around the world, I have been very lucky with how much encouragement I received to continue my research.

Fiona: I feel inordinately lucky both to have faced very few professional obstacles due to being female, and to belonging to a culture where being female is much less a limitation than in other cultures. I grew up simply thinking that anyone no matter their gender could do anything. It took me a long time to realise how powerful that one belief was and how few females in the world had that privilege. Likewise, I never felt I struggled with gender dynamics. I remember when as a young professional I was leading a team and working with two male ecologists, significantly more senior than me, both in looks and experience. When people would ask either of them what the plan was, they would say, “I'm sorry, you're going to have to ask the boss” and point to me, a young person in her twenties! Sadly, I have come to realise that my experience is not universal or even common.

What are the benefits of having more women in conservation science?

Samantha: Research thrives when it is open to as many different voices as possible. I believe that the most important thing is not whether someone is male or female, or from the “global north or south”, but that the system allows all voices to express themselves unhindered. Losing different voices -with their own unique way of looking at things and tackling problems - is extremely costly to science, and conservation science in particular desperately needs new ways of looking at problems because we do not currently have all the solutions to the biodiversity crisis!

Fiona: In anything there should be a balance of perspectives, and males and females simply offer different - and necessary - perspectives. It is too complex to say briefly just how much women know, can and should contribute due to their varied roles in societies and cultures around the world, which differ from men. But in a conservation context, women - as mothers, carers and the drivers of relationships, in the family and within communities – can shed light on many of the complexities of human responsibility. Also, there are real cultural differences in what women understand and know: in certain places, women will understand the landscapes or the changes in resource availability or quality better.

What changes are needed for science to be more attractive to women?

Samantha: The scientific system is attractive to women; I do not think that is a problem. It is a system that is incredibly tough for everyone. However, these challenges are often increased for women. Even in a field like conservation, which has many more female scientists than other scientific fields, women tend to leave the system at a higher rate than men, resulting in fewer female scientists at a senior level, hence fewer role models for the next generation of scientists. I believe that remote working may actually have a positive impact for female scientists, especially those located outside the global north: it allows wider participation at workshops and meetings that may lead to funding and useful collaborations. It may also prove to be more accommodating to those voices who may be drowned out when in a room for a limited period.

Fiona: While I believe there has been some improvement, there is still a long way to go: there is tremendous disparity among different countries and societies. Other women are probably better placed to answer this than me, as I do not have children, and therefore have faced less difficulty and fewer challenges. I do know that some of the expectations make it rather difficult, for example, long time periods away in the field, expectations of terribly long hours or the dominance of older and more senior males in academic publishing.

What would you like to say to today's girls and women aspiring to become scientists?

Samantha: I would like to tell them that it is an incredibly rewarding line of work. I love that every day I get to use my mind to solve puzzles and that these solutions may help to make the world a better place. My advice to them would be: do not doubt yourself – your insight is valuable and unique so express it with as much confidence as anyone else in the room – and if their backs are turned to you then keep shouting until they turn around!

Fiona: There is nothing stopping you! Everyone has the ability – and should have the opportunity – to contribute. As for reasons to get into science and conservation, it is really exciting and there is so much to do and so much that needs doing. The learning opportunities are endless, the people and friends you make are immensely valuable, and there are so many ways to make a difference. The best advice that I might offer would be: find, seize, and create opportunities, even if they might seem like gigantic steps or very unknown. But follow what feels right to you at the same time as this will drive and motivate you, leading you further down whatever paths may follow. Also take the turns and the detours, there are always amazing discoveries to be made in those places!

February 11th, 2022 is the seventh annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

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