At present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. At UNEP-WCMC we are proud to support female scientists at all stages of their career. Of the Centre’s 134 permanent technical staff 89 are female and 45 are male, and women make up half of our Senior Management Team.
To celebrate the UN International Day for Women and Girls in Science, we asked four women scientists from our team to reflect on their career so far and to give some advice to aspiring scientists.
Amayaa Wijesinghe is the Communications and Data Officer for the TRADE Hub and Development Corridors Partnership, two global projects that UNEP-WCMC leads. She has a BSc from the University of Colombo in her home country of Sri Lanka, and a MSc from the University of Oxford. Prior to joining UNEP-WCMC last year, she worked on climate policy with a CSO in Sri Lanka, and was a researcher on a project exploring green infrastructural solutions for climate adaptation in Namibia and Tanzania.
Amayaa notes that in more socially conservative cultures with pre-defined gender roles, there remains a lot of scepticism about how successful a woman can be in the environmental sciences. She says that these perceptions are slowly changing, and women must "ignore the noise” and approach new opportunities with curiosity. She also suggests reaching out to someone who is on the career path you wish to pursue and ask them if they will mentor you. "There's no harm in asking", she says, “and often you’ll find they’re more than willing to give some guidance.”
Amayaa shares that there has been a conscious effort within both the TRADE Hub and Development Corridors Partnership programmes to emphasise the social impact of trade and infrastructure development, including the differing impact it can have on women compared to men. UNEP-WCMC is actively encouraging their research partners on these projects to put gender-based metrics into their research designs.
Naomi Kingston is UNEP-WCMC's Head of Operations. She grew up in Ireland and her academic background is in botany. After completing her PhD at Trinity College Dublin she worked as a post-doctoral research fellow and as an environmental consultant, and subsequently spent a decade working as a conservation scientist for the Irish government.
Prior to becoming Head of Operations at the Centre, Naomi spent seven years as Head of the Conserving Land and Seascapes Programme. Alongside her work at the Centre she sits on the Advisory Board for the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) in Kent, the Board of Essex Wildlife Trust, and is Co-chair of the Key Biodiversity Areas Partnership Committee.
Throughout her career Naomi has worked with international environmental conventions, a job that required a substantial amount of international travel. Like many other mothers, for several years, Naomi was unable to travel with the same frequency and flexibility as some of her colleagues, which impacted on the types of work and career opportunities available to her. Such gender barriers often become a hurdle in women’s career development. Her advice to women scientists in the early stages of their career is: "Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint - enjoy the journey and be flexible about where it might take you.”
Nina Bhola is a Senior Programme Officer in UNEP-WCMC's Conserving Land and Seascapes Programme. Her interest in science and conservation stemmed from her childhood in Kenya where she travelled to many nature reserves in East Africa. A career at the science-policy interface appealed to Nina as a means to mediate the frequently conflicting goals between nature and society. After completing her undergraduate studies in the UK, Nina worked for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Kenya where she was involved in a long-term ecological monitoring programme in Masai Mara National Reserve. Once she completed her Masters and Ph.D in evolutionary biology from the University of Groningen, in The Netherlands, Nina joined UNEP-WCMC where she leads and manages a portfolio of projects on area-based conservation across both terrestrial and marine realms including protected and conserved areas and ecological corridors.
Nina's advice to girls and women seeking a career in science and conservation is to build an understanding of the situation on the ground and of the perspectives of the people and communities you are working with and push for evidence-based improvement in conservation practices through your research. Above all, she says it is important to not be afraid of being inquisitive: "Science is about asking the right questions and being curious about the world around us, in particular, not shying away from the scale of the challenge we face in halting the loss of biodiversity.”
Fiona Danks is Head of UNEP-WCMC's Science Programme where she leads a team of circa twenty-five scientists. She grew up in Zimbabwe and Canada, and she has a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College, a Masters degree from the University of Alaska, a PhD from the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, and a MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge.
Fiona has had a varied and international career. Before joining the Centre in 2014 she had worked as an environmental consultant in Vancouver, an environmental GIS specialist in the UK, as a post-doctoral research scientist in Northern Norway and as the leader of the Norwegian Polar Institute's research station on Svalbard. In addition to her current work at the Centre, she also holds a part time fellowship at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, where she teaches physical geography students.
Being a woman in the field used to be more unusual, she says, and at the first Arctic conferences she attended as a young student in the late 1990s most of the visible scientists were older men. Fortunately, over the course of her career, she has witnessed a palpable increase in the number of women working in Arctic science, and conservation more broadly, but there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the field globally. To today's women aspiring to become scientists, Fiona says: "It's okay to feel like you have no idea what you want to do - that's really normal!" Her advice is to look for opportunities that excite you because "when you see the right thing come along, your heart will sing".
February 11th, 2021 is the sixth annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science.