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Fixing Sexism at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

A sexist remark at a recent meeting prompted some soul-searching among the world's top climate scientists. How can they prevent women's expertise from being excluded?
The United Nations offices in Geneva, Switzerland.

The United Nations offices in Geneva, Switzerland.

At the recent meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the science body of the United Nations, there was an unusual announcement halfway through the week: a reminder to the scientists present that this was a meeting of experts, and that everyone's expertise must be respected.

You’d think it would have gone without saying. Every six years, the world's top climate scientists convene to write reports on the physical science of climate change, its impacts, and how to mitigate it. This particular meeting was in Guangzhou, China, where the lead authors of the physical science report would begin drafting their latest plan. But despite the distinguished participants, there had been troubling reports of sexist behavior taking place at the gathering, where women's expertise was being diminished or ignored—hence the unusual mid-week intervention.

In one instance, Friederike Otto, an associate professor at Oxford University specializing in extreme weather events, was being introduced to a group of men. She'd said her name and where she was from—she was wearing her lead author badge—when one of her interlocutors asked who her supervisor was, implying that she must still be a graduate student. In fact, she's deputy director of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute.

As a young female scientist, Otto says she's familiar with these kinds of insinuations, but this particular incident left her speechless. "I was just particularly annoyed by it, because it was at the IPCC meeting, at a lead author meeting, where clearly the setting is we're all equal," she says. "I should have asked him who his supervisor is." In a subsequent email exchange between the two, Otto says, the male scientist was reluctant to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Sexist remarks are sadly common, but overt sexist behavior at a gathering of the world’s top climate scientists illustrates how universal the experience of misogyny remains: Decades of study, a tenured position at a top university, and the recognition of your government and the U.N. still can't prevent men from belittling your value or abilities.

Otto posted about the incident on Twitter, prompting Valérie Masson-Delmotte, the co-chair of the physical science working group, to bring it up among the group's most senior members. A French expert in climate variability and ice cores, Masson-Delmotte has faced her own gender-based challenges in the past, including the loneliness she felt as one of the only women authors in previous IPCC cycles, and being asked, as a scientific researcher in France, to serve coffee in a meeting with a senior medic around 15 years ago (she asked him to clean her shoes in return). During her consultation with other senior IPCC members, a man asked if anyone else had experienced sexist behavior. Every woman said yes.

"There was a moment of silence," Masson-Delmotte says, after which the group decided that she should address the problem in the next plenary session.

As a U.N. body, the IPCC is necessarily geographically and ethnically diverse (though there are still more authors from developed than from developing countries). Women, however, remain severely underrepresented. "The first IPCC report [in 1990] had a handful of women," says Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona who has been involved as an author at the IPCC since 1995. "They were pioneers, and I know they overcome tremendous barriers. They really struggled in a number of ways."

In the current IPCC cycle, the sixth so far, 27 percent of the physical sciences group are women. That might seem low—yet women made up just 25 percent of the initial nominations, a shortfall that suggests some degree of bias that begins before the IPCC is even involved in the selection process, which starts with the governments and observer organizations that are responsible for choosing their own countries' brightest scientists.

There are also social factors contributing to women's exclusion. IPCC work is unpaid; the scientists do it in addition to their day jobs at universities and institutes. For women, who often take on more housework and childcare duties than men, that leaves little time left for voluntary work. In a survey among IPCC scientists conducted by Liverman and one of her Ph.D. students, Miriam Gay-Antaki, a third of respondents said that childcare and family responsibilities prevented their full participation in the IPCC. One scientist recalled the difficulties of balancing IPCC work with being a single parent. "I managed because I really wanted to do this, but it was a large extra hurdle that caused me to arrive stressed at meetings and sometimes to not have full attention," she wrote.

Marginalizing women's voices and excluding their expertise can damage the science itself. The IPCC has tried to redress this imbalance, and the percentage of female authors has gradually increased over the years. The panel has also endeavored to recruit more early career scientists, to avoid older men crowding out bright young women who are still rising in their field.

But the challenge isn't simply numerical: Sexist patterns of behavior, where women are spoken over and ignored, must also be challenged. "You can have all the women you want in the IPCC chapters, but if they lack the confidence to speak, or they're talked over, or not encouraged to speak, then they have no voice," Liverman says. "I think it's really important that you get the numbers, but can women have influence and power?"

Behavioral change may be harder to engineer, but the IPCC is trying. At the recent meeting in China, the panel released its first-ever code of conduct, reminding participants to conduct themselves in a "manner that is professional, respectful, tolerant and responsible." Of course, this bit of messaging didn't prevent Otto's unpleasant encounter. In March, the IPCC also decided to establish a Gender Task Group, and Masson-Delmotte has proposed a webinar for scientists on how to recognize and prevent "unconscious bias."

As a U.N. body, the IPCC may still be more progressive than many other scientific institutions. But the organization's international make-up introduces its own set of challenges. In this melting pot of countries and attitudes, a heightened sensitivity is required to understand the sometimes-hidden cultural forces that drive people to behave as they do. For women from the global south, and particularly women of color, it can be difficult sometimes even to pinpoint whether discrimination is based on gender, race, age, or even language skills.

"Sometimes we only consider sexism—which is important, I don't want to diminish that—but it's important to consider the context of the other dimensions," says Carolina Vera, an Argentinian specialist on climate dynamics, and vice-chair of the IPCC's physical science group. "For women coming from developed countries, it's the main issue, but in my case and for other developing country women, sometimes the other types of discrimination can be as bad. It's easy for me to perceive sexism within Argentina. In this international arena, it's hard to tell if I'm being discriminated against because of my gender, my accent, my language.

While codes of conduct and task forces may help engender change, part of the revolution is rooted in the women themselves, who are increasingly unwilling to tolerate sexist behavior. It's a shift that is "probably in relation to the MeToo movement and other movements," Masson-Delmotte says. As women become increasingly determined to call out such behavior—whether it be on social media, or an in-person demand to shine their shoes—male scientists will be forced to acknowledge, and perhaps amend, their behavior.

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