For a three-day period recently, my Twitter feed began to hum with unusual chatter about inspirational women in the environmental community. Tweeters were “so in awe” of a “powerhouse that is this room of international women working to #fixtheplanet.” Series of 140-character sentences drew attention to how “women are leading the way in changing entrenched behaviors that fuel #climate change.”
Twitter’s sudden enthusiasm for female environmental leadership sprang from the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit, which was taking place in upstate New York. I was delighted at this outburst of appreciation, and I was surprised — and then surprised at my own surprise. Of course women are doing impressive work on environmental issues. I knew that, yet I wasn’t used to hearing it.
We need to boost the visibility of women in the environmental community — and no, please don’t interpret this as a call for more up-close photos of their footwear and detailed deconstructions of their hairstyles. Highlighting the extraordinary work done by these females — who are fearless, certainly, and frequently fun, too, even if not sporting the kind of garb seen in the pages of Cosmo — is essential for inspiring new generations to work to keep the planet habitable for everyone.
Seeing successful people who look like you is an astonishingly big part of believing that you can be successful as well. Every time I see another all-male panel speaking about a subject that is close to my heart, it erodes a little more of my assurance that I too could sit up there on a stage like that one day — even in such an enlightened institution as Yale. Anyone reading the list of speakers in this semester’s FES seminar series, for example, could be forgiven for thinking that we were still in the 1970s and the figures etched on the Women’s Table were some kind of fantasy. The speakers listed were all male. All of them — until one woman was added at the last minute after the Yale Environmental Women student group questioned the lineup.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the people who have nudged me forward through my career to date have been female. One of the first was my high school geography teacher, who planted the idea in my head of applying to Cambridge — something I had until then dismissed as not for me. My undergraduate dissertation supervisor was at the time the only female professor in the Geography Department and it was in part her encouragement — and her example — that gave me the confidence to apply to Yale. Sitting as a youth representative on the steering committee of the U.K.’s coalition of climate-focused campaign groups, I saw that out of all the high-level spokespeople in attendance there was only one other woman. But she also happened to be the most inspiring person there. All of these individuals have helped to counter the influence of people such as the teacher I had when I was 15, who asked me if I was one of those “women’s libbers” who burn their bras, because I expressed an interest in pursuing a career other than housewifery.
All this means that the uneven spread of men and women in Yale’s faculty is a cause for concern, because it indicates a shortage of female role models for the University’s students. Perhaps it also helps to explain FES’s choice of seminar speakers this semester: male faculty are probably less likely than their female counterparts to notice that kind of thing, or to see it as a problem. Statistics about male and female faculty at Yale are presented every five years by the Women Faculty Forum in a report called “The View.” The 2012 report states that, in the 2011-’12 academic year, two out of 17 tenured faculty at FES were women.
Rectifying the uneven gender balance in top environmental jobs and conference panels isn’t just an issue for the navel-gazing members of elite universities. We need to raise the status of women in the environmental community because, globally, women are disproportionately harmed by the impacts of climate change. For example, the United Nations reports that women in low-income countries tend to be responsible for collecting water, a task that becomes more difficult as droughts become more frequent and last longer. Furthermore, if cultural biases privilege one gender over the other, half of the potentially world-changing leaders are held back, which could stop movements and organizations from reaching their full potential.
The good news is that there are many women doing wonderful work already, as was highlighted by the flurry of tweets surrounding the recent summit in New York. If we’re to truly #fixtheplanet, women’s success stories must become the new normal.
Amy Mount is a third-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.