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Why bridging the gender divide in science is now mission-critical 

At this all-hands-on-deck moment on the clock of the world, we urgently need more women in positions of power in science to drive change in our societies and industries.
Published: 11 Feb, 2024
⏲ 8 minutes Read

The world faces extraordinary headwinds. On top of the existential challenges of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, in 2022 and 2023, conflict has erupted in Europe, in the Middle East, and beyond.     

To really power transformations on the scale the world now needs will require all hands on deck.

But, by failing to truly level up the gender divide, we are instead confronting these interlocking challenges with less than half of humanity’s skills, knowledge and talent.  

It is more urgent than ever that we shift the dial on gender inequality across societies – and particularly within science, a sector that persistently continues to lag behind other sectors when it comes to gender.

It's important we redouble our efforts to turn the tide on the lamentably small numbers of women in science, where currently, just one-third of researchers are women, and where women make up only a quarter of science, engineering, and ICT jobs globally.  

But crucially, this year’s theme for the United Nations International Day for Girls and Women in Science, which falls today, encourages all of us to focus not only on those absolute numbers, but to zero in on the numbers and impact of women in positions of genuine power.

The day’s theme this year is “Women and Girls in Science Leadership, a New Era for Sustainability”.    

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Izabella Koziell Presenting the latest science on cryosphere in the Hindu Kush Himalaya to a high level crisis summit attended by UN Secretary General and heads of state at COP28 Dubai.

The leadership component is important, for two reasons – firstly, for the decisions women tend to make when occupying those roles; and secondly, for how crucial these leaders are in helping younger women see science as a valid career option.  

On the first point, there is a growing body of evidence that shows that female leaders are more likely to support climate action and sustainability. “The Climate Action Gender Gap” - published before COP26 – showed how vital female leadership is to managing climate change.  

The report highlights three key ways: 

As leaders, women are often more open than men to the kinds of innovations or changes needed to drive climate action – but they remain underrepresented in these decision-making positions.  

As investors, women have a strong preference for investments that prioritize the environment, social or governance issues.  

As influencers, women are more likely than men to change their purchasing habits – and by extension, an organization’s procurement practices – towards greener and lower carbon options.  

On the second point, women in leadership positions of course serve as role models – breaking down gender stereotypes, contributing to greater gender equality in society and encouraging more girls to pursue further education in science, technology, engineering, and maths – something that is particularly important in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region that ICIMOD serves.  

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Poonam Tripathi facilitating a session on the applications of remote sensing and GIS during a Training of Trainers in Afghanistan.

At ICIMOD, we are committed to achieving gender equality and contributing to advancing women and girls in science leadership by integrating gender equality into our strategic operations and interventions.  

We are empowering women and girls to take more leadership roles within our organisation. Of our 171 staff, 75 are women. I am the first female Deputy Director General in our 40-year history; 40% of the organization’s senior management team are women; and we have women leading workstreams across the organization, including on resilient economies and landscapes; river basins; cryosphere; landscapes restoration; foresight for adaptation; human settlements; human-animal conflict; and circular economies; as well as heading the Himalayan Universities Consortium, Communications; and our cross-cutting theme of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion.  

The competence and productivity of these colleagues’ contribution to the actualisation of ICIMOD’s mission and vision is hard to overstate.  

I am proud too of the vital and very visible contributions illustrious women from within ICIMOD played in not only creating but also promoting last year’s flagship report, Water, Ice, Society, Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.  

As well as being Lead Authors of the report, Miriam Jackson, our senior cryosphere specialist and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author, Sunita Chaudhary, our ecosystem services specialist, and Amina Maharjan, our senior livelihoods and migration specialist, played central roles in the report’s media launch, with their voices garnering equal coverage as their male colleagues’ in the substantial global media attention that the report’s publication produced. My hope is that aspiring scientists and academics all over our region and the world would have heard the expertise of these brilliant women researchers and leaderes, and felt validated and inspired.  

At the Board Level, meanwhile, we are certainly walking the walk on female leadership: our Programme Advisory Committee board is chaired by the remarkable Teresa Fogelberg, our finance committee is chaired by Renate Christ, who from 2004 until her retirement in 2015 was Secretary of the IPCC. Long-standing Independent Board Member Carolina Adler, meanwhile, is a globally admired scientist – executive director of the Mountain Research Institute and Lead Author of the IPCC’s Cross-Chapter Paper on Mountains. And last year, Anita Arjundas, Executive Director of India’s Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment joined our governance body.  

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Sunita Chaudhary assessing the native species present during a field visit in Darchula district of Nepal.

Beyond ICIMOD, on the global stage, huge strides have been made. The World Meteorological Organization newly has a female Secretary-General, Prof Celeste Saulo. UNESCO’s Director-General, Ms Audrey Azoulay too, a woman. And at ICIMOD we’ve just welcomed Anne Larigauderie, the hugely charismatic Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) alongside the two co-chairs of IPBES’s upcoming nexus assessment, Professor Paula Harrison from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Professor Pamela McElwee from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  

But much remains to be done.  

To increase the number of women scientists, we need to hugely increase the flow of talent to science careers as well as promoting women into science leadership positions. These female leaders will play their part in attracting more girls to these realms, and we need to work much much harder to get more girls into science, highlighting the huge range of opportunities that exist in scientific careers. 

We are working hard on these outreach approaches.  

Through the SERVIR-HKH initiative, ICIMOD launched the concept of ‘Women in GIT’ to emphasise the role of women in Earth observation (EO) and Geoinformation Technology (GIT). The aim is to empower women to take leadership roles in this field and reduce the gender gap in EO/GIT sector across the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. In 2023, 642 women across the HKH region joined our WoGIT training sessions, successfully building their capacity in a wide range of topics including the fundamental principles of geographic information systems (GIS), basic remote sensing (RS) concepts, GIS data use and visualisation, geoprocessing and analytical query, RS image interpretation and mapping, and map production using open-source tools. The training also provided an overview of SERVIR-HKH’s services in land cover analysis and disaster preparedness. ICIMOD’s publication, ‘Closing the STEM gender gap: Training women in Earth observation and geospatial information technology’, addresses milestones, impacts, and efforts to help build a skilled, gender-balanced workforce that can keep up with the rapid innovation in EO and GIT. 

Another example of ICIMOD’s work developing the leadership skills of girls and women in science is the Green Resilient Agricultural Productive Ecosystem, Field of Action 2 (GRAPE FA 2) initiative. ICIMOD’s particular focus in this project is on ‘action research’, which emphasises participatory research conducted with, for, and by people. To raise awareness of the importance of women’s involvement in agricultural science research, in March 2023, ICIMOD organised a panel discussion entitled ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for climate-resilient agriculture’ at Mid-West University, Nepal. In addition, we have conducted five student-led action research initiatives led by young female students, while three women researchers recently examined Climate-Resilient Agriculture solutions addressing the gender perspective, supported by Embrace Equity Research Grant. 

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Amina Maharjan Presenting on migration and resilience building in the Hindu Kush Himalaya to Delegation from International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and ICIMOD Board of Governers.

We prioritise inclusivity in our overarching GESI-inclusive springshed management approach. In 2023, together with the Department of Water, Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, Bhutan, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Bangkok, we organised a training session on ‘Springshed management as a nature-based solution for water security and climate adaptation in Bhutan’. Through this event, we aimed to build the capacity of around 150 citizen scientists, of whom 50% were women. These individuals lead mobile-based data collection on spring solutions. This initiative, blending physical and social science, exemplifies our commitment to empowering women’s leadership in science.  

ICIMOD's Medium-Term Action Plan V (2023-2026) is committed to building capacity through both digital innovation, and engagement with women and youth. By promoting and supporting women and girls in science leadership, we are not only breaking the gender bias but also creating a more resilient and dynamic scientific community, which leads to a more sustainable and equitable future.  

 This is an all-hands-on-deck situation on the clock of the world – and we must urgently equip women and girls with the inspiration, encourage, and support to play their fullest part.  


Deputy Director General, ICIMOD


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