Encouraging women’s voices in environmental science

Group shot of people in front of buildings
Group shot of people in front of buildings

Ecologist Dr Cecilia Medupin explains how engaging women from diverse backgrounds is a catalyst to environmental change.

Women and children are often the most vulnerable to environmental challenges, so it’s important that women’s voices are heard when we try to approach these problems. I created Women in Environmental Science (WiES) as a form of knowledge exchange that creates a space for environmental discussion among women from diverse backgrounds – both culturally and professionally. It brings together women from academia, industry, charities, students and members of the public who are interested in the environment.

WiES is part of Engaging Environments, a NERC-funded project that explores new approaches for researchers to engage the public with environmental science. Very often ‘professionals’– those we perceive to have knowledge – only speak to other professionals. But I have come to see that for research to be inclusive and impactful, public engagement is very important. I draw on storytelling to communicate the work I am doing to diverse people in a way that they can connect to.

Two WiES workshops in 2018 and 2019 at University of Manchester were attended by more than 130 participants. Presenters came from various academic disciplines, the local community, policy and research organisations, including representatives from Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, Earthwatch, Ignite Futures (Nottingham), Friends of the Earth, Manchester Community Choir, Community Perspectives, National Rail and environmental consulting firms.

The aim of the workshop was to promote inclusiveness, widen participation and foster discussion to help people understand the various aspects of environmental science, policy and application – while considering the role of women.

The talks and knowledge-exchange sessions addressed themes such as the empowerment of women, leadership, energy, climate change and education, health, and water, as well as the reflections of female leaders holding environmental roles in policy, academic research and industry.

The workshops and presentations were framed around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, enabling people to understand how the poor, vulnerable, and women are affected by environmental challenges, and how they can be empowered to sustainably use and protect available natural resources.

Importantly, the sessions were also about the women who attended – their backgrounds and personalities. These elements can’t be separated from a person’s work so, while I am talking about leadership and research impact, my plan is always to make them feel good about themselves, too. This enables the freedom for ideas to be discussed.

The feedback we have had shows that it works.

“The breakout sessions led to spirited discussions amongst a vibrant group of contributors, where everyone was comfortable expressing their view. Expertise comes in all shapes and forms, and solving big problems requires knowledge from all aspects of the issue, from those who understand the theory to those who live the consequences.”

Anonymous Participant

I have also been working with the British Ecological Society to co-ordinate workshops for A-level students from low-income areas. I see the students as seeds for the future of their communities. Drawing on Engaging Environment learning, I try to ‘flip’ their negative perceptions of where they come from, so that they can instead see it as a strength. One girl from London described her background with such negativity, but we talked about how this meant she understood the pain and challenges facing that area. She had been selected to go on this amazing course in the beautiful Yorkshire landscape, could go on to university and then return to her community to help make the changes it needs in the near future.

The environment belongs to us all, not just those with knowledge. It is so important that we bridge the gap between people who have had the opportunity to learn in Higher Education and those that have not. Academics are often detached from the knowledge a community can hold. Public engagement provides avenues for awareness creation, interaction and listening which benefits both listener and speaker. We need thinking that is open enough to include other people and to expand in ways that we can, together, protect our environment – that is what Engaging Environments is all about.