Illustration: Hanna Lee Joshi/ The Lily

The battle for gender equality in the IPCC

The scientific panel has been struggling to ensure fair representation despite its best intentions

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been in the news over the past few months as they released the second and third working group reports of their Sixth Assessment Cycle (AR6) of climate change. The contents of the AR6 will be critical as guidance to collaborative climate action and the climate change negotiations. Over the past few assessment iterations, authors have sought to increase gender-specific information and implications in its reports in response to calls for fair representation. Despite this, behind the scenes, the scientific panel has itself been beset with problems guaranteeing fair and equitable representations in its structural and organizational processes.

To deal with concerns head-on, the IPCC established the Task Group on gender bias in 2018 consisting of report authors, staff members and government representatives to compile a report and make recommendations. The resultant report was made public recently under the title Survey of gender bias in the IPCC. The report highlights the ongoing biases and barriers, subsequent action taken and recommendations to improve the overall existing situation. 

IPCC bureau member Carolina Vera while leading a group discussion of the Special Report on Climate Change and Land in August last year had stated, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change needs to do more to include the expertise and voices of women, even as numbers and policies improve.”

Compounding Barriers in Climate Sciences

The survey report begins by asserting that fair representation and broad expertise as essential when considering global, urgent and cross-cutting issues such as climate change. It also suggests that, overall, women are more likely than men to be affected by climate change. Events such as drought and storms undermine people’s ability to provide food, water and child care, and those roles tend to be taken on by women in many societies. Women are more likely to lack access to land, insurance and disaster relief. And as caregivers, farmers and leaders of communities and organizations, they also have crucial roles in responding to climate change.”

At the same time, the report notes that women are often not included during deliberations and decision-making processes particularly in societies contending with low levels of development. The lack of women’s voices is especially pronounced during the formulation of rescue and rehabilitation plans and long-term strategies to combat the climate change.

Heading forth in the line of course correction in the realm of gender bias, IPCC has now constituted another task force responsible for conducting trainings and spreading awareness for gender equality. Despite global climate leadership featuring women at several prominent positions, this representation does not permeate across the arena for climate action. According to IPCC’s gender bias survey, women now constitute about 30% of researchers worldwide, but representation dwindles as one moves up the hierarchy of the scientific body.

The survey report sheds light on the fact that IPCC work boosts scientific careers. Nomination and appointment as a lead author or review editor, or election as a bureau member, brings international recognition, academic repute and the potential to influence policy. But in  climate sciences, as in other disciplines, women face compounding barriers — from unequal access to training and funding to fewer promotions and citations, lower wages, scarce role models, more harassment and a greater share of family responsibilities compared with men.

Diana Liverman, co-author and professor at the University of Arizona told Carbon Copy, “Women scientists face many barriers in their careers that make it harder to rise to the highest professional levels.  Analysis has shown women are less likely to be cited than men with similar publication records, that their careers can be slowed by unequal family responsibilities, and that there are biases in hiring and promotion etc.”

 “With the pressure of IPCC report preparation the loudest, most fluent voices can prevail and these are often men from the developed countries.  Sensitivity training, introduced recently by IPCC, can make people aware of whose voices are being heard and cultural and fluency barriers to speaking up and so leaders can encourage the full range of contributions,” she added.

This study also points out that women in the Earth sciences are less likely than men to be nominated for awards or to be offered senior leadership positions. They are disproportionately disadvantaged by metrics used to evaluate research. For example, in a Reuters 2021 ranking of the world’s 1,000 leading climate scientists, which was based on scientometrics, only 2 women made it into the top 50 and just 12% of the total list were women.

“As more women have completed PhDs in climate science and filled research positions, the IPCC has a larger pool of accomplished women from which to select. However some countries overlook women when they nominate scientists, preferring to put forward, mostly male, senior scientists. But the share of women authors in IPCC has increased over time, and IPCC is aware of the need for gender balance,” Liverman explained. 

In its endeavor to strengthen the representation of women, the IPCC adopted a gender policy and implementation plan in 2020. The plan sets out three priorities for the panel: equal opportunities for participation and leadership; a gender-inclusive environment; and raising awareness through training and guidance.

Professor Bronwyn Hayward, co-author of the survey report told Carbon Copy, “Ironically the IPCC is one of the most inclusive science bodies I have worked with, there are not many institutions that would survey its members and then publish the areas where it need more work in the form articles in the prominent  research journals.”

Some lead-author meetings for AR6 have included training on gender and cultural sensitivity. The IPCC website includes a page highlighting gender issues. The organization spotlights female authors and those from developing nations in its media feeds and events.

COVID 19 Accentuated Gender Prejudices

They also mentioned that such measures have been even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, because participation in IPCC work can be hindered by unequal technological access, travel restrictions and commitments to family or home institutions. The pandemic emerged in the middle of the sixth assessment cycle. Meetings moved online and the timeline was delayed. Interestingly, the survey found that lower participation among women than men in IPCC meetings during the COVID restrictions was primarily due to the challenge of managing domestic tasks with professional ones, rather than other issues such as difficulties with Internet connections or discomfort with time zones.

If the IPCC continues with virtual meetings, the authors are of the opinion that it will need to address these challenges which also include efforts to compress meeting times could have limited the opportunity for diverse voices to speak, including those who are less confident or are not as comfortable speaking in English.

Hayward said, “Going on-line has reduced travel dramatically but has brought its own new challenges, it is particularly challenging for women and non-binary researchers who have caregiving responsibilities for young children, teens and the elderly- working late at night and from home is tough in these situations. I have noticed it is increasingly acceptable for male colleagues to say they are not available for a meeting due to family responsibilities- which is a good thing but that is still not as accepted for women to say this” Hayward said. 

Survey Outcomes

The survey results contain some heartening takeaways and positive trends. For instance, women’s rising involvement reflects broader shifts in science. The IPCC’s procedural rules have gender as one criterion for selecting author teams, in addition to disciplinary and regional balance. According to the report, “More than three-quarters of both women and men who responded to our survey agreed that the gender balance has improved. Overall, 79% felt positive about the transparency of decision-making, and 89% were positive about the learning experience. At least three-quarters had excellent or good experiences in terms of being respected and listened to, and in making professional connections. The report though also admits, “women were 15% less likely than men to agree that everyone has equal opportunities to be nominated, speak, shape content or lead chapters. Members of our task group and several survey respondents commented that increased numbers do not always equate to greater influence if women are excluded or not given voice or power.”

“Though the women’s participation in IPCC has increased from 8% to 33% in 2021, the women scientists face problems in being nominated to IPCC as in any other organisation. First of all, there are fewer women than men in science. Second, they get fewer nominations by countries than men,” explained Anjal Prakash, a co-author of the AR6 and one of the authors of the survey report. He said, at IPCC, the progressing gender policies have been instituted so that countries are encouraged to send equal nominations but there is a long way to go. “IPCC process works on scientists nominated by countries and then they have to select women scientists amongst them. I am happy we have reached up to 33% and progressing.”

Researchers have reported about an ongoing imbalance in scientific and regional representation where IPCC authors tend to be drawn more from the natural than the social sciences, and from wealthy nations rather than developing ones. While the scientific panel cannot enforce mandates on governments regarding their nominations, it can certainly encourage participation of more women or set benchmarks with regards to the proportion of women in countries’ nominations, explains Prakash.

The report says, gender balance differs across the working groups. Women are best represented in Working Group II, which covers climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability and draws on the ecological and social sciences (see ‘IPCC gender breakdown’). They are less well represented in the groups that focus on the physical sciences (I) or mitigation (III). This variation might reflect gender inequalities in the disciplines involved.

Degrees of Discrimination in The  Science World

According to the survey, “More than one-third of respondents (both men and women) perceived that male scientists dominate discussions and writing. Women were less likely than men (64% versus 78%) to agree that all points of view were represented in discussions. Although most respondents said they had not themselves experienced or observed gender bias and discrimination, women were on average 15% more likely than men to have witnessed discrimination against others.”

“More women than men reported that they had observed someone else take credit for a woman’s idea (38% versus 24%), or had seen a woman being ignored (52% versus 30%) or patronized (41% versus 27%). Around one-third of women reported that someone had implied at least once that they were in the IPCC only because of their gender. Worryingly, some women had experienced (8%) or observed (11.5%) sexual harassment while working with the IPCC.”

“It is prevalent across most of science. Women are sometimes less likely to put their own name forward, are constrained in relocating families for positions, and may not be part of the networks of senior scientists who judge awards.  I think this is improving,” Liverman said.

Unequal Barriers

As per the report, most nominations to the IPCC are made through government agencies and other national focal points. These can reflect scientific hierarchies and biases in countries and organizations that favour men. Cultural patterns such as a greater reluctance by women to put themselves forward and obligations to family could also be factors. Opportunities to join the IPCC might not be widely publicized, narrowing the pool.

In the survey, the top six barriers that both men and women identified as most inhibiting their own ability to contribute were: lack of time (55%), childcare obligations (33%), not having confidence to challenge others (32%), problems with accessing computers or research materials (31%), inadequate financial support from their home country (31%) and limited writing skills (24%).

“Many IPCC authors contribute on top of their full-time jobs. Most bureau members and authors are not paid by the IPCC. They also generally have to fund their own travel, although travel support is provided for people from developing countries. Almost twice as many women (44%) as men (24%) reported childcare responsibilities as a barrier. Also, 40% of women saw their lack of confidence in challenging others as a barrier to inclusion, compared with 26% of men. Respondents saw these barriers as greater for others than themselves, especially lack of time (66%), writing skills (64%), access to computers and materials (44%) and English language proficiency (41%),” the survey found.

Prakash told Carbon Copy, “The way IPCC works is that for each round of the assessment cycle, the countries have to send the nomination. IPCC secretariat then pools in the nomination and based on the expertise and their interest, they choose the list of authors which is done by an expert panel. If the countries do not nominate women scientists, IPCC cannot do much to increase women’s participation in its assessment cycle. The second way is to get young women scientists to work as chapter scientists in one cycle and then they get nominated later as an author in the second cycle. While having more women is a long-term capacity issue in many developing countries, it is also true that women in science are an invisible force and are often under-represented. Establishing benchmarks or quota systems will help locating this existing pool of women”

The survey highlighted the importance of other dimensions of diversity that intersect with gender, and can be barriers, including ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, disability and age. Several respondents reported seeing themselves or colleagues be brushed aside owing to a lack of fluency in English, or to youth, race, gender or being from developing countries.

“The study also showed some of the barriers are as much about the shop-floor as it is the glass ceiling. While meeting processes matter, so do local conditions. The struggles women face as authors in their home countries include finding local mentors, and permanent jobs, getting conference leave and funding to help with child care costs or travel for meetings and being noticed and selected by local science gate keepers,” Hayward said. 

Survey authors suggested ways to improve gender balance. These included widening the pool of nominations through broader publicity, mentoring and nominating opportunities, and establishing targets for and monitoring of gender balance in nominations and in the IPCC. They suggested that training on gender issues and guidance on group facilitation would help ensure that the voices of women and those with limited fluency in English are included fairly. They proposed formal processes, such as neutral points of contact and regular surveys for monitoring and managing issues related to gender, bias or harassment. 

They also asked that IPCC processes be made more sensitive to family issues, including pregnancy, and child- and elder care. Health and travel risks that disproportionately affect women should be addressed by selecting conference locations and transport that pose a low risk to personal safety. Some respondents emphasized that opportunities for remote participation and access to research publications need to be expanded.

Next Course of Action

As the sixth assessment cycle concludes over the next few months, the IPCC will reflect on its processes and draw lessons. A new gender action team proposes to undertake another survey of experiences in this cycle, and to further develop a code of conduct and formal training on diversity. An expert meeting on diversity and inclusivity is planned for the seventh assessment cycle. “This survey will be planned after the sixth assessment cycle has finished so it is yet to be executed. At the moment, the two reports are due in the next couple of months. Once the authors are nominated for  seventh assessment cycle, there are plans for conducting formal training of the authors so that there are no further barriers for women once inducted in IPCC,” Prakash concluded.