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Q&A – “Science Diplomats Bring a Gender Perspective to Science Diplomacy”

Science Diplomats Johana L. Cabrera Medina, Dr. Alicia Pérez-Porro, Paola Salas, and Zane Šime are passionate about science diplomacy. They want you to know what it is, how it’s changing the world, and why greater gender representation in the field is key to further progress. As foreign policy professionals, our understanding of science diplomacy is crucial; science diplomats facilitate the international collaboration needed to promote global, scientific agendas that advance technology and ensure peace. 

Second CTBT Science Diplomacy Symposium. Image courtesy of CTBTO, ©2018

The below Q&A is edited for length and clarity. You can read their full, technical article here. To read an unabridged version of the Q&A, please click here.

  • You define yourselves as science diplomats. Can you explain what this means for those unfamiliar with the term?  

Alicia: There are three overlapping dimensions in science diplomacy: 1) diplomacy for science, where diplomats facilitate international cooperation to advance scientific goals (e.g. Israeli and Palestinian scientists collaborating on the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME)); 2) science for diplomacy, where science supports or helps secure strained relationships between countries and societies (e.g. science cooperation agreements and joint commissions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War); and 3) science in diplomacy, where science informs diplomacy, whether through scientific advice or information that can be used in the formulation of foreign policies or international agreements (e.g. Antarctica). 

  • What inspired you to write this article now? What do you hope to gain from publishing this work?

Zane:  Many were eager to discuss the place of women within science and diplomacy during  the Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop 2018. The op-ed gives good insight into the factors that currently challenge many talented women keen on accelerating their careers in science diplomacy.

Alicia: As the future of science diplomacy, I believe that our opinion matters because we need to start changing the status quo, advocating for equal opportunities, and most importantly, explaining why gender balance and equality in leadership is needed.

  • Despite a global commitment to gender equality and women empowerment, there is still underrepresentation of women in science diplomacy. What does this underrepresentation look like? Why has it occurred and why does it still persist?   

Alicia:  There are innumerable reasons why the underrepresentation of women in science diplomacy persists. I experienced two of the—from my perspective—main ones: sexual harassment in an academic environment and the maternity penalty. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in academic science, engineering, and medicine over 50 percent of female staff and 20–50 percent  of female students encounter sexual harassment. This undermines women’s professional and educational attainment as well as their mental and physical health, making them more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and more likely to quit their studies or jobs. As for the maternity penalty, more than 40 percent of women with full-time, science jobs leave the sector or go part-time after having their first child. By contrast, only 23 percent of new fathers leave or cut their working hours. To retain more women in these fields we need to have better policies that address sexual harassment and include maternity/paternity leave, which can be better achieved by having more women sitting at decision-making tables.

  • Are there any gender barriers specific to science diplomacy? 

Johana: The barriers for women in science diplomacy include double obstacles since male domination has been a constant in the domains of science and diplomacy respectively. For example, in the ambit of diplomacy, female diplomats encounter personal and family costs when male partners aren’t comfortable seeing themselves as dependents and their children suffer difficulties adapting to new cultures and languages. This may be an important reason that female diplomats take into consideration when deciding to go abroad or not. 

  • Related, what would you say to those denying the existence of such barriers? How do you deal with pushback? 

Alicia: Those denying the existence of such barriers are denying the data, which clearly shows that women are still underrepresented in science diplomacy.

Johana: Education, leadership, and female empowerment programs have been basic for building my personal and professional security. Being aware of conditions such as the Impostor Syndrome, enable me to think, feel, and act more adequately when barriers are presented along the way.

  • What initiatives would best combat gender underrepresentation in science diplomacy? 

Paola: Practically speaking, knowledge is empowerment. It is crucial that platforms such as Impakter and Charged Affairs promote our ideas by introducing the concept of science diplomacy. These platforms highlight the need for gender parity in this emerging field to audiences comprised of future practitioners. I believe we are taking the first step to combating gender underrepresentation. I hope this is the beginning of a conversation, particularly among YPFP members, that can blossom into a discussion group on both gender and science diplomacy. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers many opportunities for female scientists to enter the diplomacy and policy space. While this serves to our point made in the article about increasing visibility, we must recognize that AAAS, like many other institutions, shares a history of contributing to some of the very barriers to representation. However, they have recently held Career Workshops on, “The Gender Dimension of Science Advice,” and hosted scientific presentations on, “A Feminist Agenda for Science Communication: Necessary and Timely.”

  • How would science diplomacy benefit from gender parity?   

Zane: Diversity of expertise in various consultative and decision-making bodies should be treated as an asset. It makes specific issues less prone to prevailing biases. 

Alicia: Diversity helps find more creative ways to addressing global challenges. For example, those countries with gender balanced parliaments pass more environmental protective laws than those with male dominated ones.

  • For those interested in science diplomacy, how can they learn more about the “Women Science Diplomats” network? Is this group open to new members and/or collaborations?

All: Please contact us through Twitter or send us an email and we can discuss the best ways to collaborate.

Here are some key resources suggested by Alicia, Johana, Paola, and Zane for those who want to know more:

About the Science Diplomats…

Johana L. Cabrera Medina is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at the University of Santiago de Chile. Her research relates to evidence-based treatments and their potential uses and development through virtual reality. She also served as a Honduran diplomat for over nine years. In that time, she developed a focus of interest and action between the synergy of science and diplomacy. She currently promotes the professionalization of science diplomacy in Chile and looks to be a bridge between private and public institutions and science at a national and international level.
Twitter: @_johana_c

Dr. Alicia Pérez-Porro is a marine biologist connecting the ocean, gender equality, and science diplomacy for a sustainable future. She is the president of the Association of Spanish Scientists in USA, the president of the Network of Spanish Researchers Abroad (RAICEX), and a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution). In 2018, she was selected to participate in the largest all-women expedition to Antarctica and was awarded the Red Cross Spain Gold Medal for her efforts advocating for climate action and gender equality in STEM.
Twitter: @aliciaprzporro

Paola Salas Paredes is a dynamic young professional working at the intersection of science and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She has research experience in international development frameworks, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals and their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. She enjoys learning new languages, has lived in four countries, and is a member of the Washington, DC hub of YPFP. 
Twitter: @paola4science 

Zane Šime has obtained professional experience as a national civil servant in Latvia and international civil servant working for the Council of the Baltic Sea States. She explores the role of science diplomacy in a European transnational setting and as a component of the EU external relations. 
Twitter: @simezane 

Disclaimer: All contributors are offering responses in their personal capacities and expressing their individual perspectives.


Mercedes Yanora

Mercedes works for a higher education non-profit. She has a BA in History with a minor in International Relations from Saint Joseph’s University as well as an MA in South Asia Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Apart from editing for Charged Affairs, Mercedes enjoys researching and writing on South Asian society and foreign policy issues.
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