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


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

Zane: The term “science diplomat” is used among those professionals who are exploring the science-policy interface, as well as relations between science and diplomacy. Oftentimes a “science diplomat” is a term which helps to make a reference to professionals (e.g. scientists, scholars, and policy experts) from various backgrounds all following the discussions revolving around the science-policy interface and relations between science and diplomacy. This international debate was propelled by the report, “New frontiers in science diplomacy.” Science diplomat should not be confused with a traditional member of the diplomatic corps. 

Johana: A science diplomat could be described as a promoter for “the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address the common problems facing the humanity of the 21st century and to build constructive international partnerships” (Federoff, 2009)

Paola: While we historically tend to consider diplomacy, and by extension science diplomats, as operating on the international scale, I see myself as someone who conducts science diplomacy through a federal lens since I work for one of the largest science advocacy groups in the United States. The work I do ultimately has an impact on science and scientific cooperation internationally, especially when it comes to efforts in combating climate change.

Alicia: The scientific language is a global, rational, and neutral language, without an ideology. Based on that, science can be used as an international language of understanding, an umbrella under which unthinkable relationships and collaborations can happen. There are three main dimensions in science diplomacy, that usually overlap: 1) diplomacy for science, where diplomats facilitate the international cooperation to advance scientific goals. An example of that can be the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), located in Jordan and created under the auspices of UNESCO, where you can find Israeli and Palestinian scientists collaborating; 2) science for diplomacy, where science supports or helps secure strained relationships between countries and societies. Science cooperation agreements and joint commissions between the United States and the Soviet Union or China during the Cold War are examples of the role science and scientists can play in diplomacy; 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. The best example of this dimension is Antarctica. Whoever works in any of these dimensions, either from the scientific or the diplomatic perspective, can be a science diplomat. 

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

Alicia: As I mentioned earlier, I was pleased to see that the number of women/men alumni attending the workshop was fairly balanced, as it happened with the speakers. But at the same time, most of the presentations from the speakers were showing pictures of all men negotiations, men in suits shaking hands, and just some women in a big group of men. That got my attention because coming from a male-dominated environment, academia, I felt I was stepping into another male-dominated environment, science diplomacy. I started sharing my opinion and thoughts with my peers during coffee breaks and that’s how the whole idea of #SciDiplomettes started, although the name came later during our first meeting. That’s when I thought that we needed to take advantage of being together to use our collective voice to raise awareness about this issue. As the future of science diplomacy, I believe that our opinion matters because we are the ones that need to start changing the status quo, that need to start advocating for equal opportunities, and most importantly, that need to explain why to have gender balance and equality in leadership, in negotiations, in any decision making process that is good for all of us, for our future. Diversity, under any form, is the only way to address big challenges.

Zane: The overall drafting of the joint op-ed took roughly six months. The reason why I felt that it would be worth publishing this work was based on the strong interest witnessed among the participants of the Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop 2018 to share their experiences on the place of women working on the interface of science and policy and/or diplomacy. On the evening of our first discussions, I called our informal grouping a self-help group. Insecurities and actual or perceived barriers should be articulated in a more elaborate manner. I think the op-ed gave a good insight into which factors are currently seen as challenges among many talented women keen on accelerating their careers in science diplomacy. Since I come from Latvia – a country which has an exceptionally high level of women in leadership and senior management positions, as well as for the last three years I was fortunate to live in Sweden – a country which instills a feminist mindset, the drafting of the op-ed was a valuable learning process,  which helped to better understand various issues affecting careers of promising and highly motivated women in various parts of the world.

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

Zane: In brief, historically, diplomatic circles have been male-dominated. Historical development of STEM is not my field of expertise. Science diplomacy is not started with a clean slate. It inherits the path dependencies from those fields which this new joint environment aims at bringing together for a more nuanced and complex discussion and coordinated steps. The advantage of science diplomacy as a nascent field is to take a fresh look at these issues and reflect on effective approaches to addressing them. As I noted in my response to one of the earlier questions, the Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop 2018 was a good example of such efforts.

Johana: The underrepresentation in the fields of science and diplomacy can be described as a loss of talent and also as a waste of opportunities to make better decisions. These decisions can be enriched from different perspectives and experiences, including the gender parity component. Beyond this, it is important to highlight that gender equality is a basic human right. Equal representation in these fields would encourage the improvement of the living conditions (in the social and economic domains) of millions of women and girls around the globe. This scenario would also represent benefits for society in general.

Alicia: I agree completely with everything that Zane and Johana just said. And I would add that there are innumerable reasons why the underrepresentation of women in STEM, diplomacy, and science diplomacy still persists. I experienced two of the—from my perspective—main ones: sexual harassment in an academic environment and the maternity penalty. Sexual harassment for women in STEM is a big toll. According to the, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018), sexual harassment is common in academic science, engineering, and medicine and greater than 50 percent of women faculty and staff and 20–50 percent of women students encounter or experience sexual harassment in academia. Sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health, making them more prone to suffer anxiety and depression, and to quit their studies or jobs. About the maternity or “baby” penalty, more than 40 percent of women with full-time jobs in science leave the sector or go part-time after having their first child, according to a study of how parenthood affects career trajectories in the United States. By contrast, only 23 percent of new fathers leave or cut their working hours. To retain more women in those fields, we need to have better policies to address sexual harassment and include maternity/paternity leave. To have more women sitting at the decision making tables we need to go the extra mile and break the glass ceiling for them.

Q. Are there any gender barriers specific to science diplomacy?

Zane:  Historically, diplomatic circles have been male dominated. Historical development of STEM is not my field of expertise. Science diplomacy does not start off with a clean slate. It inherits the path dependencies from those fields, which this new multifaceted environment aims at bringing together for a more nuanced and complex discussion and joint steps.

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. In our joint op-ed, you can find examples of these barriers.  One of these challenges would be one that female diplomats have in terms of personal and family costs. With the constant change of destinations, men don’t feel comfortable with seeing themselves as dependents and children can have 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. 

Alicia: A lot of the barriers associated with science diplomacy are associated with women in leadership positions and politics. To take as an example the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), on average, party delegations at COP24 are split 63 percent male and 37 percent female, which is almost identical to the 62 percent-38 percent split at COP23 in Bonn. Why is that? Mainly because governments select their delegations to participate in these international conventions, such as the UNFCCC, and most people making decisions in governments are men. As the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation notes, “Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women.”

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

Zane: There are many impressive women in senior positions who have articulated in very clear terms these challenges and how they have countered these issues. Such testimonies are the best examples of the progress achieved in tearing down the remaining barriers. As one of the most recent examples, I should point out the collection of insightful articles titled, “Female Diplomacy: Women in Foreign Policy,” edited by Elisabeth Motschmann. 

Johana: Evidence on the barriers are an important focus of our joint op-ed. At a personal level, I transmit that as a young, Latin woman in science and diplomacy, I sometimes face reluctance from some actors. 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 in a more adequate way when barriers are presented along the way.

Alicia: Those denying the existence of such barriers are denying the data, which clearly evidences that women are still underrepresented in STEM, diplomacy, and science diplomacy. My personal strategy to dealing with push back is to always try to find something in common with the person denying the facts and try to build a conversation from the things that we have in common, instead of our differences. From there I am able to introduce my knowledge about the topic, and talk about my own experiences with discrimination. Sometimes I make them see things my way, sometimes we agree on disagreeing.

Q. What initiatives would best combat gender underrepresentation in science diplomacy?

Zane: I would defer from suggesting any quick fix and one-size-fits-all solutions. I believe that an active engagement of the alumnae of the Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop 2018 in various gatherings aimed at inspiring undergrads or recent graduates to pursue careers in domains related to science diplomacy is one good step forward. 

Johana: I would say that an important part of it is being aware of the complex conditions that a woman face in both science and diplomacy. Awareness leads to a better understanding and therefore better actions can be taken. It is necessary (as Zane implies) that awareness and engagement comes from all the sectors involved, this includes both female and male collaborations for combating this underrepresentation in search of progress and wellbeing for our societies.

Alicia: I would add, to what Zane and Johana just said, that real change has to come both from bottom-up and top-down initiatives, so policies to combat gender underrepresentation in science diplomacy are also needed, on top of awareness and all-sectors engagement.

Paola: Practically speaking, knowledge is empowerment. Having platforms such as Impakter and Charged Affairs promote our ideas by introducing the concept of science diplomacy while  highlighting the need for gender parity in this emerging field is important. 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.

Q. How would science diplomacy benefit from gender parity?

Zane: As it is outlined in the joint op-ed, diversity of expertise in various consultative and decision-making bodies should be treated as an asset. It makes specific issues less prone to the prevailing biases. 

Johana: Science diplomacy could benefit from talent in diversity, also better decisions could be taken, which can be enriched from different perspectives, realities, and experiences. This scenario would also represent holistic benefits for society in general.

Alicia: As I mentioned earlier in question number three, diversity helps us find more creative ways to addressing big and global challenges, and to find them quicker. If we take as an example one of the bigger global challenges that we face nowadays, in which science diplomacy has a key role, the climate crisis, it is demonstrated that more feminist societies do a better job taking care of the environment, and those countries whose parliaments are more gender balanced pass more environmental protective laws than those that are male dominated.

Q. 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?

Zane: At the moment there is no specific network. The like-minded alumnae of the Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop 2018 form an informal network. No substantial and detailed discussions have taken place on the future forms of joint activities or expansion of the network. However, during the upcoming months, further exploration of new collaborations might be a subject of  discussion.

Alicia: I also agree with Zane, and would add that if someone is interested in knowing more, or would like to collaborate, just contact us through Twitter or send us an email and we can discuss the best way to do it.

Johana: I agree with Zane and Alicia. Please get in touch with us if you are interested in collaborating, or if you want to have more information about science diplomacy in general.

Q. Are there any key resources on science diplomacy and the need for gender parity? If so, where can we find them?

Zane: Not that I’m aware of. Perhaps the joint op-ed is a good point to start discussing this item in greater detail.

Johana: I am not aware of any initiative either. 

Alicia: Beyond our article, and more related to climate diplomacy, I recently co-founded the organization “Ellas Lideran” (“They lead,” in Spanish) to advocate for women in STEM in leadership positions related to climate change decisions; and I am also part of “Homeward Bound,” the organization that we mentioned in our article that aims to create a network of 1,000 women in STEM to influence or become decision makers for a more sustainable planet. More related to diplomacy than  science diplomacy, I follow the work of a couple of groups such as the “Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy,” a research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting a feminist foreign policy across the globe, and “Women at the Table,” which works to increase the number of women at the decision-making table of governments, economy, technology, and sustainability.

Disclaimer: All contributors of this Q&A are offering their responses in their personal capacities and expressing their individual perspectives.


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