For centuries, women’s role in science was underplayed. X-rays, environmental movements and even the discovery of dark matter were all thanks to the work of female scientists, yet in most cases they received little recognition and were discriminated against by their male peers. These women fought to further scientific knowledge and break gender barriers. Today, their findings and achievements continue to inspire countless others to pursue careers in science.
According to United Nations data, less than 30 per cent of scientific researchers worldwide are women. That is why, to celebrate women’s achievements in science and encourage girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering, and math education, the United Nations has made 11 February as the International Day for Women and Girls in Science.
To celebrate this Day, we spoke to five women from across the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the female leaders that inspired them to pursue a path in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director, UN Environment Programme
Growing up in Tanzania, it was not common for a girl to study physics, chemistry and biology. However, I had a wonderful headmistress and mentor, Mama Kamm, who believed that girls should do science. She pushed me to pursue a degree in immunology and biochemistry. It became clear to me how male-dominated this field really was when I went to science competitions or events and found myself one of the very few women participating. It seemed daunting at the time, but it helped me build the resilience I would later need to work in other male-dominated environments. While I started my career as a researcher, I later branched out to public health and policy, and today, to environment, but it was my scientific foundation that made this possible.
Chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit
Growing up in the rural north of Zambia, I was raised by a grandmother, Lizzie Musonda Mumba, who loved nature. She took my twin sister and me around our region which is covered in wetlands and such amazing freshwater bodies. She wanted to teach us about the wetlands as sources of food for our community. She would also tell us the local names of the birds that visited the wetlands. I only discovered much later that we were part of a migratory bird pathway.
I was also inspired by one of my teachers, Sister Matandiko, who was a Catholic nun and scientist. She made it her mission to ensure girls we were not intimidated by science and that we participated in science fairs. I actually won a couple of awards from these fairs, which made me incredibly happy. By the time I was done with high school I was certain I wanted to do something in conservation or the environment. I ended up as one of the few women at the University of Zambia to be registered in the Conservation and Education Degree course.
Chief of Wildlife, Ecosystems Division
I knew I wanted to work on saving wildlife from an early age, and always had so many questions about how nature works. I met Sheila O’Connor in the mid 1990’s when she was working for the World Wildlife Fund. She hired me right out of graduate school to work on developing new approaches to conserving large land and seascapes. O’Connor is a Doctor of Philosophy in Applied Biology from the University of Cambridge. She has a sharp, inquiring mind and a way of questioning and framing the world that opened up my own mind. Her inquisitive, probing nature was infectious, and her spirit was one of openness and inclusivity. O’Connor showed me how to push for evidence-based approaches, but she had a way of thinking across sectors that opened up new solutions. She used science as a convener for generating new ideas and partnerships. Contrary to many other scientists I was working with who seemed to take a more “protective” approach to their own work, O’Connor showed me that through sharing our science, our ideas and our questions with others we actually improve them and have more influence. She pushed me to bridge the worlds of natural, social and economic sciences and to refine my abilities to communicate those ideas within a broader audience to find real-world, practical solutions. O’Connor inspired me to be a practical, real-world scientist who approaches nature’s greatest challenges with humility, empathy and a collaborative approach.
Programme officer, Regional office for Asia and the pacific
I have been captivated by the wonders of our planet for as long as I can remember. But it was in university that I truly came to love Earth science, thanks to one of my professors. At the International Pacific University, I took a course during my undergraduate degree taught by Christine Muckersie. She made me feel closer to nature and inspired me to understand it better. I remember one class particularly fondly, when she took us outside to explain cloud formation. It opened my eyes to the way the systems of our planet interact. I didn’t have her as a teacher after I left that class, but she no doubt inspired me to pursue my environmental degrees and subsequent profession. What she taught about interlinkages in nature still helps me today as we’re working to solve so many connected environmental problems. And a big part of what I do now, inspired by her, is to share my passion for the planet with as many students as I can.
Georgina Athamandia Avlonitis
Project Coordinator, Young Champions of the Earth
I grew up in a big Greek family in South Africa, co-raised by my mother and grandmother (Nonna). My earliest memories were of Nonna taking me by the hand and leading me through her rambling wild garden, touching and smelling the leaves and flowers. Always planting, always inspecting, always tending—nasturtiums, geraniums, arum lillies, strelizias, ghazanias—she taught me what each was. There is something so powerfully connective about putting a name to something—be it an emotion, a person or a plant. As an only child, inanimate plants suddenly became wonderful friends when I knew their faces and their names. My Nonna was probably the very first women to bring the natural world alive for me. The seed was planted and germinated with her.
Fellow, Global Environmental Outlook
Since my childhood, I have been inspired by nature. From the diversity in flora and fauna to the huge mountains and layers of sedimentary rocks, mineral crystals and the deserts hugging the blue coasts. This inspiration came from my grandparents who always acted sustainably and have always been ecofriendly by nature, in combination with their vast knowledge. Studying geology made me more connected with mother Earth. Moving from Kuwait to Bahrain to get my Master’s and PhD degrees gave me the opportunity to meet and work with the heroine of the environment Asma Abahussain, who taught me how to express my love and appreciation to the environment by broadening my knowledge horizon, and by her generosity in spreading scientific knowledge. Getting educated and holding a degree is not the end of the story. The plot continues when you use your education and what you have learned to serve humanity, the environment and our planet. Beside knowledge, Abahussain gave me the unlimited support that I needed and the inspiration that lightened my journey. I have learned that being a woman is not easy, especially in the field of science, particularly the field of marine environment. Nevertheless, it motivates me to be completely dedicated and passionate about what I do.
Making progress toward achieving gender parity
Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres has said that "Gender parity at the United Nations is an urgent need – and a personal priority. It is a moral duty and an operational necessity. The meaningful inclusion of women in decision-making increases effectiveness and productivity, brings new perspectives and solutions to the table, unlocks greater resources and strengthens efforts across all the three pillars of our work."
UNEP works promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in conservation and sustainable development. Women disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change and other environmental hazards, especially in developing countries.
If you’re interested in joining our team of environmentalists, scientists, researchers and more, take a look at this list of vacancies at UNEP. Please also help us spread with word by sharing these openings with women you know.