International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated on February 11th. The date was announced by the United Nations (UN) in order to highlight the main achievements of women in that area, in addition to encouraging younger generations to pursue a scientific career. As in many other professional fields, the path of science is often more difficult for women. Around the world, they still face challenges that go beyond laboratories, such as the lack of recognition and the overload of domestic services and family care.
The obstacles are even greater for scientists working in the Amazon, a vast and little-known region, where the climate and the environment are adverse, not to mention the lack of structure and resources for research. However, despite so many barriers, women have made history by leading studies and collaborating in the development of science and knowledge, which are essential for the conservation of the standing forest.
Some of these examples can be seen in the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA), coordinated by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). The international initiative is made up of hundreds of researchers, many of them women, responsible for compiling all the scientific knowledge already produced in the Amazon rainforest and proposing ways to avoid its destruction. This work will result in the first scientific report carried out for the entire Amazon Basin and its biomes, scheduled for the second half of this year.
With research focused on the areas of resource management and forest recovery, the Bolivian biologist, Marielos Peña Claros, is one of the female scientists who is a member of the SPA Science Steering Committee. For her, being part of the panel is an opportunity to collaborate for the sustainable development of the Amazon and guarantee female representation in the initiative. “The role of women in science is important. Women bring a different view than men, different questions, in addition to the ease of forming and working in a team, seeking to include people of all types,” the researcher highlights. “The Science Panel for the Amazon has been very careful to have female representation both in the working groups and in the Steering Committee,” she adds.
A professor in the Department of Ecology and Forest Management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Marielos researches tropical forests management, with an emphasis on ecological research to define best practices. Her work also covers the study of forest recovery after human impacts, such as logging, and silvicultural treatments that accelerate this process. Her motivation to become a scientist came from the desire to work in laboratories, using equipment such as the microscope. The dream came true, but it came with many challenges that women in the field face. One of them, according to her, is being a minority in most of the spaces she occupied, in addition to needing to prove her skills in an almost always unequal career field. “Women have to prove that she can, much more than a male colleague of the same age. You always have to do more, prove more,” she says.
Marielos’ lived experiences have been changing in recent years, but there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in science. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. For the Bolivian scientist, some initiatives can – and are already – contributing to stimulate female participation. As an example, she cites awards for female scientists, for young researchers from developing countries. She also highlights the importance of including science in the media, giving visibility to the research of female scientists in schools and universities, and including women in assessment spaces, such as jurors in master’s and doctoral theses.
In Brazil, women correspond to approximately 40% of the researchers who declared having a doctorate in the Lattes Platform, according to a survey carried out by Open Box of Science. This apparent gender equity masks the still uneven reality when considering the different areas of knowledge: in the exact and earth sciences, women are 31% of the researchers, and in engineering, they are only 26% of the total. For Brazilian scientist Luciana Vanni Gatti, researcher at the National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE), sexism in science mainly impacts career advancement and holding leadership positions.
“It is very difficult for women to stand out,” says the scientist. “When you see the number of men and women in prominent positions, in decision-making positions in science, you clearly see how much machismo exists in the field in Brazil,” she points out.
The researcher believes that one of the ways to promote gender equality and female participation in science is the creation of policies that guarantee representation in the management positions of universities, research institutes, development agencies, among other spaces. She is already working for the implementation of this proposal at INPE. “I started with my department and colleagues liked it, and now we are implementing it. We are a group of women who are preparing a letter for INPE to adopt and the idea is to send this letter to FAPESP (São Paulo State Research Support Foundation) as well. I think we have to bring about this change,” she highlights.
Luciana is a member of the Science Panel for the Amazon as the lead author of the Biosphere-Atmosphere Interactions Working Group. With an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Science, she works in research in the area of climate change, focused on understanding the role of the Amazon in the emission/absorption of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) and the effect of climate variables on these balances.
She has been working in the region since 1998 and talks about the challenges of studying the largest tropical forest in the world. “The first difficulty in doing science in the Amazon is that the Amazon is gigantic. Access is very difficult. Everything is remote, it is difficult to get there,” she explains. In addition to the vastness and diversity of the region, there is still a low appreciation of science in Brazil, a situation that has been worsening in recent years, says Luciana. “There is a clear fight against science, a clear devaluation of science. And no country evolves without science. Nowadays, everything we have depends on the scientific knowledge that is generated. To ignore science is to condemn the country to backwardness. And this is even more complicated in relation to the Amazon, because the region is facing ostensible destruction,” she warns.
A female voice in the Colombian Amazon
Considered one of the greatest authorities in studies on fires and landscape ecology in the Colombian Amazon, geographer Dolors Armenteras also had to fight the obstacles of being a researcher in a country where science lacks resources, in addition to facing gender bias to be heard by colleagues and the scientific community. She is a Catalan born in a small town near Barcelona, but has lived in Colombia since 1998, and is a pioneer in monitoring biodiversity using satellite data in the country. She is currently a professor at the National University of Colombia, where she founded the Research Group on Landscape Ecology and Ecosystem Modeling (Ecolmod).
Dolors has always had a passion for forests, landscapes and outdoor sports, such as mountaineering. She wanted to understand the tropical forests and apply her analytical skills to conserve nature. In academia, she found a space where she could ask questions and seek answers. As a scientist, she now has a voice that could not be silenced. Today, the researcher is part of the Science Panel for the Amazon, leading the “Drivers of deforestation, Forest Degradation, Fires and their Impacts” working group. The Panel further expanded the scope of her discourse in defense of the forest. “The opportunity to have a voice for the development of the Amazon is very important,” she highlights.
At the SPA, the researcher is also contributing to highlight the interregional differences in the Amazon. “People think that the Amazon is Brazil. This is a big challenge. The Amazon is composed of eight other countries. There are political, social, economic differences,” she points out. “We have to recognize these differences, as well as recognize the similarities. And contribute to finding solutions,” she adds.
For Dolors, the most challenging thing about being a woman in science is always being questioned and having to deal with the famous mansplaining, a term used to describe episodes in which men explain obvious things to women, often in a patronizing tone, as if they were intellectually incapable of understanding. For these situations to become less and less common, the scientist believes that changes in basic education are required, deconstructing gender stereotypes that affect the professional choices of girls and boys, even in childhood.
Other structural barriers also need to be broken. The researcher cites initiatives to facilitate the daily lives of mothers who are also students, who often face triple the amount of working hours, alternating between academic activities, child care and the job market. She also highlights the importance of creating open calls for funding specific research projects for women, to ensure greater balance in the number of articles published by men and women. “Women comprise half of the population and our role should be the same as men. Representation should be the same. This has to happen over time. Young scientists are increasingly breaking through these barriers,” she comments, highlighting that less discourse and more action and practice are needed. “We will achieve gender equality when a female scientist does not make the news simply because she is a woman,” she concluded.
Scientist of the Amazon
Geographer and leader of the SPA’s “Conservation and Sustainable Development Policies for the Amazon” working group, Ane Alencar, says that women have a broader and more skilled vision of some complex science questions. She advocates for more hiring of women in science, reinforcing the importance of the female outlook.
“For girls who want to enter a scientific career, I suggest that they study more and more, follow their dreams, and do not limit their dreams. Any woman can have a self-discovery of becoming a scientist and can be a Nobel Prize winner in the field; don’t be afraid to learn or ask, because a good scientist asks questions” she said.
Ane Alencar received a master’s degree at Boston University (US) and a doctorate at the University of Florida, also in the US, and is currently director of Science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), in addition to leading the Annual Land Coverage and Land Use Mapping Project in Brazil (MapBiomas), a multi-institutional initiative involving universities, NGOs and technology companies that together contribute to the understanding of the transformations of the territory based on the annual mapping of land coverage and land use. She is one of the few Brazilian specialists in studies with fire. She began to study the science of fire due to deforestation and climate change, especially in the Amazon. She has also participated in several studies that created Conservation Units in the Amazon.
“I am happy to be able to contribute through science, along with my colleagues, in the region I was born in, the Amazon, and what motivates me the most in my area is the fact of preserving this ecological, cultural and immaterial heritage. I believe it is a very special purpose in my life. I studied something I like, answering questions that I find interesting, doing science and helping to improve or propose alternatives for the better use of natural resources,” says Alencar.
About SDSN Amazônia
SDSN Amazonia is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and hosted by the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS). The regional network integrates the countries of the Amazon basin, mobilizing universities, non-governmental organizations, research centers, governmental and private institutions, multilateral organizations and civil society to promote the practical resolution of sustainable development challenges in the region. More information about the initiative is available on the website: