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A Reflection on Gender and Diversity in Sustainability Science and Academia

Henner Busch and Finlay MacGregor, LUCSUS, with Lena Christensen, from the University's specialised centres taking part in the panel discussion at International Women's Day.

Finlay MacGregor, LUCID PhD candidate at LUCSUS was one of the participants at our first International Women’s Day event. Finlay reflects on why it is important to highlight gender and diversity in sustainability science – and discuss how to achieve equality in academia.

Gender and Diversity in Sustainability Science

To me, a discussion about gender and diversity in sustainability science is ultimately a discussion about what type of society you as a researcher want to help create. I have a background in development studies where we talk about sustainable development, which sees sustainability in a broad sense encompassing social, environmental, and economic aspects. Social aspects involving people, diversity, gender, human rights, and just societies and institutions keep the focus on what kind of societies we’re trying to sustain. Sustainability science has a tendency to focus on environmental sustainability.

Say in our master’s programme, LUMES there is a lot of discussion of inequalities on a larger scale – for example recognizing that climate change will have a greater impact in cities with less resources to mitigate and adapt to change. It’s important to go beyond this to also consider which groups of people within those cities will be most impacted.

There has been a tendency in science to talk to men and then represent men’s opinions as the voice of the local community. It’s important to recognize communities are not homogenous, that different groups may have different opinions based on their own interests or uses of natural resources. Recognizing those differences particularly for groups with less access to power, decision-making or resources will enable the development of better policies and sustainable solutions. Doing that requires understanding how the lives of this group will be affected.

Going forward, I strongly feel that both researchers and policy makers need to listen to different groups, be it women from various backgrounds, indigenous people or other marginalised groups. Taking a stance on this, and actively working for change, is about you helping to create a fair and just society – where everyone has a place and a voice.

One small step in this direction here would be to ensure that gender and diversity are integrated into all of the courses taught in the LUMES master. This would mean recognizing that gender and diversity are integral to discussions of sustainability solutions.

Equality in Academia and Teaching

I don’t feel qualified to say why inequalities in academia continue to exist, but they do exist and the inequalities are greater in higher levels of academia.

One major factor related to gender inequality in academia that I’ve noticed coming from North America is societal support systems for having children. I have heard senior American and Canadian academics talk about female PhD students having children as choosing to destroy their own careers. I have never heard this applied to male PhD students. Social support systems can change this discussion, I have not heard this sentiment from older Swedish academics and I think it’s because there is generally more support for child care and parental leave is strongly established exists for all sexes in Sweden.

Hiring is very important related to equality in academia and beyond – employers at all levels need to pay attention to how they recruit. Those hiring need to be aware of their own unconscious bias, for example people often pick people who are like them – which means that women, people from different ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation might get sidelined. As an employer you need to work with this systematically – to have check and procedures in place.  It is also crucial that the principal, deans and directors take a strong leadership on these issues – they need to both teach awareness and lead by example.

Changes don’t only need to come at societal and institutional levels; individuals can also change their own behavior.

In the panel I talked about microaggressions, which are everyday insults toward a group that may be unintentional and you may not be aware you’re doing it. This is about building self-awareness of your own actions and biases. For example, noticing whether you cut people off and when you do, who do you cut off? By reading about microaggressions and reflecting on your own actions you can build awareness within yourself for when you treat people differently, for instance based on their gender or ethnic background, and when you’re aware of a problem then you can work to change it.

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