By Stephanie Gagnon, U.S. Country Manager for the Climate Scorecard Project
At the American Association of Geographers (AAG) annual meeting last April, I gave a presentation on how the U.S. could approach global climate negotiations using market-based solutions. My session also included two male presenters and one other female presenter, each of whom engaged with global climate issues and negotiations, and each presentation was followed by time for questions from the audience.
Although my presentation had focused less on the science of climate change and more on policy approaches to global environmental negotiations, I found myself confronted in the Q&A session by a member of the audience, who aggressively challenged me on the science of climate change and claimed that climate change was neither happening nor human-caused.
Once I had recovered from the shock of being aggressively challenged on the veracity of climate change science at a session specifically focused on climate change, I found it interesting that I was the only presenter this man had chosen to use to advance his climate change denial. Hadn’t he had the option to challenge the men who presented before me? Why use a presentation about policy rather than about science to make this point?
In speaking with other female presenters at the conference, I realized I wasn’t alone. Almost all of the other women I spoke to recounted similar experiences in which men publicly belittled their research and findings regarding climate change but didn’t challenge their male colleagues. This was particularly worse for women of color or who identified with other minority groups. Women across the field have reported gender-based harassment at steadily climbing rates.
The phenomenon of men ignoring or challenging women in the sciences is not by any means a new one. In 2015, the hashtag #distractinglysexy trended on Twitter in response to a male Nobel laureate’s comment about his female peers. Men have been using women’s genders to silence them on issues across the board for centuries. But in the area of climate change, a relatively new field of research and activism, the silencing of women takes on a different connotation. Rather than being isolated to a toxic-masculine gatekeeping of STEM fields, it feels more like an attempt to put women in their place, to remind us that once, not so long ago, we would never have been allowed into this space.
The demographic of this kind of harasser fits almost perfectly with the demographic of climate deniers in the U.S. Studies have shown that in general, white, politically conservative males from rural areas who are confident in their understanding of scientific concepts are the most likely demographic to reject mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. And this demographic is the same demographic that is running online harassment campaigns to silence female scientists.
In fact, I would argue that the same underlying factors are at play that both feed into climate denial and motivate the gendered harassment of women. Climate denial is built upon a solid rejection of the “mainstream,” which is seen as an elitist attempt by minorities to grab power from the majority. Climate deniers tend to see attempts to regulate carbon pollution as attempts to infringe on their freedom – this perpetuates the fear that, for example, the government will use climate change as an excuse to tell them which car to drive. This interpretation then feeds into the fear that women will use climate change as an excuse to force men into the domestic work often stereotypically reserved for women.
So how do we combat this insidious sexism that creates an unsafe environment for female climate change professionals?
Toxic masculinity is a major factor at play. Addressing this issue at its source by making men feel safe to express themselves in ways outside the traditional paradigm of masculinity could help men feel less personally threatened by female researchers’ success. Additionally, helping white men in rural areas who may feel left behind by the decline of American manufacturing could help them to feel more included in the climate change conversation. By changing messaging around climate change solutions so that it focuses on opportunities to create a better future rather than limits we should impose on our modern way of life, we can work to address fears that climate change policy necessarily means giving up the things we love. Additionally, working in programs for economic advancement, like training and job placement guarantees in the renewable energy sector, could help create opportunities in areas where current policy only accelerates plant closings.
It is not the responsibility of the scientists who are targets for harassment and silencing to address the issues that enable their harassers. Instead, it is our role as a society to work to create safer spaces for all people producing research and policy recommendations so that we can hear them and learn from them.
Stephanie Gagnon is the U.S. Country Manager for the Climate Scorecard Project. She is passionate about bridging the gap between research and action in both policy and technology to combat climate change. In particular, she focuses on climate change communication strategies to engage key actors around the issue of climate change mitigation.