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Sustainability Part 1: A way to increase sustainable development

This article is part 1 of an EcoPress series focused on the theme of science and sustainability research at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and Department of Ecosystem Science & Sustainability.

Women_STEM (8)

Infographic and article by Kate Wilkins

It was my naïve hope that the United States would act as a beacon for promoting women’s empowerment; however, the U.S. ranks 60th out of 133 countries in terms of the gender gap for women versus men gaining political empowerment.  Our current government clearly reflects this ranking, as women hold only 18.3% of the 535 seats in congress, while comprising 50.8% of the United States population.

A recent study by the University of Denver’s Women’s College also found that women in the United States across 14 different sectors [1] hold only 20% of the leadership positions [2]. The sciences fare no better; women only hold 24% of jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) [3]. Increasing women’s leadership in STEM jobs that include the business and political sectors would generally benefit society, since women’s empowerment [4] supports both economic and sustainable development.

Some argue, and it seems logical, that women’s empowerment would invite a new sector of society to participate economic development through spending and the labor force, thus increasing overall inputs to national economies (Forbes, The Economist, World Bank). However, this has stirred debate among researchers as to the true economic impacts of empowering women by increasing their access to decision-making positions, finances, and the labor force (Doepke & Tertilt 2011; Duflo 2012).

On the other hand, there is more of a consensus when it comes to women’s empowerment and sustainable development. Women leaders tend to be more sustainability minded than their male counterparts by choosing to invest in renewable resources, as well as having a more holistic view of what progress means (not just increasing revenue)  for their nation, state, city, town, business or organization (CRB Report, Sustainable Development Insights).

To increase women’s leadership in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and get women more involved with science related to sustainability, we need to first understand the unique challenges and contributions women leaders bring to discussions on sustainable development. This is where the ongoing research by the Global Women Scholars Network (GWSN) comes into play.

The GWSN is a National Science Foundation funded program that focuses on building global networks of women scholars to increase the persistence of underrepresented women in sciences associated with sustainability.  To achieve this goal, GWSN currently has a team of researchers [5] from Northwestern University’s Sonic Lab and Colorado State University’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability that are conducting surveys to better understand how women build and maintain their professional networks. The team also ask people’s opinions on the unique perspectives that women leaders bring to conversations about sustainable development and what types of challenges they think women leaders face as advocates for change in this area. The research team has attended various sustainability-based conferences and meetings around the world (including, Qatar and Brazil) to answer these questions, and has just now begun to analyze the data.

The Global Women Scholars Network will use the data to help inform future research and mentoring opportunities for women and men working at the intersection of gender issues in sustainability. Overall, the goal involves increasing women’s leadership in STEM positions to provide them with the resources necessary to create a more sustainable future for both men and women.

Women need to be included in more leadership positions. However, this article does not intend to exclude men from this or future discussions on sustainability. I would like to generate discussions on increasing and supporting women’s representation in leadership positions, which could provide the path to a more sustainable future. Societies should focus on increasing women’s involvement in leadership and decision-making positions, since climate change will have more adverse effects on women around the world (UN Commission on the Status of Women).  Women are still underrepresented in high profile decision-making positions (Women Heads of State, Gender Composition UNFCCC), a fact that needs to change to make our world a more equitable and sustainable place.


[1] The 14 sectors included Academia, Arts and Entertainment, Business and Commercial Banking, Entrepreneurship, Journalism and Media, Law, Medicine, Military, Nonprofit and Philanthropy, K-12 Education, Politics and Government, Religion, Sports and Technology.

[2] The study defined leadership positions as executive leadership, boards of directors and trustees, and awardees of industry specific distinctions.

[3] From the U.S. Department of Commerce report (2011): “The Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) defines STEM jobs to include professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science and mathematics, engineering, and life and physical sciences. Three management occupations (computer information systems, natural science, engineering) are also included because of their clear ties to STEM. Education jobs are not included because of the nature of the available data. In addition, social scientists are not included.”

[4] From Duflo (2012): “…women’s empowerment (is) defined as improving the ability of women to access the constituents of development—in particular health, education, earning opportunities, rights, and political participation.”

[5] Research team:

  • Noshir Contractor, Ph.D., Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences, Departments of  Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences Communication Studies, and Management and  Organizations, Northwestern University
  • Gillian Bowser, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Dept. of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory
  • Ulrike Gretzel, Ph.D., Associate Professor for Marketing at the Institute for Innovation in Business & Social Research, University of Wollongong and Director of the Laboratory for Intelligent Systems in Tourism
  • Lindsay Young, Ph.D. candidate, Media, Technology and Society, Northwestern University
  • Sneha Narayan, Ph.D. student, Technology and Social Behavior, Northwestern University
  • Kate Wilkins, Ph.D. student, Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, Colorado State University
  • Kelly Jiang, PhD candidate, Parks, Recreation and Tourism Sciences, Texas A&M University

Kate Wilkins is an ecology PhD student in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University, advising with Dr. Gillian Bowser.