As a specialized agency of the United Nations and on behalf of its 191 Members, WMO is committed to achieving the goals and targets laid out in global development frameworks, above all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On SDG number 5 "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls," WMO is mainstreaming gender issues in its governance, working structures, programmes and service delivery by attracting more women into scientific fields and improving their access to technology, information, science education and technical training. This commitment strengthens the position of women as scientists, technologists and users of weather, water and climate services and fosters increased participation of women in weather and climate policy and decision-making.
Women remain a minority in many areas of science, including meteorology, hydrology and climatology. Empowering women and girls is not just a matter of equity and justice. It is also essential to meeting the challenges of climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. Their talent, energy and skills must be fully unleashed to ensure rapid progress in science and operational services. This will enable men and women, together, to build weather and climate-resilient societies.
Ensuring that women have equal access to science education and technology is also an essential catalyst to ensure that the developers and users of weather, water and climate services provided by WMO and its Members remain gender sensitive while serving the global community – women, men, boys, girls.
There are many success stories of women working in science. This article profiles some of the present and future leaders in weather, water and climate science, and provides an intergenerational perspective on what it is like working in meteorology, hydrology and/or climatology. They discuss how they started their careers, their greatest achievements and offer advice for future female scientists.
Fiona Tummon, an atmospheric scientist, grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, a coastal city. Inspired by one of her mother’s friends, she decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in oceanography at the University of Cape Town. Studying a mix of biology, chemistry and physics, Fiona learned more about the big blue surrounding her hometown and gained a better understanding of how important the ocean was for Earth’s climate. This led to her completing a Masters degree in Atmospheric Science, followed by a PhD, jointly from the University of Cape Town and the Université Paul Sabatier - Toulouse III (France), focusing on the climatic impact of aerosols over southern Africa.
“I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, a city surrounded by the ocean. An encounter with one of my mother’s friends inspired me to pursue an undergraduate degree in oceanography. Studying a mix of biology, chemistry, and physics gave me the chance to learn more about the big blue surrounding my home town.”
In 2012, Fiona started her post-academic career as a Project Scientist for a World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) Core Project named Stratosphere-troposphere Processes and their Role in Climate (SPARC). Currently serving as the Director of SPARC’s International Project Office, Fiona focuses on both research and science coordination, however, she would like to concentrate more on the latter. As projects become more multidisciplinary and international, proper coordination is vital in ensuring effective facilitation of quality science. The SPARC framework offers guidance, assistance, opportunities and visibility. This allows scientists to come together to discuss and present their research to each other, to create partnerships and to define new key scientific topics.
In the future, Fiona sees weather and climate science growing further together to provide truly seamless predictions. She recognizes that challenges still remain in terms of our understanding and ability to predict various temporal and spatial scales, particularly at the cross-over from traditional weather to climate scales. However, she is confident that the new generation of young scientists are ready to face these challenges and continue pioneering these crucial areas of research in order to provide solutions that will benefit society and the long-term advancement of Earth system sciences.
Marisol Osman, a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, has always been fascinated by the weather. She grew up in a small town in Argentina where agriculture was the main economic activity. Her family was always concerned about when and how much it was going to rain, as a hailstorm could damage the crops or a strong cold spell could harm the grass for the cattle. After flourishing in her math classes during primary and secondary school, Marisol decided to study Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. The degree combined her love of math and physics and allowed her to channel interests from her youth. After successfully completing her degree, she continued her studies and recently received a PhD in Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences.
Marisol has been fortunate to have two great mentors in her life. The passionate climate scientist Carolina Vera is Marisol’s advisor and her main source of inspiration. Celeste Saulo’s skills at dialoguing and building bridges between people, disciplines and institutions also impresses Marisol, who would like to follow a similar career path.
“In my everyday life, I am inspired by those people that wake up every morning and go to work with a smile. I try to do the same as I feel touched for being able to do what I love.”
Regarding that career path, Marisol imagines herself working more closely with societal actors and building awareness of their needs and demands. Furthermore, she wishes to be more engaged in the activities of her University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences through guiding and advising students while they develop their careers. Marisol believes that these kinds of activities enrich oneself and provide tools that can be applied in many aspects of everyday life.
Marisol sees the future as both promising and challenging at the same time as climate change is a reality and is one of the major hazards to current and future generations. Marisol believes that scientific knowledge cannot remain isolated and there is a great need to strengthen connections with other specialists and societal actors. On the other hand, she also envisions a promising future for young researchers in climate science. As part of the Executive Committee of the Young Earth System Science community (YESS), a network for early career scientists, Marisol sees many enthusiastic young people with fresh ideas and energy who are ready to face the scientific challenges that relate to climate change.
Nilay Dogulu has always been fascinated by water and would often catch herself admiring the tranquillity before the rain or finding a harmony in the raindrops crashing down during a heavy storm. This fascination led Nilay to wonder about how the water moves on the Earth’s surface and why. After obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, she decided not to continue in that field. Instead, she followed her passion and pursued graduate studies in Hydrology and Hydroinformatics. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Water Resources Laboratory, Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey.
Nilay recognizes the great uncertainties that need to be overcome in climate, weather and hydrological sciences – all of which, in the end, should be reflected in the various services that these sciences provide to communities. Nilay acknowledges the challenges in communicating these uncertainties to communities, but also sees the opportunities for strengthening their resilience to climate, weather and hydrological extremes by increasing their meteorological and hydrological literacy. Nilay hopes to pave the way in her field for the active participation of society in climate, weather and hydrological risk management activities.
‘Jacob Bronowski says, “knowledge is an unending adventure at the end of uncertainty.’’ I am keen to continue living this adventure as much as possible to be able to understand nature along with its uncertainties.’
Nilay is grateful to the many great professors from around the world who supervised her during her academic career. As part of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s Programme in Flood Risk Management, which she attended on a full scholarship, Nilay had the opportunity to learn a wealth of information on various aspects of floods in four different European universities: Technische Universitat Dresden (Germany); IHE Delft Institute for Water Education (Netherlands); Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (Spain); and Univerza v Ljubljana (Slovenia).
Nilay believes that advancements in the hydrological sciences will depend – apart from high performance computing and advanced models with greater precision – on increasing the number of motivated and passionate researchers who can persistently tackle today’s scientific problems with devotion. In this respect, she believes in sustaining strong and motivated research groups in hydrology, especially in Turkey. Nilay is the current European Geosciences Union (EGU) Early Career Scientist Representative for Hydrological Sciences. She is also the Chair of the Young Hydrologic Society, a network aspiring to enable the active participation and integration of early career researchers in the global hydrological community.
From a very young age, Carolina Vera has been fascinated by the weather. Inspired by her mother who taught her to admire natural phenomena, such as clouds and heavy storms, she decided to pursue a career in applied physics. Ultimately, she chose to study meteorology, which allowed her to combine her interests in weather and climate as well as in math and physics.
When Carolina started her PhD at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), she quickly became aware that being a woman working in science had both advantages and disadvantages. She realized that some male senior scientists and professors treated her differently from her fellow male students. For example, one of the professors did not feel comfortable discussing science topics with her during meetings and even went as far as to tell her: “I don’t want you to contradict me in public.” With her strong personality and the support of her advisor and mentor, Eugenia Kalnay, Carolina was able to overcome these issues and find her own way as a scientist.
Despite its challenges, being a woman from a developing country gave Carolina the opportunity to participate in international scientific committees and programmes at a very early stage in her career. On some occasions, she was the only woman in a meeting or a committee. Although she grasped these opportunities wholeheartedly, she always worked very hard to show that she deserved to be there on merit and not just because of gender or geographical balance.
“I have been very fortunate to meet amazing women trying to make progress in science. It has been easy for me to encourage and empower them in their career, just by explicitly recognizing their excellent skills and aptitudes.”
Carolina Vera is currently a professor at UBA and the co-chair of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Her primary work is in enhancing the understanding of climate variability and change in South America and its applications for societal benefits. As a professor at the University, she has been very fortunate to meet amazing women who are passionate about advancing science. By explicitly recognizing their excellent skills and aptitudes, she encourages and empowers the careers of her students and is always ready to discuss any issues with them as well as find common solutions. She recognizes that it is an important role that every professor should have, but believes that it is particularly inevitable for female teachers to empower female students.
After completing her PhD in Urban Biogeography at the (then) University of Natal, South Africa, Debra Roberts initially pursued a career as a researcher. Her doctoral and post-doctoral research, however, highlighted the fact that academia at the time was not responding effectively to the challenges faced by urban policymakers and practitioners. In 1994, she decided to leave academia to join the local government, where her scientific knowledge could make a difference in the country and city she lived in.
Transitioning from science to practice, Debra faced several challenges. She describes, “once you become a practitioner you are no longer considered to be a scientist by many of the members of the more traditional scientific community. Practice is still seen by many traditional scientists as being unscientific.” In order to bridge this divide, Debra and her team have published their work in peer-reviewed literature to demonstrate that practitioner-scientists are an important source of knowledge. After joining local government, Debra found herself working in what was then a very traditional, hierarchical and male-dominated environment. Debra’s response was simply to get on with the job and let her work speak for itself.
‘Do not be deterred or intimidated, just keep your eye on the ball.’
This hands-on mentality led her to establish the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department of eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa). In 2016 she was given the responsibility of establishing the new Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit in Durban and is the city’s first Chief Resilience Officer. Furthermore, she is the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
By providing strong, clear and consistently focused leadership, Debra has become a living example that women can be influential leaders, and that practitioner-scientists can help change the mainstream debate. Furthermore, she has also encouraged members of her team to study further and has established research partnerships with the local university in order to encourage and train the next generation of practitioner-scientists.
Debra’s words of advice, “Never leave the room – it is difficult to provide a bridge between the science and practice communities and often you will not fit in comfortably with either. Do not be deterred or intimidated, just keep your eye on the ball and know that it is the practitioner-scientist who has the greatest chance of changing the world.”
Torn between studying math or physics and her passion for glider flying, Daniela Jacob ultimately decided to study meteorology at the Technical University Darmstadt in Germany. After completing her PhD at GKSS Research Center, Daniela moved to Boulder, Colorado, to work at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). As a visiting scientist, Daniela simulated snowstorms with the Clark model using the two-way nesting technique. In 1993, she moved to Hamburg, Germany, where she carried out research at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. It was there that she first developed the regional climate model that could be used to calculate the regional impacts of climate change. Daniela proved distinct excellence in regional climate modelling and is the current director of the country’s first institute for climate services called Climate Service Centre Germany (GERICS).
‘Think about what is important for you and what makes you happy - if you are happy at work, success will come, too.’
Throughout her career, Daniela has experienced difficulties with men in higher positions who distrusted her skills as a scientist. She challenged their perceptions by consistently demonstrating excellence in research as well as persistence in her argumentation – she would keep on talking until they were convinced.
Nowadays, as a leading scientist and director, she encourages equal opportunities for all staff by promoting a healthy work and life balance and offering flexible working hours. She also makes sure that an equal share of male and female staff members are hired.
Daniela advises those who want to pursue scientific careers to think about what is important for to them and would make them happy – if you are happy at work, success will come.
Inspired by her math and physics Professor in high school, Elisa Palazzi decided to study Physics at the University of Bologna. Although she had other interests, she soon realized that she was really enjoying her courses, especially those in environmental issues. After completing her Bachelor of Science, she continued on at the same University and in 2008, completed her PhD in Physical Modelling for Environmental Protection.
Elisa’s career in climate change began at the Italian National Research Council (CNR) in Torino, Italy. After moving to a new research group that focused on the mountain environments, Elisa found her passion. The work was exciting: she enjoyed researching mountains, how important they are in providing essential services, such as water, and how sensitive they are to climate and environmental changes.
At the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of the Italian National Research Council (CNR-ISAC) where she currently works, Elisa’s research focus is on the current and future evolution of the water cycle in mountains and on elevation-dependent warming – the amplified warming observed in the high-altitude regions. The main goal of her research is to understand how mountain ecosystems might change under different climate change scenarios and what the consequences for downstream societies could be. Elisa is also the co-coordinator of the Collaborative Programme “Changes in the Hydrological Cycle” of the European Climate Research Alliance (ECRA) and the Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments (GEO-GNOME), a Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Initiative.
Throughout her career, Elisa has approached challenges with a positive attitude, seeing them as opportunities to learn and grow. She has also been thankful for all the help she has received along the way from teachers, both in academic and professional environments. She is particularly thankful for the enthusiastic feedback she receives from students during laboratory and scientific dissemination activities.
One of her greatest achievements was being published in the 2015 journal on “Nature Climate Change” which focused on elevation-dependent warming in the mountain regions of the world. Elisa collaborated on the study with a large group of researchers from around the world. Although she is proud of the article, she believes that one makes achievements every single day. Even unsuccessful results often springboard us to new paths, achievements and ideas.
Elisa’s advice for female professionals embarking on a career in science is to be self-confident and not feel inadequate. The key to success, according to Elisa, is a mix of study and dedication, open-mindedness, curiosity, asking questions and the ability to change one’s mind. This is a never-ending process.
 Current head of the National Meteorological Service of Argentina and Permanent Representative to WMO