Women in Sustainability: Moving towards a Science that speaks to all stakeholders

Women in Sustainability: Moving towards a Science that speaks to all stakeholders

Women can play a significant role in ensuring a sustainable future. In recognition of their role and contribution to furthering the understanding of sustainability, this year’s TN Khoshoo Memorial Award is being given to Dr. Rajeswari Raina, Professor at Shiv Nadar University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS). Dr. Raina is being awarded for her contribution towards understanding how institutional knowledge systems have contributed to sustainable agricultural practices. As a researcher, Dr. Raina is a pioneer in taking a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to agricultural research, bringing a scientific perspective to alternative, sustainable practices prevalent in the field.

In recent years, Dr. Raina has also increasingly engaged with the question of gender and in an email interview talks about the role of women in sustainability science.

Is there a unique role that women play in sustainability science?

Dr. Raina: Yes, indeed. But this is one of the hopeless arenas, especially in India.

The gatekeepers within the sciences, the overall institutionalization of knowledge within the state’s sequential development thinking and the market’s commercial intent, together form a formidable barrier, keeping women from entering and reforming the prevalent knowledge systems to create multiple forms and forums of sustainability science. 

Yes, women do have a unique role in sustainability science. But that is not because they are capable of nurturing and caring (more than men are).

  • Patriarchy, class-caste discriminations in social systems and existing power relationships within the sciences have shaped women in knowledge systems, and honed their ability to focus on the goal, i.e., sustainability, and capacity to identify knowledge gaps in the sciences.  Given the risks, uncertainty and ignorance that confronts sustainability science, more women are needed in sustainability science, where we need ‘science that makes sense together’ with policy makers, politicians, practitioners/producers and consumers, and not just ‘science that speaks truth to power.
  • More importantly, being conscious of and constantly trying to challenge or adapt to the constitutive and contextual values that are the hallmark of commodity- or discipline- based organization of science, women’s skills are crucial for sustainability science to take off and find the flexible institutional spaces it desperately needs. This is more so in countries like India, where sustainability science is now being squeezed into the centralized consolidated and institutionally outdated research councils. Also, because many of us in the sciences succumb to international peer-driven research agenda knowing fully well that these may create unsustainable consequences here, among our own communities.
  • It is likely (though I say this with no first-hand experience with a research team working in complex systems), that women are better at handling and modelling complex social-ecological systems, in estimating the status of the bio-geophysical base of ecosystem functions and services., and in the valuation of ecosystem services available from nature.

What are the challenges for women in sustainability science? 

Dr. Raina: There are challenges for women in the sciences in general. Sustainability science which demands a reform of current disciplinary science, the many gate keepers, and the institutional sclerosis will only make it more difficult for women to conduct research. Several experiments will have to de designed for empirical adequacy and not exactly for accuracy, for novelty and applicability to context specific human or environmental need and not for consistency and universal scope and scale across diverse systems. Teaching sustainability science will also be difficult because the pedagogy has to evolve with and cater to the context specific bio-physical realities, and social, political realities.

It is unlikely that women will be allowed these choices, experimental learning opportunities and space to articulate the institutional (new rules, norms) changes needed for sustainability science.

What measures can we adopt to promote sustainability science?

Dr. Raina: For this, we will need the humanities and social sciences to engage more with people and with the formal sciences. We have to introduce STS (science, technology, society studies), feminist science studies, and environmental social sciences, in our formal education system with sustainability science studies as an integral part; this is essential to transform the organization of research (the centralized, consolidated model of scientific research is not helping advance knowledge, the economy/society, or the ecosystem), to redraw disciplinary boundaries and the responsibility of knowledge (let us confront the fact that the agricultural sciences are not held accountable for any of the agrarian crises/distress or malnutrition we see in India today; it is as if the agricultural sciences exist in a parallel universe, that will not engage with us);

We must demand public spaces and dialogues reinforced with democratic values;  we have to acknowledge that franchise alone is not enough for us to know and work towards a sustainable, equitable world, and that sustainability science demands voice and authenticity for decentralized democratic knowledge generation.

And lastly, we need to develop governance systems and mechanisms that are designed to respect, adapt to and live with variability and complexity, especially in knowledge based bioeconomies. May I cite our environmental information systems as an example here. If sustainability science has a future in India, we will have local environmental records centers in every Block or perhaps in agro-ecological zones within Blocks, where citizens generate and maintain their local environmental data with the support of the sciences, analyse and interpret and redefine their knowledge-policy-practice decisions based on the purpose – resilient and sustainable social-ecological systems. A national environmental information portal or data base in one Ministry in the Union Government is an anomaly.