“Feminist glaciology” is sparking huge questions about the impact of the male gaze on science

Climate change is male.
Climate change is male.
Image: AP Photo/Francisco Munoz
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As anyone who’s seen The Revenant will confirm, ice is a very manly thing. This might be the reason why climate scientists are disproportionally men—or it might be that, like most other scientific fields, it is harder for women to break into the boys’ club of climate STEM.

This, it turns out, is bad for the planet. Mark Carey, a professor of environmental history and history of science at the University of Oregon, argues that the study of glaciers, or glaciology, needs a female touch. In his paper “Glaciers, gender, and science” published in January in the journal “Progress in Human Geography,” Carey makes a strong argument that more women glaciologists could help stem the effects of global warming.

Gender has an effect on how data is collected, and the lack of women in the study of glaciology, as well as environmental studies at large, is influencing how we understand glaciers, and their impact on the communities living by them. Shrinking glaciers can cause floods, landslides and other environmental changes. Studying them is a key part of climate research.

Women have a more nuanced look at how melting ice affects societies close to glaciers. “A woman’s experience securing post-disaster aid, rebuilding a home, and raising a family after a glacial lake outburst flood has destroyed her community is different than those of men,” he told Science in an interview.

Men, see “ice is ice,” Carey writes in his paper. The pursuit of  ”glaciology, polar exploration, and mountaineering—profoundly interconnected pursuits—have also been characterized by masculinist discourses that privileged manly exertion, heroism, and conquest,”  he writes. Because men’s work is seen as heroic, their scientific conclusions are given more validity.

When women study glaciers, he said in the interview with Science, their conclusions tend to be belittled; an Ohio State team of women went to Antarctica in 1969 and ”journalists worried that they would be ‘lonely’ or suffer a run in with a ‘mad seal.’ ”  Carey, who wasn’t available to be interviewed by Quartz, defines feminist glaciology as having a female perspective on “how knowledge related to glaciers is produced, circulated, and gains credibility and authority across time and space.”

The paper, which looks at a over 30 years of environmental studies, shows how welcoming a female perspective in the study of climate would change perspectives.

Perhaps proving the importance of Casey’s critique (even more than the peer review it received) are the many attacks the professor has received since publishing the paper:

Becoming—probably unwittingly—the latest enemy of the patriarchy, professor Casey was accused to have received over $400,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation to study the relations between gender and glaciers. Many conservative commentators have called that a waste of taxpayers’ money. As he explained to “Science”, he was awarded the grant in 2013 and he’s used it to cover almost three years of research and several papers so far—although the controversy seems to have moved attention away from the actual findings of his work.