BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres spent 20 days on a boat with 80 female scientists in Antarctica in January, she observed more than icebergs, whales and penguins.
She also saw how easily those women gravitated toward a shared purpose of saving the planet.
“It wasn’t about, ‘How do I improve my career, how do I get to the top of my ladder?’ It was, ‘How do I use my skills, my expertise, my knowledge and my practice to contribute to a global issue?’,” said the Costa Rican ex-diplomat, who leads Mission 2020, an international campaign to cut carbon emissions.
Figueres spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of International Women’s Day, which this year has a theme of promoting the role of women in innovation and technology.
While those areas offer “unprecedented opportunities”, women are held back by their under-representation in related professions, and by a growing digital divide along gender lines, according to UN Women.
Figueres noted that women on the “Homeward Bound” Antarctica expedition - all working in science, technology, engineering, math or medicine - wanted to make sure their work would help address climate change.
“I do have the feeling that we women tend to be more collaborative, we tend to be more long-term, we tend to be more global in our thinking because of our innate stewardship role ... in society,” she said.
That sentiment is playing out back in her home country, which last month launched an ambitious economy-wide plan to decarbonize the country by 2050, aiming to show other nations what is possible in tackling climate change.
A key figurehead of that vision is the president’s wife Claudia Dobles Camargo, an architect and urban planner who has coordinated many of the country’s green public transport initiatives, including an electric train project.
Andrea Meza, climate change director at Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy, said women were spearheading her country’s push to produce no more emissions than it can offset through efforts such as protecting its extensive forests.
From the first female CEO of the nation’s electricity utility to the planning minister and agriculture vice-minister, women in top government jobs were collaborating on a clean development vision for Costa Rica, she noted.
“We are the ones with voices, and we want to demonstrate that women can lead in this area,” she said.
The same is happening at the local level too, she added, with women in rural communities driving efforts to fight climate change and improve lives into the bargain.
Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of UN Climate Change, said women were at the heart of that same struggle around the world.
Some of their efforts are gaining wider recognition through the U.N. Momentum for Change initiative, which recognizes successful climate projects run by and for women.
They range from a campaign to get women cycling on the streets of war-torn Damascus to a “feminist electrification” drive in Haiti, and Indian women making compost from ceremonial flowers while cleaning up the River Ganges.
“We must build smarter (and) we must build with the future in mind,” Espinosa said in emailed comments.
“Women must not only be a ‘voice at the table’ but play a key role in planning, designing, building and managing how that infrastructure and those communities are built.”
International Women’s Day this year aims to explore, among other things, ways to build services and infrastructure that meet the needs of women and girls.
That’s already happening at the world’s biggest furnishings retailer IKEA Group, where the typical customer is a woman and about half of top executives are female, said its chief sustainability officer Pia Heidenmark Cook on the sidelines of a forum on climate-wise infrastructure in Barcelona this week.
A survey carried out by the Swedish company of public attitudes to climate change in 14 countries, published last September, showed younger people and women were more concerned and interested in acting on the issue than men, she added.
But doing so does not require “something new and fancy” - rather it means simply acting to ensure it is safe to breathe the air, drink the water, and be secure and healthy, she noted.
Younger women are increasingly aware of the threats global warming poses to those rights - a concern seen in their leadership of school strikes demanding climate action, many inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, observers say.
Kirsten Snow Spalding, program director for the U.S.-based Ceres Investor Network on Climate Risk and Sustainability, believes they may start to care more about how their money is invested.
Her organization is looking to work with wealth management firms whose prosperous clients include millennials.
“My guess is that there are many more women in that group than there were 20 years ago,” she said.
For some of them, sustainability is likely to be a higher investment priority, and could lead them to accept larger risks to achieve it, she added.
For now in the United States, there is anecdotal evidence of women stepping up their influence over infrastructure investment at the country’s biggest pension funds, said Snow Spalding, a priest and former chief deputy treasurer of California.
U.N. climate chief Espinosa said there was a need for more women to get involved to achieve equal participation and leadership in innovation, tech and sustainable infrastructure.
The change “must take place not only at the negotiations table, but in classrooms and communities throughout the world”, she added.
Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate