This week I am attending the United Nations Climate Change Negotiations in Madrid at the Convention of Parties (COP) 25th meeting.

As part of my role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and leading the Griffith University delegation, I have been able to assist with several side events and I am also a part of a team that organises the Resilience Lab that focuses on foresight and innovation in climate change adaptation.

In this blog post, I won’t sum up books (as I have had literally no time to read) but summarise some of the key insights that I have learned to date.


Changing models and mindsets for women’s leadership

I had the opportunity to develop and moderate a session that took place at the IPCC/World Meteorological Organisation pavilion that focused on women in science.

To begin with, I had an amazing panel: Maisa Rojas, Director of Center for Climate and Resilience Research, University of Chile; Ko Barrett, IPCC Vice Chair and Deputy Assistant Administrator for Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Zinta Zommers, Program Officer with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and IPCC Lead Author, Laura Ramajo, El Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Áridas (CEAZA), and Rob Hales, Director of Griffith Centre for Sustainable Enterprise, Griffith University.


The key questions that we discussed focused on the track record of IPCC in getting women involved with the assessment process, specific challenges that women often face in career development and leadership, and what we can actually do about those.

Just organising the panel left me with a key insight: we wanted a man in the panel as well and I was surprised by the reluctance of many men to step up and engage in this kind of a conversation.

The majority concluded that they wouldn’t have much to say on a panel regarding women in science so special thanks for Rob being our “token” man.

This to me is something profound because we need both men and women to be involved in system change and talk about gender equality and participation if we aim to change systems and organisations to become more inclusive.

And that was one of the key items in this discussion: we need a shift in mindsets in how we think about leadership, how we think a leaders should act, and how we think overall what participation in committees and assessments looks like.


Leadership must and can look different 

As Maisa said, “leadership must look different”: we cannot keep engaging people and try to insert women into systems when we as women do not necessarily fit the previous model of leadership.

Here, women have a chance to step out of their own limiting assumptions what and how they can lead: they can question the previous process of leadership and develop new models for themselves that fit better with how their lives are.

This means for example investing in flexibility for work hours, use of telecommunications for meetings rather than having to always travel, and supportive organisation measures for example for maternity leave and bringing children along on work trips.

However, institutions must and should be ready to put in place the necessary financial support e.g. women travelling with children for work should have access to childcare onsite, and assistance in covering such costs as flights and travel.

Having these practical actions embedded and acknowledged is important, and for example the IPCC is in the process of developing its own internal assessment of how we can increase diversity and inclusion in its own operations.

The ramifications of such actions are huge: more diversity results in more innovation, better ideas, and more importantly, increases the richness of knowledge that is being brought into science.

Women have different kinds of knowledge, and when it comes to for example climate adaptation, women’s needs, knowledge and aspirations are often vastly different than men’s due to the different nature of their work and livelihoods.


We need to talk about it… and see it 

Women’s leadership and career development will always be left in the back burner if we do not actively talk about these challenges but also highlight the opportunities that come with increased participation.

One of the important factors for any organisation is to make sure that the people on the top understand the gender-based challenges that exist and expose also their unconscious bias in how things work.

More talking about these issues is also part of raising awareness for women that they do not limit themselves in the way they themselves think about leadership.

For example, many women do not apply for higher level jobs because a) they often don’t know how to make a more demanding profession due to children and their care, b) they don’t see other women in top positions, and c) they don’t believe that they have the needed skills for high positions.

As Ko noted, we often are our worst enemy in the way we limit ourselves in thinking what we are capable and not capable of.

So seeing other women in such positions, like during this COP where three strong women are leading global climate policy processes: Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt is the COP President, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary is Patricia Pinosa, and Lorena Aguilar is the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica (the country that hosted the large pre-COP meeting).

These examples can pave way for us as women, if even only in changing our mindsets of which positions are for who, and changing the way we envision ourselves and careers.


Mentoring is the go 

All of the panelists agreed that key for career and leadership development begins with really good mentors.

These are people, both women and men, who see opportunities in others and jump in to give advice, and open doors for others.

But more crucially, these are people who change your mindset about your own capability.

People who encourage you to take that step just when you think you don’t have the skills and knowledge to seek broader and higher level roles.

We all have had great mentors, and especially in the IPCC I am blessed with both men and women who see something in my ideas and work with me to develop something that is greater and broader than just me.

Good mentors look for the next leaders, and firmly believe that these people have the abilities to develop the skills needed to lead well.

Good mentoring leads to increased quality of knowledge entering assessments and increases the richness of what we know from diversity of viewpoints and lived experiences.


Now from leadership theory to practice

Most of this we know already, and so increasing women’s participation and leadership is really about creating those spaces and opportunities in practice.

During the COP, there has been a mandated Gender Day where gender and different perspectives into climate change processes have been discussed from gender justice to national assessments.

Gender has indeed become one of the cornerstone discussions in the United Nations climate process, where more and more projects are also mandated to have specific considerations for gender (e.g. participation of women in climate adaptation projects).

But there is more we can do and part of moving from theory to practice is setting those examples, changing the foundational assumptions about what a leader looks like and what kind of leadership models are best, and finding opportunities to mentor others.

And all of this is not just done by women but also by men because we can only create true participation, increase diversity, and enhance the richness of the ideas that shape our world by having everyone on board.

And as I am writing this, as of today Finland’s new Prime Minister is Sanna Marin who is a 34-year-old mother with a young child while most of the Finnish political parties are in fact led by women.

It can be different.