April 2008

Gender equality in the Caribbean—a continuing challenge for science

Setting the scene

The traditional view has been that biological differences of the sexes are the cause of the division of labour that we can see in society today. More recently it has been argued that, instead of biologically defined sex, culturally and historically defined gender is a more valuable concept for the study of labour divisions. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles of women, men, girls and boys. Everywhere in the world the roles of women and men are different from each other but gender roles vary from generation to generation, from place to place and from time to time.


In the Caribbean, gender roles have traditionally confined women and girls to activities taking place within the household: caring for others, cooking, cleaning, etc. Leadership roles and higher education have been reserved for men. The traditional gender roles are nowadays considered restrictive by both sexes, compounded by the fact that women are paid less than men in similar employment areas.

Science is an activity traditionally regarded as being the domain of men but this perception has been challenged. During the latter half of the 20th century, enrolment of women to the University of West Indies rose from 30 per cent to 64 per cent. In 1997, there were more females in all faculties except that of engineering. Although impressive, the challenge remains incomplete, as the swing of the pendulum in the direction of women in higher education is not yet reflected in the workplace. Low representation of women in meteorology and hydrology  is an example of this.

Three recent surveys, two by WMO in 1997 and 2001 and one by the SIDS (Small Island Developing States)-Caribbean Project in 2002, show that women are under-represented in the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) of the Caribbean: about 15 per cent of professional staff (e.g. operations, research, management) and about 30 per cent of support staff (e.g. technicians, observers) are women. In comparison, the same figures are about 50 per cent and 50 per cent in Europe; 30 per cent and 50 per cent in Asia; 30 per cent and 25 per cent in Latin America; 20 per cent and 20 per cent in North America; and 15 per cent and 15 per cent in Africa. As the time span of the surveys is relatively short, it is not possible to make definitive conclusions on the direction of the development. Nevertheless, the latest data indicate that the participation of women in the Caribbean region is either stagnant or even decreasing, rather than increasing. If indeed this is the case, it would be contrary to the small, incremental increases in the participation of women in meteorology worldwide, as indicated by the WMO 2001 study.

Global action

In addition to surveying the situation, the WMO has taken a proactive role in the gender issue. The Second WMO Conference on Women in Meteorology and Hydrology was held at the Headquarters of the WMO Secretariat in Geneva from 24 to 27 March 2003.  The objectives of the Conference were to review the current situation as regards the participation of women in meteorology and hydrology, especially since the first Meeting on the Participation of Women in Meteorology and Hydrology in Bangkok (1997), to develop benchmarks to measure future progress, and to develop strategies to increase the participation of women in the activities of WMO and NMHSs.

campus barbados  

Presentations during the conference included:

  • Breaking through the glass ceiling
  • Gender mainstreaming
  • The role of women in the application of climate information
  • Networking and mentoring; and
  • Bangkok Review

The way forward

It was noted that, while progress had been made since the 1997 Bangkok conference, most, if not all the Bangkok recommendations were still valid and that more needed to be done to implement and monitor the recommended actions. One of the significant accomplishments had been the approval of the Bangkok recommendations by World Meteorological Congress in 1999; actions had been made to involve women in some WMO technical commission and regional association meetings.

The 2003 Geneva conference reaffirmed the Bangkok recommendations and agreed on actions to be taken on various levels of WMO to ensure future progress. Three groups were targeted for action: women professionals (and the Conference participants in particular); the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, technical commissions, regional associations and permanent representatives; and the WMO Secretariat.

The Conference suggested that women professionals and participants in the Conference:

  • Promote and participate in career development through mentoring, guiding and ounselling;
  • Brief the permanent representatives of their countries on recommendations and outcomes of the Conference;
  • Promote awareness of the results of the Conference within their own institutions, organizations and countries;
  • Form regional/sub-regional networks to exchange ideas and experiences.

The Conference also urged NMHSs, technical commissions, regional associations, permanent representatives and the WMO Secretariat to promote and encourage women in science, including by

  • Providing and supporting gender focal points;
  • Reporting regularly on progress in gender issues to WMO Congress   and Executive Council;
  • Establishing a WMO gender position to monitor progress, analyse issues and assist in the implementation of recommended actions;
  • Making funds available to enable the recommended actions of the  Conference.

Looking ahead

In the near future, a network will be instituted among women in the field of meteorology and hydrology in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Women in Meteorology and Hydrology (CWMH) network proposes to introduce some of the recommendations of the WMO Geneva Conference. CWMH will first be established through the Internet and will use this medium as a means of interactive communication among women in the field.  A Website will be set up where participants will be able to exchange ideas, concerns and information.

The main focus will be the exchange of information, education and support but, above all, education and mentoring.  As noted earlier, the number of women in the meteorological and hydrological fields remains relatively small.  This was re-emphasized in the 2002 University of the West Indies Review of Meteorology report which noted that, in the past three years, of the 69 students who enrolled in the meteorology programme, only 35 per cent were female. Over the same period the 28 per cent of the 99 graduates from the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology were female.

Young girls are often discouraged in the pursuit of science at an early age and are often intimidated by perceived competition with males at every level of the educational and working spectrum of the scientific world. Women professionals can play a large role in encouraging young girls and women in pursuing an education in science, particularly meteorology and hydrology.

The National Meteorological and Hydrological Services of the Caribbean are relatively small. Promotional opportunities, by virtue of the size, are few, owing to the limited number of senior positions within the job pyramid.  In such a setting, career frustrations are to be expected, with the constant lure of more lucrative and tempting employment opportunities in fields outside meteorology. A possible solution would be the encouragement of meteorology workers to participate more often in regional projects, along with the exchange of scientific information to improve regional and local products and services. This will be the second goal of the CWMH network.

Beyond interactive communications, the network will also seek to encourage regional professionals to inform and educate female users about meteorological and hydrological products and how they affect their daily lives.  Women are the caretakers and household managers, especially in many Caribbean territories, where clean water and adequate sanitation are a concern. The Caribbean is subject to occasional droughts during the dry seasons and in the rainy season often experiences floods and, sometimes, destructive tropical cyclones. Women have to be informed about understanding weather and climatological forecasts, storm advisories and water resources statements, so as to be able to make decisions which affect them and their families. The CWMH network can encourage and aid regional government and educational organizations to institute programmes and polices to incorporate the female prospective in areas such as water-development and management polices and disaster management.

The fields of meteorology and hydrology are growing and, while the number of women may be comparatively small, they are here to stay. In the Caribbean, traditional passivity in science is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as women recognize that, while they have made inroads into the male domain, much more still remains to be achieved. The WMO Secretariat has made the commitment to address gender concerns.  The most difficult task will be to promote gender awareness among the NMHSs of the region and regional representatives in the Congress, Executive Council, technical commissions and regional associations. For this, female and, more importantly, Caribbean female representation is needed in these sectors. This can be achieved by working together as a unit to ensure a greater awareness of, and changes in, gender issues as they pertain  to the region.

This should be considered not only as a women empowerment issue but as lending a voice to half the world’s population in the realm of science which influences our daily lives. More women are obtaining higher education in the sciences and, sometime in the future, this will be reflected in the work place. Women, and men, therefore, have to be aware and prepare for that time. The most exciting time of any organization is the growing stage, so the sciences of meteorology and hydrology are brimming with exhilarating prospects.  It is up to the women to carry this excitement ever higher.

Gender: WMO theme


Leo-Rhynie E, Bailey B, Barrow C (ed.), Gender – A Caribbean Multi-Disciplinary Perspective.

Hamilton, Marlene, Women and Higher Education in the Commonwealth Caribbean: UWI: A progressive Institution for Women?, Working Paper No.2, Centre For Gender And Development Studies, University of West Indies (Cave Hill), February 1999.

www.wmo.ch/web/wmoh/women.pdf (WMO 1997 survey)

University of the West Indies: Review of Meteorology Quality Assurance Unit Office of the Board for Undergraduates Studies 2002

University of the West Indies: Review of Meteorology Quality Assurance Unit Office of the Board for Undergraduates Studies 2002

World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Report of the 2001 Global Survey on the Participation of Women and Men in the Activities of the World Meteorological Organization, WMO/TD No. 1120, Geneva, Switzerland, 2002.


Cg-XV/Doc. 7.5 Gender Mainstreaming Document.n World Meteorological Organization 15th Congress Geneva 2007

Kathy-Ann Caesar
Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology

Juha A. Karhu
MSc., Research Scientist
Finnish Meteorological Institute
Climate Change
P.O. Box 503
FIN-00101 Helsinki

Formerly of SIDS-Caribbean Project Barbados

Steve Pollonais
SIDS-Caribbean Project



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