In the forests of Madagascar, being a scientist means creeping gently through the foliage without making a sound. The snap of a twig or crunch of a leaf could make lemurs and frogs bound away, and then you’ll never get to count them for your population studies.
But counting animals in national parks is crucial for long-term research, so University of Florida researchers trained villagers who live close to key national parks in Madagascar to be citizen scientists. Historically, these teams have been mostly or all men.
A new study from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences shows that feminism is good for science.
These teams of community members–who are familiar with the local wildlife and know how to move around the area with ease–were most effective when women joined the research process, as opposed to all-male teams, as noted in a study published recently in Biological Conservation.
Out of 83 teams that scoured the Madagascar National parks forests, the 11 teams that catalogued the most animals were the ones that included women and men on the teams. Other factors like age played a role–the older the team, the better they were at spotting animals–but gender played a statistically significant role in how well these teams spotted animals.
“Not only is it more equitable to include women in the scientific process, but as our study shows, it also provides better results,” said Dave Klinges, the study’s primary investigator and a Ph.D. student in interdisciplinary ecology at the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
His research advisor was associate professor Brett Scheffers. The study was created in collaboration with Lalatiana Randriamiharisoa, director of conservation at Madagascar National Parks.
Teams with women on them saw 11 unique species per visit, while teams with only men saw eight unique species per visit – a 37.5% increase in efficacy.
“Women perceive the forest as important to the environment; they may therefore be more attentive to the species themselves, rather than their place in the forest,” said Fiona Price, lead author in this study and a former Dartmouth College undergraduate student. “Second of all, given conventional gender roles in Southern Madagascar, women may have been more motivated to succeed than men when given an opportunity to participate in conservation. They may have worked harder to achieve social and economic capital.”
The girl power of the study isn’t just good news for the teams in Madagascar.
Having an idea of what makes a strong citizen science team means they can provide recommendations to other researchers who recruit citizen scientists and knowing that women improve the observations means that equity can be an important step.
“It can improve citizen science recommendations locally and worldwide,” Price said.
Klinges said women face multiple barriers to entry in citizen science, such as perception that science is more efficient and effective with teams of only men.
“That’s really not true, and our research shows it objectively,” he said. “We know that peoples of different identities and backgrounds provide unique perspectives. Why shouldn’t we have diverse participation in the conservation of biodiversity?”