Dr Helen Adams is a Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation at King's College London, based in London.
The Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group (DRM PPG) asked Helen about her experiences of working in Disaster Risk Management (DRM), the challenges women working in this field face and what advice she would give to other female geographers.
I was lucky enough, on leaving university, to be supported by my family in taking up an internship in the Adaptation to Climate Change Team in the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That opened a lot of doors for me - moving then to work on adaptation to climate change in the Climate Change Expert Group at the OECD and support action under the Nairobi Work Programme at the UNFCCC. After 12 years in academia (masters, PhD, post-doc and lectureship in climate migration and environment-wellbeing linkages), I'm seconded to the COP26 Unit in the UK government's Cabinet Office to lead on science engagement for the climate conference in Glasgow in November.
My advice is to not only respond to opportunities but also to create them where possible - reach out to organisations in the sector, big and small, to see if they have any roles for you. Also, it's important to live and breathe DRM - read popular science books and attend virtual lectures and seminars. That way in any cover letters, informal chats and interviews you can show your commitment and draw on your knowledge of the field. On a more theoretical note, it always helps to contextualise DRM in the bigger picture of colonial histories, global economic institutions and dynamics, and broader social processes - think about root causes!
I think we have to work to change processes within institutions that lead to systemic biases in recruitment for leadership roles; it shouldn't be on any individual to change. That said, I think one of the most difficult challenges for women, and all groups of people who haven't historically been much heard, is to trust their own voice and that their ideas are good. Sometimes it takes a bit of a leap of faith. In leadership roles in general, it’s important to keep pushing against the status quo, and trust that if things are difficult and there is tension, it can mean that real change is being achieved. Or, at least, real change won't be achieved without it.
My academic work focuses on migration as an adaptive response to climate change impacts, and often this takes place as displacement from extreme weather events. Vulnerability to extreme weather events is extremely gendered. For example, in Bangladesh during cyclones many more women than men die, explained by a range of social and cultural reasons. For example, women aren't taught to swim, and they are often the carers of less mobile groups such as children and the elderly. Migration is also quite gendered. Although we are seeing the feminisation of migration flows, most often after an extreme weather event that has damaged property and agricultural income sources, men migrate to cities. This leaves women at home where they continue living among the risk, and with new vulnerabilities created. That said, women aren't victims! Women are usually the first to get together, problem solve and take action after a disaster.
I'm inspired by women who are high-fliers in their professions while still letting their amazing personalities shine through. When I work with intelligent, kind and funny women, I can't help but be motivated.
At the moment? Let's use the COP26 presidency as a moment to advance agendas on adaptation and resilience! And please get involved with the COP26 campaigns! (also for men as well)
* This interview was undertaken in 2021 and was correct at the time of publication. Please note that the featured individual may no longer be in this role, but the profile has been kept for career pathway and informational purposes.
Job title: Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation
Organisation: King's College London
Location: London, UK
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