Published: 09/20/2023

By Jamie Hansen, Global Health Communications Manager

Title photo by Shane Rounce,

In recognition of Women in Medicine Month this September, Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health is celebrating female leaders working at the intersection of climate change and medicine.

A summer of record-setting extreme heat, wildfires, hurricanes, and disease outbreaks worsened by global warming has made clear how urgently action is needed to slow climate change and adapt to the health impacts. Women and children often bear some of the greatest health and economic burdens of these disasters. And yet, women frequently lack a seat at the table in critical discussions about climate change. 

A recent publication led by the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health argued that increased female leadership in this space can help increase cooperation and expedite equitable solutions to this global threat. 

“Those who control resources usually have the power to monopolize conversations and perpetuate existing narratives,” writes lead author Britt Wray, PhD, director of the Climate Change and Health Special Initiative in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Medicine. “But if these trends can be disrupted, so too might the current stagnation in effective climate action and other needed pro-environmental policies.”

Lisa Patel, MD, Stanford clinical associate professor of pediatrics, and a national leader in climate and health, emphasized the potent ability of female leaders to foster collaboration and advance the movement to address these urgent challenges.

For Women in Medicine Month, we share insights from Stanford leaders on the front lines of climate and health – researchers leading efforts to understand the physical and mental health impacts; clinicians educating colleagues to meet new health challenges on a changing planet; and advocates highlighting the health impacts of climate change as a call to action. These leaders weigh in on the importance of female leadership in climate and health – and how to foster a new generation of women leaders.

On the importance of women’s leadership in climate change

Women have long been behind-the-scenes advocates for climate change research and action. They range from the first woman who discovered carbon dioxide was a warming gas, whose supervisor got credit for this discovery, to Greta Thunberg, a young girl who has quietly but passionately mobilized the youth climate movement. Female leadership in climate and health should be celebrated.

— Michele Barry, MD, Director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health

I see climate work as a response to a global and existential crisis, and women leaders as essential to finding solutions. Heeding women’s voices – recognizing their struggles and bringing them to the table – is essential to changing our human trajectory.

Kathy Burke, MBA, MSc, Human and Planetary Health Lead, Woods Institute for the Environment

The number one threat to any species is habitat destruction. Climate change is threatening our habitat. It is the greatest threat to our generation and to all future generations. We need a battalion, led not by people scheming to take as much as they can for themselves, but by those who fight with all they have for the next generation. Women like Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Wanjira Mathai, Marina Silva, and countless others. I look up to these women for guidance and forward to the next generation of women I see rising to this challenge. I am glad to be in such good company. 

— Joelle Rosser, MD, Stanford Instructor of Medicine, Infectious Diseases, Global Health Faculty Fellow

“Diversity is one of the greatest natural wonders of our environment. The only way to create better protections for our delicate ecosystem is to ensure all voices have equitable reach and volume. Women’s voices represent a unique viewpoint that enriches the scientific community.”

— India Rogers-Shepp, Stanford Medical Student engaged with student-led efforts around climate and health

On climate change’s disproportionate impact on women and children

Climate change worsens gender inequities, particularly impacting the health of women on a global scale. These impacts are greater for women in low-income regions, including increased food insecurity, complications related to maternal health, and a higher susceptibility to disasters, due to rooted gender roles in society and a lack of necessary support and resources. Tackling inequality and prioritizing the specific needs of women are essential steps in enhancing resilience against the growing climate threats to women’s health.

— Elaine Flores, MD, PhD, Stanford/LSHTM Planetary Health Postdoctoral Fellow

Women are more exposed to climate disasters and may experience disproportionate mortality rates due to these events. Particularly in low- and middle-income countries, women often have limited access to financial resources such as savings, loans, and credits that can provide protection during emergencies and influence disaster preparedness and recovery efforts. Climate change is also contributing to the increased emergence and spread of infectious diseases. This impact is felt more strongly by women and girls in lower-income settings, mainly because of their heightened exposure to disease vectors through traditional water collection methods.

— Britt Wray, PhD, Director, Climate Change and Mental Health Initiative, Stanford Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

On fostering female leadership

Although the focus that many women bring on balance, perspective, inclusion, and broader meaning makes workplaces more creative and effective, we continue to face barriers around social support for families and outright sexism that impede our path to leadership and transformative change. Women often take on the hard and unsung work of trying to solve the thorny and intractable problems that society deems unworkable or unavoidable. Achievements in these spaces are often undervalued compared to roles that continue pushing forward the status quo. We still have a large hill to climb.

— Erin Mordecai, PhD, Global Health Faculty Fellow, Associate Professor, Biology & Senior Fellow, Woods Institute

“Mother Nature.” Unfortunately, both our nurturing environment and women have been subjugated by forces of greed and power, leading to detrimental health outcomes. Addressing gender inequality in resources, health services, and education is crucial, which is one of the reasons I am working to integrate climate, health, and equity into the medical curriculum. We have a great group of medical students and residents, working on education and sustainable healthcare. Our female students and residents bring a different perspective and lived experience to the table, which is critical to adequately framing challenges and developing solutions.

—  Barbara Erny, MD, Global Health Faculty Fellow, Stanford Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine

Encouragement for women leaders in climate and health

Stay involved and engaged! We need you and your experience, expertise, and perspective in the collective of people working toward a more sustainable planet that supports all of us. Women lead differently, and that leadership is what our planet needs now- a better balance of power. Make your voices heard, share your ideas unapologetically, and let’s use our feminine power to heal Mother Earth. 

— Desiree LaBeaud, MD, Global Health Faculty Fellow, Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Stanford University

Climate and health is so complex and partnership from all disciplines is critical to success. I recommend withholding judgement, and building relationships with new people, perspectives, and disciplines. Understand where they are coming from, and how you can partner for maximum impact.

— Allison Phillips, Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health

Someone once told me: no one who has ever done anything transformative has waited for permission to do so. In celebration of this month of Women in Medicine, I’d like to pass these words of encouragement to all budding leaders in climate & health.

— Erika Veidis, Planetary Health Program Manager, CIGH