An interview with Sue Barrell, Winner of the IMO Prize

30 November 2023

Advice to aspiring leaders from the 2022 IMO Prize laureate

By Sylvie Castonguay, WMO Secretariat

Susan (Sue) Barrell, was awarded the 2022 IMO Prize, the highest honour of WMO, for her achievements at the national level and in the international arena in the fields of science policy, climate monitoring, research and Earth systems observations. She is the fourth woman scientist to be recognized with the IMO Prize since it was first awarded in 1956. In view of the rarity, the Bulletin had many questions for her.

Bulletin: Sue, your Wikipedia page says that you were told in school that you could “do anything” and were encouraged by your school’s scientific curricula and inspiring teachers. Tell us more about your early influences and how you came to meteorology.

My main early influence was my parents. I was one of five children (2 girls, 3 boys) and we were all encouraged to follow whatever interested us, and my natural curiosity about how things worked steered me into math and science.  With inspiring math and science teachers at my all-girls high school, there was never really any doubt in my mind that science would be where I headed when I got to university. My early passion for physics and astronomy took me into a PhD in Astronomy, but my more practical side took over and, by the time I finished my PhD, I was determined to pursue a career in applied science. That’s when I discovered meteorology, and the rest, as they say, is history!

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Sue as a toddler in Darlington, United Kingdom, with her dad, one of her earliest influencers who knew how to inspire his clever, imaginative and stubborn little girl. The family immigrated to New Zealand when she was around 4.
(Photo courtesy Sue Barrell)

Bulletin: Were there key people and moments along the way that you remember fondly?

I have benefitted from many influences and mentors. My high school math teacher, who ‘exploded’ the math curriculum and opened my eyes to how exciting applied and more advanced math could be. My PhD supervisor, who reminded me, when I told him that I would not remain in Astronomy when I finished my PhD, that a PhD is intended to teach you how to do research, not make you the world’s best astronomer. My only female professor who had a sign on her wall saying “For a woman to be accepted as equal to a man, she has to prove herself to be twice as good; fortunately, that isn’t difficult!”. And, of course, mentors such as John Zillman, who encouraged me to push the boundaries of my interests and capabilities. A proud moment was when I was honoured as an Officer of the Order of Australia, at least partially because of a nomination from one of my mentees.

Bulletin: What motivated you to pursue a career in meteorology instead of continuing with astronomy after you had obtained your PhD? Tell us also about your early career.

It was the then emerging climate change issue that first drew me to meteorology. Before long, after stints in operations, research and climate monitoring, I found myself very much engaged in the area of climate change. I represented Australia on science policy at the early United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conferences of the Parties (COP), sessions 2 to 10. I chaired informal consultations in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) on Article 5 – Research and Systematic Observation – throughout that time, working closely with the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS). I also participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports from the end of the 2nd through to the start of 4th, including as a Review Editor for the Third Assessment Report (TAR). Like many others, I got my little bit of recognition via the Nobel Peace Prize. It was my increasing focus on integrated observations that then lead me to engage more with WMO.

Sue Barrell, Michel Jean and Heather Aucoin
Sue with her friends, and fellow WMO experts, Michel Jean and Heather Aucoin in Geneva in 2017
(Photo courtesy Sue Barrell)

Bulletin: To what do you attribute your success?

I don’t think I even acknowledged success until near the end of my working career when people started asking me for my tips for success! I’m basically single-minded when I set my mind to something, and my super-power is denial. I just couldn’t conceive of doing anything different and so I pushed ahead and explored new opportunities when they arose. For the most part, throughout my career at the Bureau of Meteorology and in my international work, I was surrounded by respectful and positive people, and I was pretty good at ignoring anyone who wasn’t.

Bulletin: From your perspective, why are so few women receiving accolades from the scientific community?

In the early days of the IMO Prize, there were not as many women in meteorology and so it is understandable that the award went to men, but that is much less excusable these days. In meteorology, we are still not at parity, though gender balance is improving slowly. Awards to women, however, still lag pro rata and I suspect the reasons are largely a mix of inadequate recognition of women’s achievements and unconscious bias. As the saying goes, you must be in it to win it. The first step towards an award is being nominated, and we need champions who will raise the visibility of women’s contributions and achievements and create the role models who will in turn encourage others.

Bulletin: What can be done to attract, and retain, more girls to in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics and scientific careers? 

Attracting girls into STEM must start early, with teachers and parents nurturing an environment that encourages and harnesses their curiosity. Girls are inspired by the difference they can make, and science is a powerful tool for achieving that. The number one challenge, as I see it, is creating a sense of equality and equal opportunity – STEM is for both boys and girls, we need them both and we need them both to understand that. Maybe if we can master that step, keeping girls in STEM as they transition through school, higher education and into careers will be an easier ask.

There is real evidence that more diverse teams and teams with diverse perspectives perform better, and lead to better decisions and overall outcomes. This is especially true in STEM fields, where the different ways that men and women think and approach problems, increases the opportunity for innovative and practical solutions.
Bulletin: A recent article in Nature presented study results that show that the work of women scientists is undervalued and that “women are accorded less credit than men: they are systematically less likely to be named as authors on articles and patents.”  How can we change this situation and thereby create more role models for next generation?

We can all, men and women, be allies and help raise the profile, confidence and visibility of women in our workplace; be fair and balanced in recognizing achievement, in acknowledging contributions and ideas, in offering mentoring and training opportunities, and, for example, in encouraging participation in WMO expert activities. We should call out bias and prejudice wherever we see it and provide practical support when needed to address inequity. As above, we can nominate high achieving women for awards and promote their success widely.

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Sue on a well-deserved holiday in Bhutan in 2015
(Photo courtesy Sue Barrell)

Bulletin: How have you led, mentored and developed others over your career?

I have benefitted from generous mentoring throughout my career and have always tried to offer the same back to others, both while I was still at the Bureau and now in my retirement. As a leader, I have tried to identify those who would benefit from mentoring, sometimes by me but mostly by others outside of their work area, both for objectivity and to bring different perspectives. I tend to make mentoring a shared contract, since there is always something I can learn from them. Hearing about their success in promotions or their bold moves to new roles is always very satisfying. I have especially enjoyed it when mentees, both men and women, have sought me out as a mentor after I have given a talk or after they have read an article I’ve written. Sometimes they are from well outside meteorology and even science – I have had mentees from diverse areas across government, including health, tax and industry departments.

Bulletin: What character traits do you think most valuable for leadership?

Importantly, a leader is not just someone at the top of the tree, setting and inspiring the vision for her team and/or organization. You are a leader whenever you influence the choices or decisions someone makes, and you must appreciate and accept the responsibility and trust that goes with that role. Beyond this, I would see the most valuable character traits as honesty, empathy, availability, objectivity and the ability to listen, hear and process multiple perspectives. No pressure!

Bulletin: What is your advice to women who aspire to leadership – in all areas of science, as policymakers or as mentors or role models for early career scientists and emerging leaders?

After my long career, I am often asked to give advice to aspiring women leaders. You’ll see some of these in my responses to the earlier questions, but in summary, my five tips are:

  1. Choose your parents well – okay, you can’t choose your parents, but you can be the type of parent, teacher, mentor or leader that you would have liked to have (or did indeed have!), someone who supports, inspires, removes barriers and encourages you to make your own choices.
  2. Believe in yourself, or no one else will.
  3. There is no such thing as luck – it is all about creating or finding opportunities and making the most of them.
  4. It is not just about women – we need men too, and we need to work together respectfully – that is the meaning of diversity.
  5. You can have it all – family, career and the opportunity to make a genuine contribution in your chosen field. It takes work, choices and compromises, but it is easier if you have good allies (and are an ally in return) and surround yourself with positive people.
Sue Barrell, Greenland, 2017
A visit to Greenland in 2017
(Photo courtesy Sue Barrell)