My career in conservation spans more than 20 countries, and workplaces ranging from universities, governments and consultancies to community-based and global non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Currently, I work as the Asia-Pacific director of gender and equity at The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest global conservation NGOs: it has more than 4,000 staff members and is active in more than 80 countries. I am responsible for ensuring that all our endeavours across the Asia-Pacific to address biodiversity loss and the climate crisis are inclusive and equitable.
My career has been incredibly diverse: from monitoring saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) in northern Australia to working with women on gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea to speaking at international climate meetings. But one theme has remained a constant: gender-based discrimination, which not only holds women back, but holds the world back from addressing the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Discrimination is by no means an experience unique to me or just a few women. A review of 230 peer-reviewed articles1, of which I was the lead author, confirmed a sobering truth: women everywhere are excluded from decisions about conservation and natural resources, from small and remote communities in biodiversity hotspots to large conservation organizations themselves. In every country, and in almost every setting and organization, women are routinely disadvantaged in conservation just because they are women.
Unconscious bias is normal and natural, and all of us have it: it is how our brains make sense of the world. But when unexamined bias or deliberate discrimination influences decision-making, perpetuates stereotypes and keeps women from reaching their potential, they create rippling negative impacts on society and the future of our planet. Whether gender stereotypes are overtly hostile (such as ‘women are too emotional to lead fieldwork’) or seemingly benign (‘women are naturally good at organizing and supporting the team’ or ‘we need a strong, decisive leader’ — that is, a man), they hold women back in their conservation careers.
An uneven playing field
Conservation has historically been a male-dominated profession. Just 3–11% of wildlife rangers are women2, and only 11% of the top-publishing authors in conservation and ecology are women3. A strong masculine culture is often associated with the profession, which can intimidate women. Many women in the sector experience sexual harassment and anxiety about their personal safety — particularly when they are the only woman on a project, which is often the case.
Furthermore, women usually pay a heavy price for calling out cultures that are not inclusive. From surveying conservation professionals, I found that nearly 20% of women fear reprisal when speaking out against bias4. Their fears are warranted; many are sidelined or branded as ‘difficult’ or ‘frustrating’ if they draw attention to discrimination or poor behaviour, or try to slow down the decision-making process if it is not inclusive.
In my career, I have been told that I wouldn’t be considered for an exciting project because it would be too physically demanding, be unsafe for a woman to be alone in a remote setting or require too much time away from my young family. Decisions that are made on your behalf are infuriating — and can come at both a career cost and a financial cost. Conversely, I have been offered opportunities because I have a masculine, gender-neutral name, and the people in charge assumed that I was a man before they had met me. I was then met with surprise and scepticism when I turned up and they realized that ‘Robyn James’ is a woman. I have always held my own in these situations, but the constant pressure to prove I belonged was exhausting and came at a personal cost5,6.
My experiences are those of someone who holds deep and unearned privilege: I am a white cis woman with sufficient income to support my family, and I can speak and write English (the primary language of science) well. These factors increase my opportunities to contribute. Many conservationists and scientists who are women do not have those privileges. Some are also discriminated against owing to racism in a world that favours whiteness, and those who live in places where the cost of education and health care is high, wages are low and basic services such as power and Internet are intermittent face further disadvantages.
As an ally and sponsor for women in conservation and science, I am determined to leverage my position to change this. I’m focused on breaking down walls and smashing the glass ceiling for women across the sector.
Here are a few ways I am using the power I have to make conservation and science more inclusive. Hopefully these ideas will help others to share their solutions or to be better allies to women.
Women are needed as leaders
Women who are conservation and environmental-science graduate students or are at early career stages often tell me that they don’t often see women at senior levels7, and that leaders don’t make them feel included. I am part of an informal group of women in senior positions in conservation, representing several organizations, who attend events for undergraduates and early-career professionals. We aim to share our journeys and to be visible to women who are just starting out. We model diverse leadership styles to show alternatives to masculine ‘command and control’ leadership, which these women might have more often experienced.
Women routinely undersell themselves and do not apply for promotions, so we actively encourage our younger peers to apply for positions and support them by providing feedback on CVs and sharing interview techniques, for example. I am also part of a formal mentoring and sponsorship programme to support women — especially those in the lower-income countries — to navigate and excel in systems that are not designed with their success in mind. We work through issues to do with self-esteem and confidence: some women have understandably taken biased attitudes on board, and do not realize that they are worthy of progressing in their careers. I work with them to help them to understand how incredible they really are.
At The Nature Conservancy, we have developed a network of more than 50 women who can share their experiences and challenges in a safe supportive environment. We ensure that we work with women to address practical challenges they encounter. These efforts range from dedicated sessions on how to address gender bias in their teams and workplaces, to working through examples of how to make progress on gender equity in the field of conservation, where speaking up might clash with cultural norms or put women at risk of retaliation.
Making work more inclusive
My research with The Nature Conservancy on gender and conservation science publishing has shown that women are vastly under-represented8: less than 2% of authors were women in lower-income countries. The organization subsequently enlisted an experienced, well-published conservation scientist to work with women across the Asia-Pacific and support them in the publishing process, from developing research ideas to submitting final publications. I ensure my own published research includes authors with diverse perspectives. For example, for the three publications that were part of my PhD research1,4,8, 86% (19) of the authors are women, of which 68% (13) are first-time authors, 47% (9) are women of colour and 5 (26%) are in lower-income countries. This demonstrates that intentional efforts make a difference.
Even the wording of job descriptions can exclude women. Language inherently has gendered associations, so including words such as confident, decisive, strong and outspoken in job postings has been found to attract men and deter women from applying. Many of my colleagues have felt intimidated by the tone of conservation job advertisements, which seem to be written for men. At The Nature Conservancy, we check our job descriptions and organizational plans and strategies for gendered language using a gender decoder, a tool that assesses text for masculine-coded language that could unconsciously discourage women from applying or keep women from feeling engaged with a work programme or strategy. (You can see what the decoder finds in this article here).
Wherever patriarchy is deeply entrenched, men are often favoured for higher education and technical training — and women miss out. Many conservation roles have standard and mandatory educational and technical qualifications, so women are often automatically excluded from even being able to apply for a role they could otherwise be suited for.
Changes in the field
My leadership team and I have worked to address some of the systems and processes that might inadvertently disadvantage women. For example, in the Solomon Islands, an archipelago in the south Pacific, marine conservation and research roles that require a scuba licence immediately exclude many women in the country from applying, because almost none have access to scuba training given that men are generally prioritized for training and development opportunities. In most places where The Nature Conservancy works, our employees will only ever need a mask and snorkel. Therefore, a small change in the job description means that many more women can apply. Adjusting our standard mandatory requirements has led to some fantastic women successfully applying and becoming high-performing members of our conservation teams. We now carefully omit any technical requirements that are not essential to a role or that can be easily obtained through on-the-job training.
We ensure women are included in the teams that develop and implement workplace health and safety protocols, and have broadened our definition of workplace health and safety to include psychological safety and protection from gender-based violence (including sexual harassment). We worked with experienced professionals in this area to develop organization-wide guidance for our staff and partners. We also develop tailored plans depending on the country we are in to specifically address safety for women. For example, in Papua New Guinea, some women on our teams made it clear that it was unsafe for them to travel home after dark on public transport. In this country, more than two-thirds of women have experienced violence. We commissioned an official work vehicle to take staff home after hours.
We ensure women have basic field equipment that is suitable for them. We provide women’s sizes in all protective gear: everything from gloves for fire protection to life jackets. This is organized before a trip or fieldwork takes place.
We are also implementing protocols to ensure our conservation teams are diverse and that women are not on their own among all-male research groups. This is not only safer for women, but has repeatedly led to better conservation outcomes: the women notice things that have previously been missed. For example, in Mongolia, women in herding communities are often unable to attend important research meetings about grassland management because there is no access to toilets or because training sessions are held at times when they have caring obligations. The women on the project noticed this, and worked with the herders to ensure the infrastructure was adequate and the schedule was adjusted so that they could participate and share their unique perspectives on improving grassland conservation.
Women benefit from more women being in the sector. From early-career to senior positions, representation matters. But this alone is not enough. Historically male-dominated sectors, such as conservation, that now have a relatively equal gender balance in undergraduate courses need to push for cultural change as well. This is the most difficult part of my role: challenging male leaders and systems that are not designed for women to succeed.
Although we need to listen and respond to the needs of women, this is never something that should be the burden of women alone to fix. Strong leadership across our sector that prioritizes gender equity and inclusion in conservation, and provides resources to achieve it, is crucial.
Women will thrive in conservation science if we keep pushing to move from equality to inclusion. Inclusion means not only that women are present, but that workplaces and programmes are designed and tailored with and for them. We shouldn’t be surprised or blame women when they don’t succeed in conservation and science workplaces and programmes that are still not actively including them. Women make up more than 50% of the population; we need to have a say in the future of our planet!