Who Is Conservation?
Removing barriers for women working in the environmental field will only make conservation as a whole more effective.
More women are studying and working in conservation than ever before. Robyn James, TNC’s director of gender and equity in the Asia-Pacific Region, examines how institutional and cultural barriers still prevent many from participating in and leading conservation efforts. Removing those barriers is not only the ethical thing to do—it will make conservation work more effective than ever before.
When you think of a professional conservationist, what image pops into your mind? A man in hiking gear tramping the trails of a national park? A marine biologist in his full scuba gear surveying the diversity of a coral reef? A uniformed ranger scanning the savanna through his binoculars for elephant poachers? When I think of a conservationist, I remember a beaming woman from the Solomon Islands in a skirt and T-shirt—a woman who, for the first time in her 70 years on Earth, was given a snorkel and mask to see with her own eyes the wondrous coral reef she is protecting. This may not be what most people would think of as a conservationist, but that’s something I am passionately committed to changing.
Gender inequity and discrimination is widespread, and that is true for conservation, too. When I started my career 25 years ago, working as a wildlife ranger in a remote part of Australia, I came smack up against it. Tagging kangaroos and tracking crocodiles was considered unsafe for women. (A crocodile does not care who you are.) Handling firearms was considered beyond my skill set. (It’s not. I have the training.) I have been denied postings because they were “too strenuous” for a woman or, more recently, because it was assumed my parenting responsibilities would interfere with my fieldwork. (Everyone should be balancing work and family life.)
I face this inequity and discrimination as a privileged, white woman in a high-income country; others face far worse due to intersecting issues like race, ethnicity and location. Progress toward gender equity at the global scale is slow. A 2019 report by the World Wildlife Fund found that globally, fewer than 10% of wildlife rangers are women. And even though women make up more than 50% of conservation science graduates, they lament that they don’t routinely see people who look like them at senior levels. In conservation and natural resource management, as in many business and academic endeavors, men are overrepresented in areas like fieldwork and leadership, while women are often assumed to be better fits for support roles and “softer” jobs like communications and administration. This is part of the structural problem we need to address to eliminate gender inequity. Doing that will mean changing our understanding of what—and who—is conservation.
Global conservation organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, need to think about who is guiding their science. Recently, I led a research team to analyze the gender of TNC authors across published scientific papers. We found that from 1968 to 2019 only 36% of TNC authors in the science literature were women. Fewer still were the lead authors. And most concerningly, women from the Global South (often low-income countries) made up less than 2% of authors. So, while the U.N. estimates a staggering 80% of people displaced by climate-related impacts are women, they are least represented in leading our research. Those who are most impacted need to be contributing to how we understand and fix these issues. We also know that more diversity in research teams invariably leads to stronger results in science. We miss out on a lot by missing out on the voices of women.
My co-authors and I suggest ways to begin redressing this imbalance. They include continually addressing gender discrimination in our systems—hiring, pay, benefits and promotion opportunities—and offering women scientists and field workers research, publishing and translation support, ensuring that women don’t end up doing an unfair share of office housekeeping or administration, and crediting women who do otherwise-invisible labor like data entry and literature review as co-authors. Men have a large role to play in redressing this imbalance: They can work to understand gender inequity and discrimination, and ensure that they collaborate more often with women and work to include and fairly recognize all contributions.
Beyond the science, if we truly want conservation to have the most far-reaching and positive impacts possible, we must also address gender inequity in the selection and design of conservation projects. Too often, conservation and climate projects are designed with little to no input from women, so this knowledge is not considered. We should always be asking ourselves, “Who has the most to lose or gain by this work, and are they here?” Therefore, when designing projects, we need to ask ourselves not only what are we hearing, but what are we not hearing?
In 2021, at the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow, an analysis found that at the most important plenary sessions, men took up 74% of the speaking time. The following year in Sharm el-Sheikh, of the 110 world leaders present, just seven (less than 6%) were women. Often in my own work I see women at the meetings, but almost all the voices are men’s. We make deliberate efforts to ensure that women can have a say, reminding our male colleagues to let women speak as well as through one-on-one conversations, surveys and small-group discussions.
When we include women in the conversation, we enrich our understanding of resources. I often see examples of this in the coastal communities where I work, such as Papua New Guinea, where only men own boats, so they can access the outer reefs to fish. On the other hand, women often do not have access to boats and are not often taught to swim. They also handle most caring responsibilities for young children, so they need to be close to shore. As a result, the areas that are most important to them are very different from men’s and include mangrove areas along the shore.
My TNC team in this area engaged in extensive research and conversations with women and their communities, to gain a clearer understanding of the importance of the coastal mangrove forests and the main drivers of forest loss. We then supported the women in Papua New Guinea to design a new program that would be owned and led by them. The result was the creation of Mangoro Market Meri (Mangrove Market Women), a program for women and their communities to manage their mangroves sustainably. The work improves income for the women and their families by increasing the quality and sustainability of food that they harvest from tidal areas.
We are also working hard to ensure that women are not pushed out from their resource, and instead are able to drive the science and policy as the world moves toward valuing mangroves for their carbon storage potential. Where originally the markets were mud crabs, firewood and shellfish, suddenly many people are interested in mangroves for carbon markets. We have seen local women become worse off or even face the risk of violence when their resources suddenly have a high financial value, such as with emerging carbon markets. Men become interested, and women get pushed out. This is challenging work, but women deserve to be involved.
I also passionately believe that we should make sure our own teams reflect the diversity we seek. That way, we not only lead by example, but we strengthen our own organization with diverse voices, skills and styles of leadership. Equally important, we must make sure we don’t see women as a monolithic group. Women from different cultures and parts of the world have different needs and face different challenges.
Thinking in a broader way leads us to consider not only the “who” of conservation but also the “how.” Women in both our own organization and the communities we serve bear much of the burden of child care, elder care and household management, and our research supports this. We need to ask whether the people we expect to carry out the day-to-day work of conservation have what they need to do their jobs. Do they have health care, child care and the financial resources necessary to administer the task? In Papua New Guinea, for example, the answer was no. The health system was inadequate, and our Mangoro Market Meri staff, often based in remote villages, are not able to access in-person general health care and advice. So we have undertaken a pilot program to connect those women with basic telehealth advice from doctors in Australia. The results have been transformational for many and literally lifesaving for some. As a result of improved health for the women and their families, the women are able to work more effectively, and conservation work improved drastically.
Things like this have traditionally been considered outside the purview of conservation: We are, after all, about conserving nature, not transforming society. But conservation is ultimately dependent on people for success. I feel very proud to work for an organization that supports me in thinking about conservation in this way and enabling me to pilot more holistic approaches to our work.
Evidence shows that conservation works better when we listen to a wider range of voices and ensure that all genders are represented in decision-making. For example, some of the most successful marine sanctuaries in the Philippines are managed by women. India and Nepal have guidelines to ensure women membership in committees that administer local forests. India dictates that women comprise at least 33% of the executive body, whereas Nepal mandates 50%. When these guidelines are followed, local natural resource governance is improved.
I have seen for myself that once men see valuable contributions from women and feel less threatened by their success, they may become women’s biggest advocates. For example, in the Arnavon Community Marine Park—Solomon Islands’ first national park and a vital nesting site for the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle—we have worked for more than eight years to develop and support a women’s conservation group named KAWAKI. When we started, women were completely absent from the park and its management, and men were generally suspicious and sometimes downright hostile to women being involved. But the women were adamant they wanted to be part of conservation, so we persisted, led by them. Today KAWAKI has grown from just three of us in 2015 to 400 active members. The group is now part of the park management plan and developing a joint work plan with the rangers. On my recent trip to the Arnavon Islands, the head ranger, who has been there for nearly 30 years, told me that KAWAKI is one of the greatest things to happen to local conservation work. Some of the rangers have become the women’s biggest supporters.
Eliminating gender inequity from conservation is about recognizing that women shouldn’t have to fit into existing systems that may not be designed for them. This does more than make conservation fairer; it makes it more effective. And I know that’s a win for all people—and for our planet.
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