Women scientists describe challenges of careers in conservation

Women collect water from a tributary of the Volta River in Ghana, picture above. Women are disproportionately affected by climate change issues such as droughts. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Women scientists are uniquely positioned to understand the environmental challenges — such as drought, floods, extreme weather events and reduced food and water security — that other women face.

Women are coming up with solutions to climate issues, but they also face unique hurdles.

The Survey of Academic Field Experiences (2014) reported that approximately two-thirds of women scientists stated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment — defined here as inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences or other such jokes, Carinya Sharples reported for Mongabay.

Harassment aside, it’s still a difficult path to tread for women conservation scientists.

In honor of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Feb. 11, women scientists at Conservation International spoke about their experiences with gender in the world of conservation. CI’s women scientists have been able to make meaningful connections with women in the field because of their shared love for nature, but they also see women being excluded from local decision-making venues when they often have the most to share about the environment they live in.

Shyla Raghav, climate change lead:

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change and are more exposed to the risks of climate change (natural disasters, droughts, floods, and hurricanes) because they are more dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, make up a larger share of the global poor than men, and are often marginalized from decision-making processes. Educating and empowering women and girls can go a long way in ensuring that our response to climate change is inclusive, resilient and more sustainable.

If most women are like me, we’re deeply connected to nature and this planet. It’s about time we start to connect women’s issues and climate change and make sure we do a better job finding solutions that make sense for communities in the long run.

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Kame Westerman, gender adviser:

Men and women often interact with their environment in different ways based on those gender roles — men tend to fish in deep water while women harvest in shallower water, for example. Often, gender also has an impact on decision-making and participation in conservation-related initiatives, where women are usually not as well represented. As conservationists, we need to take the time to understand the gender dynamics underlying natural resource use and ensure that our projects and programs respond to the needs of both women and men. It may take more time, but in the long run it will improve conservation outcomes and advance human well-being.

I’ve spent my career in the international environmental non-profit sector which (in my experience) tends to be fairly equitable to women and men. However, while working overseas for many years, the majority of the local people I would work with were men, for example in government agencies, as community leaders, or as participants in conservation projects. As a foreign woman, I was given a certain amount of respect, but there were definitely times when I was disregarded because of my gender.

Margot Wood, associate scientist:

During my research I often work with farmers, and have conducted interviews, set camera traps and collected vegetation measurements on farm properties. When interviewing farmers, I’m primarily coordinating with the male head of household, but often, the women in the household feel comfortable talking to me and explaining their roles and perceptions of conservation, environmental policies and sustainable production. I’ve also had women join me in the field. After a few visits with one particular family, the daughter joined me in the field to set camera traps, and she helped me to understand her role as a schoolteacher and how she teaches her students about the local biodiversity and wildlife. It was one of the most informative experiences I have had in the field, and this happened because I was able to connect with another woman who was passionate about science and nature.

At the same time, I have also faced many challenges, ranging from concerns about my safety when working alone in remote areas, to [men] questioning my level of training [or] assuming that I’m not able to understand technical information. I take special precautions when in the field alone. At my previous research station, an entire whiteboard was set up with the words “¿Dónde está Margot?” — “Where is Margot?” — with estimated return time, approximate GPS coordinates for my field location and local farmers’ phone numbers. For other challenges, I normally just correct people and move on. It’s difficult. I don’t have a good solution for the latter two problems.

Camila Donatti, director of climate change adaptation at CI’s Moore Center for Science:

While doing fieldwork, I’ve noticed that sometimes, women cannot attend meetings at certain hours because they have to take care of their kids or work in the house. I’ve learned through those experiences and by talking to our gender specialist, that we should schedule meetings and workshops during times that women will also be able to attend or even consider having separate meetings for men and women, so everyone can have the opportunity to learn and share their knowledge.

I was fortunate to have bosses, mentors and colleagues that respected and valued the contributions and potential of women scientists. I was also fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful women scientists as role models. I am very proud to be a woman in science! We still see more publications, projects and grants being led by men, but I am hopeful that one day this will change as the scientific community is full of smart, capable and hard-working women.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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