Nearly 60 years ago, in 1962, Rachel Carson’s now-classic book Silent Spring was serialised. Carson warned of the potential danger posed by unregulated use of agrochemicals and, as one might predict, the book generated controversy. The author was branded a communist, and “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature”, yet she also found significant support among the growing numbers of people concerned about the manner in which humans interact with the natural world. What we now think of as environmental activism was in many ways inspired and galvanised by Carson’s book, so it is somewhat ironic that over half a century later, despite such a prominent female influence, environmental and conservation workplaces are largely male-dominated, and are not reflective of the diversity of the workforce in general.
Back in July we shared with you our outline plan for the Empowering Women in Conservation Program, and our hope of making the conservation working environment here in Vietnam more inclusive, safer and better-equipped to tackle the challenges the country faces. This is a complex issue the world over, and every region and and every country has its own barriers to overcome in making this type of equality a reality. Despite making real progress in many areas, Vietnam is no exception, with firmly established gender norms and expectations which may discourage women from entering conservation, let alone making a career out of it. One issue people who don’t conform to gender norms may face is gender-based violence (GBV), in one form or another, and globally the majority of people experiencing GBV are women.
The results from our survey were by turns surprising, alarming, illuminating, and troubling, and I’ve summarised some of the key findings as the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ll start with the good. One gratifying aspect of the survey was the degree of engagement, with 114 respondents from all levels of organisational hierarchy, representing academia, government and NGOs. Reassuringly, the majority felt that their workplaces were generally free of harassment.
However, a lot of people don’t realise what sexual harassment actually entails, as defined by law in Vietnam, so when presented with a list of behaviours and scenarios, 5 in every 6 participants experienced sexual harassment in some forms. 3 in every 8 respondents who have been harassed didn’t report it, and 1 in every 10 respondents stated they had occasionally witnessed rape or attempted rape. This may reflect another finding: half of the respondents were unaware of any policy in their workplace to prevent or address these issues. In keeping with anecdotal evidence from conversations with colleagues in conservation, both in Vietnam and elsewhere, fieldwork was identified as carrying a high risk for harassment, as were events involving alcohol, and it is not surprising that these together were seen as the two most significant factors. By way of acknowledging this, some respondents indicated that female staff were no longer appointed to roles involving fieldwork. In case you hadn’t guessed, that was ‘the bad’.
Finally then, the ugly. The majority of incidents revealed in our survey were verbal, such as inappropriate and unwelcome stories, comments and ‘jokes’. However, 5% respondents had experienced either an attempted or actual sexual assault at work in the past two years. If nothing else, this one, alarming finding should really make it clear that workplace sexual harassment is an issue to be taken seriously, and one which we are right to be seeking to address. In addition, 31% of participants who experienced sexual harassment were told by their colleagues that it is “normal” in our sector. If nothing else, this one, alarming finding should really make it clear that workplace sexual harassment is an issue to be taken seriously, and one which we are right to be seeking to address.
In order to do so, we’ll be working with our conservation colleagues here to establish some guidelines and policies relevant to our varied workplaces – offices, forests, villages and so on – and which are appropriate for Vietnam. Our research revealed a lamentable lack of specific policies to prevent and address sexual harassment, as well as the prevalence of harassment itself, and it is crucial that we make any such intervention both practical and contextual: what works in a New York office might not work in a Vietnamese national park. We’ll also aim to establish a network for women in conservation, as networking and the support that shared experience can bring is something we are very keen to promote here. Our survey revealed evidence that workers who don’t conform to cultural norms of sexuality are also targets for sexual harassment, and we will be sure to include LGBTQI+ in our work here. Just as in nature, diversity brings resilience, and this resilience is what allows organisations to be flexible, and to deliver the conservation outcomes we all want and need in an ever-changing world.
To read our full report, please click here