Lessons and Wisdom from Conservation Women Leaders

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This content was created by the Maliasili Team and was originally published on the Maliasili blog

Across the world, women continue to make strides in spaces that previously were not accessible to them. The conservation field is a traditionally male-dominated space, with noticeably few women at the leadership level. But this is changing.

This week  - in honor of International Women's Day, we spoke with three female conservation leaders on what changes they've seen, and what opportunities they believe there are for women leaders in this field.

There has been a call for more women leaders across all levels of governance in conservation. Have you seen a lot of transformation recently?

Paine: I think it is changing. It's a slow process but definitely, things are moving when we look at our communities and the engagement of women in decision making structures. Looking at my personal experience, there is more acceptance even though it’s still a struggle for Maasai women. The fact that women are forced to fight strengthens their capacity and abilities. Also, the younger generation has more vitality and are comfortable to occupy spaces and raise their voices - they want to be seen and heard. There is greater unity and collaboration between women than before, across age sets and geographic communities.

Edla: There has been a slight shift in the representation of women in leadership positions for conservation organizations. However, there has been very little to no change regarding the inclusion of women on boards and the promotion of women to actually lead these organizations. 

Rachel: Locally, we have seen an increase in women holding respected roles within conservation. I feel this has been a steady trend over the past 10 years. This has been made possible by women getting new opportunities, and proving how effective they can be in this sector. We now have several female CEOs and women in top leadership positions. I work in Wildlife Rescue - which has animal welfare at its heart - and is an area that has long seen women heavily involved. The exciting shift is to now see an acceptance of the importance of welfare within conservation, as the two are so critically linked. This has given an increasing opportunity for women to demonstrate they bring important context, understanding and value to the conservation space.

What new opportunities do you see in conservation that emerging women leaders should take note of?

Rachel: Leadership opportunities like WWF’s Education for Nature Programme, Conservation Awards such as the Tusk Awards and the Whitley Awards, and an increasing number of networks and forums for like-minded women, for example, women in the African Conservation Leadership Network which focuses on institutional change and personal empowerment.

Edla: There are more opportunities for conservation women leaders to expand their networks and leverage the experiences of their counterparts and peers in other parts of the world. 

Paine: There are a lot of opportunities for women, emerging leaders need to be willing to grab them. They must engage and throw themselves out there. They need to be involved, speak their minds and not just go with the flow. As a woman, you have your internal beliefs and views, and it’s crucial to air them not just go with the prevailing wisdom.

What barriers continue to hold women behind?

Paine: Culture is still a barrier - you have to respect existing systems, structures and hierarchies. There is also a problem of the attitudes people still hold about women leaders - both men and many women in some societies still believe that women can’t be leaders. Additionally, organizational culture and values are often set by men.

Rachel: Many professional working women are also mothers, and as such, may not be offered the same opportunities as men due to the perception of their maternal needs. In conservation particularly, work is often more of a lifestyle and passion than a job, which makes it difficult to find a work-life balance. However, it's possible to find solutions. For example at GRI, we enable women with families to work flexible hours or work from home, which has proven to be hugely supportive. 

Edla: Not addressing the skills gap that exists in women is a major barrier. The lack of proper gender policies that address inequalities in organisations is another barrier.

What wins are helping push women forward in areas of leadership?

Edla: Women are effective multi-taskers, and I believe that this has led to women succeeding in leadership roles. 

Paine: What is helping is that women have the drive, and the broader world is changing and pushing for equality. Also, policies that promote fairness and protect equality within institutions are helping.

Rachel: It's a snowball effect. The more women are achieving in positions of leadership, the more opportunities will be created for other women. Women are demonstrating dedication, compassion and empathy while holding positions of leadership and proving their value in this space.

And how can male colleagues be allies in this?

Rachel: The support of male colleagues and leaders is critical in giving women equal opportunities to demonstrate that they are capable of leadership roles. They then need to provide them with the appropriate support to ensure they flourish. 

Paine: Male colleagues should respect the agreed policies within organisations, respect women’s views and understand we’re all humans and deserve to be listened to equally. Also, they need to understand the effort we put into our work - recognising our abilities and achievements, and supporting our desire to be heard.

Edla: Men can be allies by doing the tasks that are traditionally perceived to be performed by the women and vice-versa, and prove that there are no gender-based roles in conservation.

Madeleine Traynor

Senior Design, Communications, & Operations Associate, Maliasili

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