Quantcast

Women Are Rising in the Conservation Movement, but Still Face #MeToo Challenges

Insights + Opinion
Cecilie_Arcurs / E+ / Getty Images

By Megan Jones and Jennifer Solomon

The #MeToo movement has caused profound shake-ups at organizations across the U.S. in the last two years. So far, however, it has left many unresolved questions about how workplaces can be more inclusive and equitable for women and other diverse groups.


In its latest twist, over the last month a series of top executives have exited The Nature Conservancy, the largest conservation organization in North America. They left after an internal investigation, prompted by sexual harassment and workplace misconduct accusations, which found that the organization's culture "can make it difficult for women to thrive."

We have been studying women in conservation leadership for the past several years, and unfortunately this news didn't shock us. Our research shows that harassment is one of many gender-related challenges that frequently confront women conservation leaders.

Women's Expanding Presence in Conservation

For over 30 years environmental conservation in the U.S. has been critiqued for being led by white, wealthy people, mainly men. Environmental organizations have pledged to do better by hiring more diverse staffs and partnering more closely with environmental justice advocates.

Women are expanding their presence in conservation: In 2017 they occupied 41% of full-time staff jobs. But until recently there has been little research on their experiences.

And The Nature Conservancy is not the first organization where women have complained about a challenging work climate. Since 2016 sexual harassment scandals have been reported at the nonprofit group Conservation International and the U.S. National Park Service.

Research has identified numerous workplace barriers that make it hard for professional women to advance. They include challenges to their competence, salary and promotion disparities and sexual harassment. These challenges have been called a "labyrinth" that can hold many women back from senior leadership. Although environmental conservation is a progressive-leaning field whose advocates view themselves as striving to "do good," we found in a recent study that female scientists who led conservation efforts faced many of these obstacles.

Gender-Related Challenges at Environmental Organizations

We interviewed 56 women in conservation leadership positions at non-government organizations, federal and state agencies and other organizations in 19 states. Their ages ranged from 26 to 64, and they had diverse natural and social science credentials.

In our conversations they described six categories of gender-related challenges. They included salary inequality and difficulty negotiating pay levels; unequal hiring and promotion; informal exclusion; sexual harassment and inadequate organizational responses; and assumptions that that they were either unqualified to do their work or unfit to be leaders.

Women remembered these challenges starting early in their careers, whether in the form of harassment at remote field sites or judgment that legitimate scientists shouldn't wear high heels or makeup. For many it continued into their late careers as senior leaders whose colleagues still greeted their success with surprise.

Women of all backgrounds reported these experiences. Most had encountered at least four of these challenges. Many reported experiencing sexual harassment, from unwanted comments to unwanted contact. A few described male supervisors or colleagues behaving in verbally or physically threatening ways.

In their view these behaviors often went unreported because women feared retaliation or did not think reporting would lead to change. When organizations did take action, women in our study viewed it as insufficient. As one woman explained, "I've thought about reporting it and then I was like, why? He won't be held accountable for change. It would be on me, and it would be something like, 'You need to take that less personally.'"

Women of color face even higher hurdles than their white counterparts. Black, Hispanic and Asian American study participants described being singled out as "the only" conservationist of their race or ethnicity and having colleagues assume they were not leaders or scientists. As several of them explained, white women might struggle to sit at the conservation table, but women of color faced many challenges to even get into the building.

What Kind of Support Helps?

Our participants told us that two types of support had improved their situations. One category consisted of structural measures – organizational policies on sexual harassment, salary inequity and other issues, and training on topics such as leadership and diversity. Some women reported that organizational policies on sexual harassment were only put in place following a scandal.

Other helpful measures centered on personal relationships. They included behaviors such as providing opportunities, learning women's individual needs, offering feedback and guidance, connecting women to professional networks, championing their work and demonstrating confidence in them.

Seeing these behaviors modeled by leaders, regardless of their gender, was particularly important. In this light, the hiring of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as The Nature Conservancy's interim CEO seems promising. Jewell has already highlighted the need for a workplace culture "where employees can bring their whole selves to work."

Why Diversity Matters in Conservation

Conservation is more than protecting wildlife and natural systems. It also involves working with people to promote sustainable lifestyles and habits, so that future generations can thrive. In a 2014 essay, 240 conservation scientists asserted that "issues of gender and cultural bias" were hindering conservation by fueling divisive arguments over why and how to conserve nature.

"Conservation regularly encounters varied points of view and a range of values in the real world," they wrote. "To address and engage these views and values, we call for more-inclusive representation of scientists and practitioners in the charting of our field's future, and for a more-inclusive approach to conservation."

The upheaval at The Nature Conservancy is part of broad calls for a transformation of the U.S. conservation movement. There are many reasons to believe that a more diverse movement will be more effective, not only in attracting and retaining talented staff, but also in addressing the unprecedented extinction crisis facing our planet.

Megan Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in human dimensions of natural resources at Colorado State University.
Jennifer Solomon is an assistant professor of human dimensions of natural resources at Colorado State University.
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, poses for a photograph. Nick Otto / Washington Post / Getty Images

It seems the reality of the climate crisis is too much for the Federal Reserve to ignore anymore.

Read More Show Less

Passengers trying to reach Berlin's Tegel Airport on Sunday were hit with delays after police blocked roads and enacted tighter security controls in response to a climate protest.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A military police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, pets Rosco, a post-traumatic stress disorder companion animal certified to accompany him, on Jan. 11, 2014. North Carolina National Guard

For 21 years, Doug Distaso served his country in the United States Air Force.

He commanded joint aviation, maintenance, and support personnel globally and served as a primary legislative affairs lead for two U.S. Special Operations Command leaders.

But after an Air Force plane accident left him with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain, Distaso was placed on more than a dozen prescription medications by doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Read More Show Less
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
Preliminary tests of the bubble barrier have shown it to be capable of ushering 80 percent of the canal's plastic waste to its banks. The Great Bubble Barrier / YouTube screenshot

The scourge of plastic waste that washes up on once-pristine beaches and finds its way into the middle of the ocean often starts on land, is dumped in rivers and canals, and gets carried out to sea. At the current rate, marine plastic is predicted to outweigh all the fish in the seas by 2050, according to Silicon Canals.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Man stands on stage at Fort Leonard Wood in the U.S. Brett Sayles / Pexels

Wilson "Woody" Powell served in the Air Force during the Korean war. But in the decades since, he's become staunchly anti-war.

Read More Show Less
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Nov. 8. Matt Johnson / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

Joined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Friday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders held the largest rally of any 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to date in Iowa, drawing more than 2,400 people to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.

Read More Show Less

Scientists have developed an innovative way to protect endangered rhinos from poaching: flood the market for rhino horn with a cheap, fake alternative.

Read More Show Less