#EcoHeroine Series: The labyrinth of women’s leadership in conservation

I caught up with Megan Jones, a conservation social scientist in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources department at Colorado State University to talk about research into gender-related challenges and constraints that US-based women conservation leaders experience in their careers, and the supports that have helped them navigate the “labyrinth” that is women’s leadership.

Megan Jones
Postdoctoral Researcher
Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Department
Colorado State University

SR: As a conservation social scientist, what does your work involve? 

MJ: My work is in human behavior, change and leadership in conservation, looking at it from a social-psychological perspective. So how do we understand how individuals and groups work together to protect nature, and what can make people more effective both individually and collectively when getting involved in biodiversity conservation?

SR: In your article, you note that “inclusive, diverse leadership is increasingly recognized as fundamental to conservation success.” Why is that?

MJ: I think for a couple of different reasons. There’s increasing recognition that conservation organizations need to reflect the communities they seek to serve and the communities they’re working with. If you don’t have women in leadership, if you don’t have women empowered in your organizations, it makes you less effective. There’s also increasing recognition about the diversity of skillsets and the diversity of ideas that can come with having more gender equity at the tops of organizations. Women on corporate boards, for instance, often leads to more sustainable action by that company. There are all kinds of examples of diversity in general, including gender diversity, making teams stronger.

SR: Your study included interviews with 56 women across the US in conservation organizations at varying stages of their careers and from different ethnicities. What were some of the stories you heard?

MJ: It was a really amazing opportunity to get to speak with these women about their different experiences. I think one of the things that really struck me was how pretty much every woman I spoke to had some examples from her career of challenges that had been related to gender, whether that was being dismissed at a young age or being invisible in a meeting, or feeling that people were seeing you as less legitimate in the workplace because you were a mother. There were some really powerful stories from women of all ages and all around the US about how this has been a part of their career that they wished they hadn’t had to deal with.

SR: What were some of the leadership challenges described by the women you interviewed?

MJ:  We identified six gender related challenges. Some were more formal. Women talked about being passed over for promotions, especially when they felt like they were the most qualified for the job. And seeing other women being passed over for promotion or seeing less qualified men be hired in for senior positions when there were women who were much more qualified, who could have filled that role. Others were more subtle, like feeling interrupted or having men take credit for ideas, or just not being in the room when important decisions were being taken. Many women talked about not only experiencing sexual harassment at work, but also feeling like they couldn’t report it because there would be retaliation or the organization wouldn’t take enough action. There were also experiences of having other people assume that you’re not the leader or the scientist on a team and that you are not able to do the work that you actually are qualified to do.

SR: What made women afraid to report incidents of sexual harassment?

MJ: They were worried about their organization failing to take action or that they would be retaliated against as they had seen other women be retaliated against when they had spoken up about these experiences. When organizations did take action, it was sometimes not in proportion to the scope of the offense, or an organization only seemed to take sexual harassment seriously when there’d been some sort of scandal to necessitate it.

SR:  What were some of the ways that women’s experiences varied based on different factors, for example, age or race, ethnicity, or their position in the organization?

MJ:  What’s remarkable about this is that it happens at all stages of a career. One of the biggest difficulties was for women of color, who talked about the intersectional challenges of race and gender and being not just the only woman on a team, but being the only woman of color or the only person of color on a team. And all the challenges that come with that as well as the questioning of their competence, which happened more often than for other women, white women in particular. Plus, just the extra labor of having to take on diversity, equity and inclusion work, and being expected to do that because of their status as one of the only women of color in an organization. For women who are in more senior positions–you would think that maybe some of this stuff would become less of a problem–but they described experiences of being in teams where men would be making sexist jokes about other women who weren’t in the room and having to put up with that or confront that. And the feeling that as they got older, they were more invisible or less respected on a team.

SR:   Given that conservation often requires field work in remote places, are there unique challenges that women encounter in this space that they might not in other sectors?

MJ:  Absolutely. This is something that other people have looked at in STEM work more broadly, and it’s a super important area because there are certain vulnerabilities that come with doing field work, particularly around sexual harassment and assault. If you are on a team where you’re out in the field and people are making sexist jokes or sexual comments, you may not feel safe confronting that, and you shouldn’t even have to confront it. It shouldn’t happen. That can be particularly hard on more junior members of teams who are younger women working with older, more senior men and feeling like they have to kind of go along to get along.

SR:  How are women with children balancing the demands of motherhood with the expectations of conservation careers?

MJWomen who became mothers described changing their work to be able to be home more often, to travel less and to prioritize being there for their kids. But more broadly, I think fieldwork and conservation can create a work-life balance challenge for conservationists because there are often long hours. Conservation doesn’t fall tidily into the nine to five that families might want, so there’s pressure women get from both sides.

SR: What supports might help?

MJWe’ve seen in the last 10 years the rise of women’s conservation leadership groups and networks all around the U S and internationally, and there are conservation conferences or seminars for women. Also, getting their stories out helps, just like you’re doing here, to shine a spotlight on the women who are in conservation and who are leading the movement to demonstrate to others that they’re not alone, and that there are role models to aspire to, that there’s a community of women out there.

SR:  What can conservation organizations do better or more of?

MJ: We have to see this as a systemic issue that requires everyone involved in conservation to be aware of these issues, and to think about what they can do to affect them. What really came out of the interviews was how much of a difference other people and organizations could make in women’s careers. Organizations that had put in place sexual harassment policies or done pay equity and pay transparency assessments, for example. The women I interviewed said this was seen as really helpful on the gender bias side of things, as were more explicit commitments to work-life balance coming from organizational leaders. Women spoke about the importance of colleagues, mentors and supervisors who had stepped up and created opportunities for them, demonstrating that they trusted and valued their leadership, or role modeling what it’s like to be a mother in a senior leadership position who is managing both roles and maintaining her sanity at the same time. There are lots of different ways that organizations and individuals in conservation can take this forward and make the space more friendly to women in leadership.

SR: What role do men need to play? Does this come up in conversation?

MJ: Absolutely. It’s a question I get a lot when I talk about this research, because it’s so important when women are coming into male-dominated organizations or a male-dominated profession, it’s often equality-minded men who are opening the door for them and helping them get into leadership. It’s crucial that men engage with these issues and recognize and value women as scientists, and provide those opportunities and listen to what women are asking for. It’s also really important that we move this conversation beyond the gender binary as well. A lot is still underexplored about LGBTQ queer transgender folks in conservation, who may be facing even more intensive challenges than women might in some places, particularly working in countries where those identities are illegal. Thinking about gender diversity beyond the binary is something that I think could help everyone.

SRAny final thoughts you’d like to share with women working in conservation?

MJ:  I hope my research shows women that their experiences are often not about them, but rather about a broader pattern. For women to recognize that these things are systemic and that it’s not ideal to have to navigate them. I continue to come back to that supportive community piece, which seems to be so powerful for the women I interviewed. They spoke about having supportive relationships with colleagues and mentors and other women, and seeking those spaces out as a sort of buffer from some of the more negative or toxic things that are harder to fix right away.


You can check out some of Megan’s work by following the links below!

Jones, Megan & Solomon, Jennifer. (2019). Challenges and supports for women conservation leaders. Conservation Science and Practice. 1. 10.1111/csp2.36.

Jones, Megan & Teel, Tara & Martinez, Doreen & Solomon, Jennifer. (2020). Conflict and adaptation at the intersection of motherhood and conservation leadership. Biological Conservation. 243. 108487. 10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108487.

P.S. You can join the conversation in the Collective, a diverse, supportive women conservationists from around the world who are sharing stories and resources, and cheering each other on!

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