Why was Women in Wildlife created?

I finally woke up to the prevalence of gender inequality in the wildlife industry; and I was guilty.

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I was guilty of founding Women in Wildlife without understanding the weight and significance of the platform I was creating. I was guilty for not doing enough research into the prevalence of gender inequality within the wildlife industry. I was guilty of not fully understanding the importance the community that Women in Wildlife holds, and the message that it edifies.

Just like every other woman (ever) I have felt the multifaceted effects of gender inequality in most aspects of my life.  However real and important my experiences have been, I am still very aware of the fact that I am a privileged white woman living in a first world country, and that in other parts of the world the consequences of gender inequality are far greater than I have ever experienced. I could talk about this topic all day and still not give it the justice and space that it deserves, however I would like to focus on what we are all here for; Women in Wildlife.

Women in Wildlife was born after reading Wendy Anderson’s paper “The changing face of the wildlife profession: tools for creating women leaders” which was published in 2020. I came across Wendy’s paper at the beginning of this year, and was naively shocked reading that gender inequalities are still very much present within the wildlife industry. The reason that I was so taken back, was that I quite honestly felt that the wildlife industry was fairly dominated by women, and despite being a part of STEM, it was one of the industries that was beginning to inch closer to the elusive gender equality. A little bit of incredibly accessible reading later- how wrong I realised that I was.

Wendy highlighted a study conducted by Swihart at al. (2016), which found that of 437 wildlife and fishery faculties from 33 research-extensive universities in the US, women were more likely to hold assistant professor positions (30%) than men (18%). Moreover, only 29% of women faculty were professors, compared to 51% of men. She also found that women in wildlife and fisheries organisations perceive that they are under-utilised in their positions, and that the workplace environment does not allow women to fully participate in management. More generically, she showed that workplace harassment and bullying towards women in STEM fields continues to be one of the largest barriers to contributions and advancements, and the majority of women who have managed to persevere in a male-dominated industry such as the wildlife industry, face social isolation and extreme visibility.

I really took a step back and thought about my university experience. I did four years of an undergraduate BSc Zoology degree across two well regarded universities in Australia. Did I have a single female professor in that time? No. Sure, there were female tutors and TAs, but there was not one leading professor that was a woman. I thought about those who are the faces of wildlife representation in the mainstream media, and realised that it is also largely male dominated. I felt like a failing feminist for not realising this sooner, and that I had really let myself and other women down.

As someone who loves an action list, the three takeaways from Wendy’s paper that were holding women back from dream careers in wildlife were; (1) opportunities for career development, (2) lack of a strong female network, and (3) flexible working hours. So, I thought, what can I do? At this stage being a veterinary biosciences honours student and a zookeeper I can’t exactly do anything in an employer capacity, so the only thing to do was create a strong female network.

Being completely honest, without too much thought I created the Women in Wildlife Instagram account. The day I had the idea was the day that I set up the account, and started sending messages to women that I looked up to within the industry to feature on our page. I set up a Facebook group so everyone could connect, in an attempt to create the strong female network that was clearly lacking. We had such fantastic feedback and gratitude from women who needed a platform like WIW. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to women from around the world, and hearing about their unique and inspiring journeys. I felt like I had created a platform which I so desperately needed in my earlier years, to help navigate through and understand the diverse range of different pathways that a career in wildlife can take you.

4 months into Women in Wildlife, I (shamefully) finally decided to investigate further into gender inequality in the wildlife industry beyond Wendy’s paper. Here is what I found:

  • The 6 main areas that women have identified as being a barrier within wildlife workplaces include; 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.
  • I came across anecdotal evidence of women who found no support from their peers in voicing sexual violence, and considered quitting dream career in conservation
  • Multiple sexual assault allegations towards prominent wildlife corporations, largely The Nature Conservancy.
  • 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.
  • In a 2014 it was found that 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.
  • For India and Nepal, there is strong and clear evidence of the importance of including women in forest management groups for better resource governance and conservation outcomes.

These findings only scrape the surface of the the research. After delving into it, I can safely say that gender inequality is sadly truly alive and well within the wildlife industry. I have finally woken up to the importance of creating a strong female support network for all women in wildlife, and amplifying the achievements of these incredible and inspiring women. I feel the weight on my shoulders in continuing to run this platform, and I hope that I can do it justice. Thank you all for your support so far, we have a lot of exciting things to come!

Eliza x

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