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Gender in Conservation

By Katie Morell
min read

A New Era

The topic of how gender is treated in conservation—as in the human genders of the people who work in the conservation field, not the animals themselves—is one that gives many pause, especially with mostly white men in the uppermost ranks of many conservation institutions, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

There are some exceptions to this, especially lately, but the existence of such imbalances is startlingly ironic: in an industry where biological polymorphism among species is keenly prioritized, why isn’t there the same laser focus on diversity of human counterparts at the forefront?

The answer is complicated and uncomfortable for some, while others applaud the efforts within the industry to make strides toward gender equity and see progress as promising.

Words Matter

It was in the early 1980s when Dr. Lisa Dabek landed an internship at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It was there that she first met Dr. Devra Kleinman, director of research, who was a pioneer in zoo biology and a mentor and model for so many women of her generation. She was a big influence in Dabek’s early career. Dabek was a graduate student in animal behavior when she started expressing interest in traveling to Papua New Guinea to study wild tree kangaroos.

Dr. Lisa Dabek with a tree kangaroo
Dr. Lisa Dabek with a tree kangaroo. Credit: © Jonathan Byers

One time, when she brought up her goals at an AZA conference, she was met with doubt. One conservation leader commented, “How could a young woman like you go to such a remote and dangerous place?” she remembers. She took it as a challenge.

Thankfully, Dabek was undeterred and today works as the senior conservation scientist and director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., traveling regularly (pre-COVID) to Papua New Guinea. While she has seen strides towards equality, there is still room for improvement.

In the 1990s male directors were often referred to as “silverbacks.” That language has shifted, but there are remnants of it.

Dr. Christina Castellano, associate director of development at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah, remembers hearing the term ‘silverback’ when she joined the community in the mid-90s, saying that that the colloquialism incorrectly referred to specific men as the people who made most of the contributions to the conservation industry. This vernacular is damaging to the community as a whole, she notes, because (as casual as the reference may be intended) it sends a message that men are the ones doing the most impactful work, which is simply untrue.

When asked, both women enthusiastically lauded the mentors they’ve had in their careers, noting their female mentors were hugely positive influences. Each also felt that their contributions to conservation were taken more seriously once they earned their PhDs.

“I’ve had tremendous professional opportunities throughout my career, and I’m encouraged by so many other women pursuing careers in conservation and science,” said Castellano. “I haven’t experienced a lot of gender bias probably because I have focused so keenly on building my credentials.”

Dr. Christina Castellano weighing a radiated tortoise
Dr. Christina Castellano weighing a radiated tortoise. Credit: © Aaron Gekoski

After she graduated with her doctorate, Dabek said the comments around her changed.

“Doing applied research in graduate school was challenging; I never felt like I fit in,” she said. “Once I got my Ph.D., I found that I was treated differently by men in the AZA—more respected and valued. I’ve had to prove myself as a woman. There is still salary inequity, but I am seeing more women moving up to the director and CEO position than ever before, and I think that is great.”

Women in the Field

Alex Ocañas was a graduate student conducting field research in Peru when she experienced sexual harassment. She was in a location without cell service, had taken a boat to get there, and was the only female in her group.

“The leader of the group was being out of line,” she remembers, “but from my perspective, I really needed the interview, so the next morning I had to sit down and be cordial and do the interview and pretend everything was OK. It wasn’t a good experience.”

Back at school, a department advisor gathered female students to talk about their experiences doing field research, and Ocañas learned a shocking fact: every female student had experienced something similar. Equally shocking were the gender-based suggestions from the school on what to do if you were a woman going into the field: to take someone with you, and if you couldn’t find anyone (‘anyone’ implied men) to not go at all.

“I thought, ‘I can’t just not go, but maybe I shouldn’t because some of the stories were horrific,’’” she said, adding that she’s heard stories of gender discrimination/harassment/assault occurring in the field both abroad and in the U.S. “It was a huge turnoff as a social scientist because research is a key part of my job; whether it is something you worry about in the field or encounter in the field, it impacts how you feel as a researcher and the research itself.”

Alex Ocanas
Alex Ocañas. Credit: © Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Fortunately, Ocañas continued with her graduate work and today works as the conservation social scientist at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Springs, Calif. Post-school, she says she hasn’t experienced open discrimination and is part of a department focused on equality in hiring. “But the worst part of gender discrimination is that you don’t always know it’s happening,” she said.

Not every woman interviewed reported negative experiences in the field. Castellano, who has long traveled to Madagascar to study the radiated tortoise, said even with the country’s male-dominated society, she feels valued there because she comes with opportunity for the community and resources (funds). 

“When I go into meetings, I’m generally the only woman there,” she said, adding that she often will bring a female mentee and has focused on creating community-based conservation programs. “They usually view me as a person who has the resources to make things happen. It isn’t gender that they see, it’s what I can bring to the table.”

Over at the Santa Barbara Zoo in Santa Barbara, Calif., Dr. Estelle Sandhaus oversees all of the organization’s field programs as its director of conservation science, and said she’s enjoyed “exceptional mentorship” in her career from both men and women, as well as positive experiences in the field.

“I do, though, think there is an opportunity to discuss practical considerations in conservation and field work, and how those can challenge women,” she said.

While many of these considerations are now being spoken about in university settings, more can be done within institutions to address issues. Some issues include field work projects that require heavy equipment—some of which may not be easily usable for a female body. And even not-so-heavy equipment, like binoculars, are often too wide to fit a female face. Other considerations are the types of machinery used. Some off-roading vehicles, such as UTVs, are designed exclusively for male bodies.

“For petite women like me, we can’t reach the pedals when the seatbelt is on,” she said, adding that she instructs her team to extensively search for equipment that will be suitable for all genders in the field.

Another issue: bathroom breaks. If a field assignment includes a day-long boat ride without an enclosed bathroom stall, women often struggle when nature calls and have to resort to creative measures like using devices such as Shewees to help them urinate standing up. If a woman is breastfeeding, it can also be difficult to establish privacy on a boat or in backcountry situations.

“These are all things people might not think about, but women deal with on a daily basis,” Saudhaus said.

How to Change Things for the Better—Now

There are efforts—within the AZA and among outside conservation organizations—to address the gender gap. At the past several AZA Annual Conferences, Kathy Wagner of consulting firm Zoo Advisors (and formerly of the Philadelphia Zoo) has long been presiding over a panel of women leaders within the AZA for conversations on gender equity.

Kathy Wagner
Kathy Wagner. Photo Credit: © Zoo Advisors

“We ask them to tell their stories, and share research of why the advancement of women is important, and how diverse groups make better decisions—not just in the conservation world, but also the business world,” she said. “At our last in-person session (before COVID), there were 200 people in the audience and when we finished, the panel got a standing ovation.”

While there are conversations happening on the conference level, individual AZA institutions can still do a lot on their own to move closer to gender equity, such as:

Create a pipeline. Dr. James Danoff-Burg, director of conservation engagement and learning at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, is trying to create more formal connections, as he said, “between pipes in the pipeline,” to help women get into conservation and then move up the ranks to lead projects. One important distinction: AZA facilities should consider offering paying internships. Those that don’t pay discriminate against people who can’t afford to volunteer. “It doesn’t cost much to start a program; I’ve been able to find space in budgets and grants,” he said.

Consider a woman’s experience. “I go by he/him, I’m a 6’2”, white, cis-gender male; I have a relatively easy time in global conservation,” said Dr. Jake Owens, director of conservation at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles, Calif., adding that with dedicated attention, he’s seen how women’s ideas are often treated differently than men’s ideas in the same room. Pausing to consider another person’s experience can help create both empathy and change.

Turn conversations into action. While it is important to have conversations about gender disparities within AZA facilities, “just having a conversation isn’t enough; you have to lead it to action,” said Owens. “I’ve found that having conversations with a blank slate doesn’t lead to much; there has to be a starting point and goals.”

Ocañas recommends institutions bring in an experienced facilitator to hold a full-day seminar on this topic with a module on sexual harassment, and not just for the conservation scientists, but for all staff.

“I think it would be helpful to split up men and women so each group can talk about what they are doing and experiencing and how things can be better,” she said.

Wagner agrees that conversations are essential for change, and to include men as integral parts of the solutions. “It isn’t us verse them,” she said. “Just because a woman wins doesn’t mean a man loses.”

The most important thing, according to Danoff-Burg, is to begin the process. “We need to start this process immediately, otherwise it will get delayed,” he said. “People need to read this article and start the change. Otherwise, they will say, ‘let’s wait until after COVID, or let’s wait until next year.’ Instead, we need to prioritize this right now.”

Cover photo Alex Ocañas. Credit: © Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Katie Morell is a writer based in Bend, Ore.

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