Women in Conservation
By Rebecca Snyder
As students file into the lab, my fingers fumble awkwardly in search of buttons that aren’t there. My brief bewilderment is quickly extinguished with a quick glance down at my lab coat, “right, other side.” In my haste, I had grabbed the first lab coat I laid my hands on. While lab coats designed for women are common today, right-buttoning lab coats were the standard for many years, a reflection of the historic dominance of men in STEM fields. Many such norms have been relegated to the past as more women (though still predominantly white women) enter STEM. The gendered culture of academia, however, which rewards hyper-competitiveness and individual achievement as measured by number of publications, remains stubbornly entrenched.
For conservation science in particular, which has seen comparatively higher growth in number of women compared to other STEM fields, such an incentive structure poses serious challenges. Conservation is a highly interdisciplinary and applied science. It also has a problematic history of ignoring and often exacerbating social inequities and disenfranchisement of local people. Thus, to be done effectively and ethically, conservation research today requires sustained investment in building and maintaining relationships, whether it be with colleagues in other departments or with collaborators from communities in which projects are to be implemented. Yet doing so takes time. Time that might otherwise be spent writing papers for publication, the most valuable currency for advancing in one’s academic career.
Beyond career progression, this emphasis on individual metrics of prominence over real-world impact may dissuade would-be conservation scientists—who are seeking careers that will make a difference—from pursuing such a profession. For younger generations who have born witness to decades of inaction despite overwhelming evidence from the scientific community of rapid environmental decline, many may question whether they can truly make a difference through a career in STEM where mountains of papers go seemingly unnoticed by decision-makers.
I know I did.
Paralyzed by a wave of ecological grief after taking several intro classes as a freshman, I found myself shrinking away from the environmental sciences, only to find my way back years later after witnessing how science can be applied to address real world problems. After completing my bachelor’s degree in international studies, I eventually went on to earn a master’s in environmental science before landing my first job at the World Wildlife Fund. While there, I saw what successful collaboration with academic institutions could like and achieve. This past fall, I returned to the academic world as a PhD student with a firm belief that the knowledge I aimed to produce could actually improve conservation outcomes.
At ASU, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by a group of conservation and sustainability researchers with shared ambitions of pursuing inclusive and action-oriented research. The uplifting, cooperative and solutions-oriented environment of groups like the Conservation Innovation Lab and ESSA stand in stark contrast to the notoriously cutthroat image of traditional academia—a possible sign of shifting attitudes. In a time when the rate and magnitude of environmental decline can easily overwhelm, these communities provide a space for much-needed moral support, and a reminder that the responsibility of creating positive change is not for any one person to bear—or receive credit for.