A Focus On Nature

Issues in conservation

The unnatural balance. By Matt Williams.

Matt has been a member of the RSPB since the age of five and has never looked back. He remembers writing to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth at the age of seven, shocked at the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. His passion for the natural world has led him to work for a range of NGOs as both an employee and volunteer, as well as running his own projects. Professionally, Matt specialises in climate change policy, communications and youth engagement. He has worked and volunteered for the RSPB in a number of roles, including as a membership recruiter, an assistant warden and in the climate change policy team. He is a founding member and former Co-Director of the UK Youth Climate Coalition and attended a UN climate conference in 2011, and holds degrees from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and a diploma from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. During 2013-14 Matt is working in Borneo, Indonesia, as Communications Manager for the Orangutan Tropical Peatand Project.

Surely organisations working at the cutting edge of social or environmental justice aren’t affected by gender inequality? Think again.


In 1880s England a group of women decided that enough was enough. They were no longer going to sit back and acquiesce to the killing of countless rare and beautiful birds from the UK and around the world as an acceptable loss in the name of plumes for hats.

In the great age of philanthropy, this group of women mobilised to save nature because the fashion industry was pushing some species to the brink of extinction. These women were ready to stand up, organise and protest and in 1889 their actions led to the creation of what soon became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The RSPB has grown to be one of Europe’s foremost conservation organisations, with over 200 nature reserves and more than one million members. But today seven of ten of the charity’s Chief Executive and Board of Directors are men.

This story of male dominance at senior levels is repeated again and again across conservation NGOs. How has the sector come so far from some of its radical, feminist, roots?


What’s the issue?

Here’s a rough and ready straw poll I did of the make-up of Boards and Chief Executives of leading conservation NGOs in the UK (including a random sample of three Wildlife Trusts from the many up and down the country). Perhaps there are others I should have included or ones that shouldn’t be here but it feels fairly representative to me:


RSPB: Chief Executive and Board of Directors – 6/9 male

South West Wildlife Trust: Board – 12/14 male

Suffolk Wildlife Trust: Board of Trustees – 8/10 male

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust: Board of Trustees – 10/14 male

National Trust: Director General and Board of Trustees – 6/11 male

Friends of the Earth Trust: Chief Executive and Board – 8/13 male

WWF UK: Board of Trustees – 9/10 male;

Chief Executive and Executive Directors – 4/4 male

Butterfly Conservation: Senior Management – 3/4 male;

Council – 12/15 male

Buglife: Board of Trustees – 5/7 male;

Senior Management Team and Chief Executive – 4/5 male

BTO: Directors – 5/5 male

Marine Conservation Society Board of Trustees – 6/10 male

Chief Executive and Senior Management- 3/5 male

Plantlife: Chief Executive and Heads of Departments – 7/11 female

Pond Conservation: Directors – 3/4 female

Woodland Trust: Chief Executive and Board of Directors – 4/7 female

Board of Trustees is 8/10 male


Given that 68% of staff in the UK charity sector are women, why do these figures show that men dominate senior positions?

Ann Kiceluk, Director of Human Resources for the RSPB told me that “we recognise we have a gender imbalance in our senior staff. There needs to be some further work to understand how this has occurred over time and what we can do to redress this balance going forward.”

Meanwhile, Anne Lightowler, Head of Human Resources at the Woodland Trust, an organisation that bucks the trend, said “we have a culture of inclusion and general passion for our people, as well as trees and woods. Our commitment to equal opportunities is reflected in the diversity of our senior management as well as across the organisation. We believe that having the diverse perspective of thinking in our senior management team is vital for the on-going success of our organisation.”

And Liz Radford, Acting CEO of Plantlife at the time of writing, told me that “we do have a predominance of women. On the senior management team the heads of conservation and communication are both women. Equally, our Deputy CEO and incoming CEO are also both women.  So why are we bucking the trend?… The simple answer is that we are lucky enough to have excellent female candidates wanting to work with us. And of course, we’re smart enough to employ them.”

As well as just numbers of women, the question of who holds power is crucial too.

In conservation organisations the contribution and work of more junior staff and volunteers is vital. But the overall direction of the organisation still comes from the top. I’m unaware of any horizontal form of hierarchy in the conservation sector that might emulate the approach of People and Planet, where the organisation did away with the Director position and senior staff now all manage each other in an alphabetical rotation system.


What has already been said?

There is a wealth of existing literature on eco-feminism and women’s oppression in society more widely. The newly formed Women in Conservation Leadership in Cambridge is just one such group discussing these issues and working to address them. What I’m saying here is nothing new and nor am I alone. If you follow the links there’s plenty of reading material out there in voices other than my own.

A great place to start is a recent debate in the media between the Campaigns and Policy Director at Oxfam, Ben Phillips, and one of his employees, Guppi Bola. Their exchange focussed on the domination of development NGOs by white males. While Ben owned up to his privilege as a posh, white male, Guppi pointed out that by presuming his position of power and right to speak on a major media platform, he might risk reinforcing the problem by drowning out or failing to acknowledge other, less privileged voices already saying the same thing.


Why does this matter?

It’s crucial to stand up and be heard saying that I don’t believe that the status quo is sustainable or acceptable. I believe that the conservation sector can do better than this. To begin, let’s consider why women’s lack of power in our sector matters.


  1. Oppression and representation: women’s voices are under-represented and under-valued in wider society compared to men. This problem is only reproduced in the conservation sector by imbalances such as the one my figures above represent. We have to accept that if boards in conservation NGOs are made up mostly of white blokes then the decisions are likely to over-represent the interests of this group of society.
  2. Voice: women have different life experience and concerns than men and different approaches to tackling problems. There’s good evidence that groups perform better with an even gender split than at either of the extremes. So male dominance at senior levels might be making conservation organisations less good at saving nature!
  3. Building a better world: we want to build a better world from a social and environmental point of view. My primary passion and concern is nature conservation. But I’m also able to recognise that there are other injustices in society: prejudice on the basis of race, sexuality and gender. There’s no point building a better world if we’re going to leave some of these problems be. It’s everyone’s responsibility to proactively tackle different forms of oppression.
  4. Feedback benefits: similar to point three above. Yes, our cause is conservation, not gender equality. But evidence strongly shows that strengthening equality across society can also strengthen people’s concern for the natural environment. There’s an ecosystem of values feedbacks. Integrating this kind of holistic, long-term, values-based approach is critical for the sustainability of the conservation sector.
  5. Visualisation: over-representation of men sends the message to women that they can’t get to positions of power. It’s easier to imagine yourself doing something if you see someone who looks like you doing it.


This is by no means the only form of under-representation or oppression operating in all parts of society, including our sector, but does seem to be particularly discordant with the feminist roots of the conservation movement.


Why is this happening?

There are a number of reasons that could explain why, in conservation, positions of power are mostly held by men. Some of these are particular to conservation itself, from the relatively low pay, the long-hours culture to the distant travel required for field work. This can make it particularly difficult to juggle a conservation career and a care-giving or family role.

Other causes are found across society as a whole. For example, selection panels at interview stage can unwittingly suffer from unconscious bias, the tendency to prefer equally qualified male candidates over female ones.

In her TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg argues that women suffer from a lack of confidence, something that’s instilled into them by society as they grow. This makes them less likely than men to attribute success to their own qualities or endeavours, less likely to ‘lean in’ during meetings and less likely than men to negotiate their salaries. This is sometimes referred to as stereotype threat: fatalistically succumbing to the stereotypes about your own group.

Our definition of what leaders look like might also be skewed towards qualities that are also perceived as being more naturally masculine: being loud, being aggressive, and being able to make quick decisions. But a good leader can also be one who is compassionate, collaborative and contemplative. Both the qualities we believe women capable of possessing and our definition of what makes a good leader need to shift and meet in the middle somewhere.

Women might also find it harder to integrate themselves into higher echelons of management when those tiers are already dominated by men and the climate is one created by men. These kinds of cultural norms and institutional inertia might simply take some time to overcome, but there are some measures that could speed this process up (see below).


What can we do?

Let’s start with the most difficult thing to say: men are complicit in this oppression. So what can men do? We can start by recognising our own involvement, whether that’s in tiny, seemingly benign acts of sexism (I’ve been guilty of these), or whether it’s the invisible privilege of simply being male, which I’ve definitely benefited from in my career. To address this there are lots of simple practices we can adopt. We also need to collaborate with women and learn from them how we can help.

Additionally, there is a range of existing policies that have been shown to be effective in redressing the unfair balance towards men in the workplace. I’ve been told that in addressing unconscious bias, Natural England, a UK Government environment agency, offers training to its staff on this problem to make them aware of it and therefore less prone to it. Measures like equal maternity and paternity leave can serve to balance out some of the duties of childcare and give women more room to focus on careers.

Furthermore, Women in Conservation Leadership (see above) creates a space for women to work together to discuss and overcome some of the barriers found in wider society. The group plans to offer training and mentoring to help women overcome problems such as lack of confidence.

There are also those who believe that change is on the way, occurring organically as the conservation sector changes over time. Katie-Jo Luxton, Director of RSPB Wales (speaking in a personal capacity) told me that “as we understand better the causes of declines in nature and the complexity of the human interactions and drivers of declines, a broader suite of knowledge and different set behaviours are required to promote and secure solutions that will see our wildlife recover.  In the last two decades, the conservation movement has broadened its focus from individual conservation actions and protection legislation to more far reaching attempts to amend the economic and decision making systems that under value nature and degrade ecosystems… With nature conservation increasingly needing the art of collaboration to have the necessary impact, there are significantly more opportunities for capable women to come through and exert authority and influence.”

And she believes that there are increasing numbers of women in senior management roles who can act as role models to women earlier in their careers. She says that this lack of role models was certainly something that, in the past, undermined confidence “for me and for a number of very capable women” who would fail to even put themselves forward for interview as a result.

Whatever happens, something has to give, and the natural changes Luxton points out might get us where we want to be, but perhaps only several decades or more in the future. If we continue as we are then conservation organisations will go on representing a small sliver of society, their policies will fail to reflect society’s concerns or its creativity in tackling them, and they will be upholding some of the injustices that persist elsewhere.