January 23, 2016

Unnatural selection: sexism in conservation

The December 2015 edition of BBC Wildlife magazine carried a powerful article by the creative director of A Focus on Nature, Lucy McRobert, calling out the conservation world for being sexist. It provoked a large postbag, including this brave open letter from 13-year-old birder Mya-Rose Craig, which I urge you to read. "When I was 11 years old, a secret Facebook group of middle aged male birders targeted me and posted 150 comments about me, including a sexual remark," Mya-Rose reports.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment, shall I?

Another response to Lucy's article came from reader Jenny Salmon, who pointed out that women were vastly underrepresented in the pages of Wildlife magazine itself. Editor Sheena Harvey replied:

When we recruit contributors to the magazine we tend to look at their expertise and the subject they will cover, rather than selecting for gender. But we would be delighted to hear from more female naturalists!

Following that, here is the letter I sent in:

I was disappointed to read Sheena Harvey’s response to the letter from reader Jenny Salmon calling for more women writers in the magazine.
     I’ve worked in the media for nearly 20 years, on both sides of the commissioning desk. At nearly every publication I’ve been connected with, men have been overrepresented both on the staff and as contributors. In the last couple of years a light has been shone on this imbalance, not least by the excellent work of the VIDA organisation, and nowadays more and more publications and organisations have stopped accepting it as the natural order of things and are instead taking active steps to represent women fairly.
     Doing this means first acknowledging how unconscious bias – which is not the same thing as sexism, and which affects women as well as men – distorts the commissioning process, both among staff and potential contributors, and invisibly perpetuates the status quo. Correcting for this bias means actively seeking out knowledgeable women and asking for their contributions, issue by issue by issue. Eventually, as women see themselves better reflected in the media, a new norm will be established and will begin to perpetuate itself, as more women discover the confidence to put themselves forward as frequently as men do.
     If we are to act together to protect nature, tackle climate change and reverse species loss we need as many voices and ideas and approaches as possible. We cannot afford to leave half the population behind.

Sexism manifests itself in many ways. It is there in the shocking treatment experienced by Mya-Rose, perpetrated by insecure men who have never taken the time to examine their own misogyny and instead act it out in their dealings with women and girls; it is there in women's lack of representation (and frequently their dismissive treatment) at conservation events and in the media. And it is not acceptable.

Mya-Rose has, I am sure, a very bright future ahead of her, and I am bowled over by her bravery and articulacy in calling attention to her experiences because this kind of thing can make you feel irrationally ashamed, and would have silenced me utterly at her age. It's clear that she isn't letting it stop her from pursuing her interests, and that is both impressive and heartwarming. But think how much more brightly she could shine if she didn't have to contend with this rubbish. And think how many other girls will have been put off.

If this is how the conservation world treats young female birders it's hardly surprising that so many of us let our interest in the natural world drop as we get older. No wonder fewer women than men go birding, or say yes when invited to contribute articles, speak on panels or chair events. No wonder there are fewer women writing about nature in books or magazines, or working as wildlife photographers, or at the top of conservation bodies. Because, as progressive and morally sound as it believes itself to be, the male-dominated conservation world is not always a welcoming place.

Today I shared Mya-Rose's article on Twitter, and going by people's responses many were, quite rightly, shocked and upset. But it's not enough to click 'retweet' in a burst of outrage, and it's not enough just to send Mya-Rose messages of support, or to advise her to 'ignore it'.  

What is required is for all of us who have an interest in nature – men and women – to commit to stamping this egregious bullshit out.

That means, firstly, recognising the part that sexism, internalised misogyny and unconscious gender bias play in determining the assumptions we make about one another. Unfortunately, because we live in a society in which certain beliefs about women are so deeply ingrained and so strongly perpetuated, we all suffer from it: me, you, everyone. You can be one of the 'good guys', horrified at the behaviour of other men; you can be a woman and a staunch feminist – it doesn't matter. Unless we work on it, really hard, we all make assumptions about people based on their gender; I catch myself doing it all the time. Internalised misogyny affects the way I feel about my own intelligence and abilities, too, but learning to be aware of it helps me to stop it affecting the way I act. The point is, telling yourself 'But I'm not sexist!' is not enough.

Secondly, it means getting better – all of us – at spotting the ways in which sexism manifests itself in the environmental world, and calling it out. It could be a joke on a day's conservation work about women's driving skills, or who's going to make the tea. We've all heard the unfunny gags about 'great tits' or 'pairs of tits' – hardly original stuff. Perhaps it's the moment when a guy you vaguely know talks over or continually interrupts a woman, or takes up the time allotted to her to speak at an event; or a comment about someone's looks that's totally irrelevant to her abilities. Maybe it's the mocking reception given to a woman who expresses her irritation at this stuff, the way she's made to feel unwelcome for not just 'taking it as a joke'. It could be the day you witness a good friend of yours 'mansplain' a first winter Mediterranean gull to a female birder without stopping to check if she might have more experience than him, or the visible surprise displayed in a hide at a woman able to operate her own binoculars. Or perhaps it's the day a middle-aged man invites you to a Facebook group set up to bully an 11-year-old girl, because her success, her visibility, frightens him.

Image courtesy RSPB
Can you make a stand? Are you willing to say 'Sorry, that's not OK with me', or 'I don't find that funny'? I know – BELIEVE ME, I know – how uncomfortable it feels. But women have to do it all the time – and this shouldn't be our sole responsibility to sort out.

And there's a third thing. Working for change means actively seeking to amplify the voices and profile of girls and women in the conservation world. Seeking them out when you're planning a day's birding. Putting them forward for opportunities and properly represented at events (I'm looking at you, Birdfair). Asking them to be a guest on your blog. Pointing others towards them on social media. Looking for knowledgeable women writers, and inviting their contributions, if you're in a position to. This isn't 'positive discrimination' (don't get me started...). It's levelling, by a tiny degree, a tilted playing field – and if you care at all about nature you should know that having more women on board is something we'll ALL benefit from: men, magazines, and Mediterranean gulls alike.

Follow Mya-Rose on Twitter: @BirdGirlUK and read her blog here