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Women in Conservation

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Em Witcutt with a bird on her hat (Will Scott)
Em Witcutt (Will Scott)

An opinion piece from Em Witcutt for International Women's Day

In countdowns of the least inclusive sectors of work, conservation languishes at the back of the pack, and women lose. Women are climbing in the frozen dark of a winter’s night, the path’s jagged edges biting at blisters through flimsy boots, the map taking shelter in the valley far below, long since torn from numb fingers by the merciless wind.

Surely not, you might be thinking. Maybe back in the day, when we had to fight for the right to vote, or work outside the home. But we found equality decades ago, right? What am I complaining about? Well…

I’ve been working for environmental charities for eight years. I’m unemployed, again, after completing my ninth short-term contract. The lack of job security and low pay creates a mountain that must be traversed, navigating chasms passable only by those with privilege and wealth enough to bridge the gap. And I’m one of the lucky ones. There are members of minority groups facing much worse odds than me, aspiring climbers who might as well be setting off from another country.

A few years ago, my partner and I were offered the chance to work overseas for the summer. We jumped at it, at the time having no responsibilities preventing us from bouncing from place to place for work, as is so often required. It was all part of the adventure, one that has taken us to truly astounding places (which is, of course, one of the things that attracts jobseekers). We would be earning enough, just about. We would be working on different projects, on opposing sides of the country, but that was fine. Our relationship has been conducted over the phone for much of its life, another summer wouldn’t matter.

Days before leaving though, the phone rang. My partner’s project had lost its funding, so he would now be taking my place. I had been shifted to a different project, one which would sparkle less on my CV. It was less involved, less well-known, with fewer opportunities to learn. The reason, the manager was at pains to say, was that my partner held a powerboat qualification, and I didn’t. Fine, I thought, totally acceptable.

Except for one thing. My partner arrived to find not a powerboat in sight. He didn’t touch one for the entire time in the job. So, what was so important about his qualification? Could it be that it was the major difference in our applications, outside of that innocuous little set of boxes on the Equal Opportunities form?

Remote island fieldwork (David Kinchin-Smith)
Remote island fieldwork (David Kinchin-Smith)

This is just one experience of many. Every woman in the industry has their list.

Every time we are overlooked for that job or training opportunity. Every ignored suggestion. Every “Let me carry that”. Every question directed at the guy next to you, whether he can tell a blackbird from a buzzard or not. Every enquiry about the possibility of children awkwardly avoided, because how could maternity leave be squeezed into such short contracts? Every conversation with a superior whose eyes kept wandering south. Every hug that ended in a hand straying a little too far from your waist. Yes, we notice. Every time. Every “Oh, that’s just how he is”. Every prickle at the back of your neck when out alone. Every ear pricked at approaching footsteps when work takes you into the night. Every “You’re alone out here?”, innocent or otherwise. Every whisper from some deep-rooted instinct, every twisting stab of fear.

All of it, the seemingly trivial and the obviously abhorrent, adds up, creates an ever-expanding gulf. My partner now objectively outstrips me in job applications, so is offered roles ahead of me when the competition is fair, as well as when it is not. Thanks to that powerboat-less summer he secured similar work elsewhere, on an equally renowned reserve. I began volunteering there, and was always welcomed by the manager, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he saw me just as ‘the girlfriend’. Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask whether, were I to apply for a position, I would be considered on my merits or my relationship. I was told, entirely against the organisations policy, that there was no place for me, and that my request had been “driven by my desire to work as a couple”. It came as no surprise. As lockdown first bit, days after I had lost my job with that organisation, the same manager had told my partner that he would be moving full time to the reserve. But I wasn’t to worry, I had my role to play too. I’d been conscripted as a housewife, to deliver food and collect his dirty laundry to wash. Lucky me.

What a waste. A waste of all those that we underestimate and undermine. A waste of those who are turned away, taking their knowledge and abilities with them. A waste of the time and energy of those left behind. The sector (the lower rungs, at least) is full of talented women, but imagine how much more they could give if all those ‘Every times’ were ‘Remember when’s’. It’s a loss we should feel all the keener given what we face as a species. Climate change and mass extinction are upon us. The conservation sector is at the forefront of a war, the consequences of which couldn’t be more far-reaching. We need everyone. We need women.

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Posted On: 20/02/2022

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