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Study dissects challenges of women in conservation

Jennifer Solomon (left) and Megan Jones (right) are both involved in the human dimensions of natural resources department. Solomon is the one who conceived the idea, got the funding for the training and help lead the research while Jones did the research as part of her doctorate work. (Asia Kalcevic | The Collegian)

As climate change and other environmental issues become necessary to talk about, two members of the Colorado State University community have put together a study to recruit more diverse backgrounds in conservation leadership. 

Jennifer Solomon, assistant professor within the department of human dimensions of natural resources at CSU, and Megan Jones, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in the department, are behind the research study they started in early 2019, titled “Challenges and supports for women conservation leaders,” which talks about women in conservation leadership roles and the struggles they may face to get and remain in their positions. 

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Solomon said that while the term “conservation leader” can describe a number of individuals, the term generally refers to someone in a leadership role with a focus on biodiversity.

“Leaders, in general, are people who are striving to motivate others towards goals related to conservation, both inspiring people and giving other(s) the skillsets and opportunities to be most effective towards conservation,” Jones said. 

In October, Jones and Solomon attended a seminar at CSU for female conservation leaders in Latin America. Solomon said that although the research she and Jones conducted was based in the United States, they were still able to hold an informative workshop and gain new insight for their study. 

Jones said one of the main focuses of their research — and what they subsequently presented at the workshop — was the struggles women face as conservation leaders.

“We also wanted to hear from the women themselves about what experiences they’ve had,” Jones said. “Conservation leadership looks different depending on what context you’re in.”

We especially need women from diverse backgrounds and people in general from diverse backgrounds. They’re underrepresented in the conservation field. We need that type of diverse knowledge base to sustain the planet.” -Jennifer Solomon, assistant professor, department of human dimensions of natural resources, CSU

Jones said she and Solomon were interested if there were patterns between what they found in the U.S. and what women experienced in Latin America. 

In their study, Jones and Solomon found that women in conservation leadership roles are generally paid less than male colleagues at the same level, women don’t receive promotions and women are uninvited, or not present, in decision-making spaces. The study also talks about the harassment women face in the workspace and the assumptions of their inadequacy, such as men tending to disbelieve in or being surprised by a woman’s success.

“We found that the women at this workshop were describing a lot of the same kinds of things,” Jones said. “A lot of it centered, in my memory, around challenges which are to do with whether others perceive you as credible or legitimate … or whether you need to supplement that with extra scientific training to be seen as a conservation leader.” 

Solomon said it’s really important for women to step up as conservation leaders because diverse input is necessary in conservation. 

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The more people involved in conservation, the more likely we will have healthy, sustainable ecosystems.” -Megan Jones, department of human dimensions of natural resources doctoral student

“We especially need women from diverse backgrounds and people in general from diverse backgrounds,” Solomon said. “They’re underrepresented in the conservation field. We need that type of diverse knowledge base to sustain the planet.” 

Solomon said that, in the U.S., it’s typically white men who hold positions of leadership in this field. 

“We know, from research, that women don’t strive to be in leadership positions unless they see someone similar to themselves at the top,” Solomon said. “So, we need to move women into those places.”

Jones said once women are in those places, however, it’s also important they stay there. 

“We found that harassment exists for women,” Solomon said. ”From other research, not our research, we know that from women that experience harassment in the workplace, 80% will leave that organization in two years.”

Who are the women who have opted out, who have been lost along the way? How can we retain them, and what can conservation organizations do to retain them?” -Jennifer Solomon, assistant professor, department of human dimensions of natural resources, CSU

Jones said it’s really important now for more people to be interested in biodiversity and planet conservation. 

“The more people involved in conservation, the more likely we will have healthy, sustainable ecosystems,” Jones said. “There are more and more women coming up in conservation at younger levels, so there is a change happening, and there’s knowledge about how to help themselves and each other be effective in the field.”

Jones and Solomon said that, in the future, they hope to continue their research with women in conservation leadership roles.

Solomon said she was surprised to discover no one else had conducted a study like this before, which leaves many angles that need to be followed up on.

Jones also mentioned the possibility of a similar study in Latin America. 

“I think it’s really timely … (with) what’s happening politically in our country,” Solomon said. “We started before the ‘Me Too’ movement became really big, so it’d be interesting to follow up with some of these women. It’s the only study I’ve ever been involved in where I’ve had women come back or call me to share something else.”

Ceci Taylor can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @cecelia_twt.

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