I had a brilliant discussion with some female colleagues the other day whilst we were filming our answers to some questions asked by The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts for International Women’s Day.
One of the overriding impressions was that we all felt like we had to prove ourselves and felt like we had to make an effort to not look too “girly”. Any struggles as a new member of staff seem to be perceived as “because you’re female” not “because you’re new and need a bit more practice” so it can feel like you have to work doubly hard to prove your competence. Not to mention the additional practical difficulties of being a female working out on remote sites with no toilets/facilities.
We all agreed however, that if you feel like wearing makeup whilst chainsawing, want to bring your bright pink backpack so it doesn’t get lost in the scrub, or enjoy dressing up/being “feminine” in your own time, then why the heck not?!
None of these things affects your ability to do the job. It’s important to remember that in spite of the doubters.
I’d like to say that we can have the best of both worlds, but would prefer we move away from seeing and describing things as “us and them” worlds. We can just have the best of the same world.
More and more women are getting into the traditionally male-dominated world of practical conservation, which is fantastic. At the same time, I feel lucky to live in a part of the world where this is the case and where I don’t feel majorly restricted by being female as this is unfortunately still not a reality everywhere.
I constantly am assumed to be a volunteer, and when I tell them I’m a member of staff they assume it’s a part time role. Which doesn’t particularly bother me but I still find it odd.
Often, though, people are pleasantly surprised to see “a girl” chainsawing or driving a tractor. In time, maybe they won’t be surprised anymore (and protective gear that actually fits women might become more readily available) as I feel like it shouldn’t even be “a thing”. I often amuse myself when spending hours mowing in the tractor, wondering if the people who stop to stare would imagine that the girl driving the tractor also figure skates.
On the flip side, when my partner tells people that he ice skates, they assume he plays hockey and act surprised when he tells them he figure skates. Both men and women can be affected by “manly” vs. “feminine” stereotypes but all of us should be able to feel comfortable, included and welcome.
It’s not only men who use a chainsaw and it’s not only girls who figure skate. We’re all free to do whatever we choose.
Despite this, there are always the odd few people who feel the need to share their unwelcome perceptions. I used to volunteer with someone who would often dismissively shake their head at me and say, “no” or “you can’t manage that” if they thought I was about to pick something up that they deemed too heavy for me, rather than let me decide for myself. There were also a few “that’s a man’s tool” comments. At the time I felt it best to just brush this off with a cheery, “I’ll manage!”
A separate instance that grated slightly happened after I’d spent an hour or so shoveling road planings into a wheelbarrow, wheeling it down a track and filling in holes. Maybe not the most efficient way to do the job, but I was filling time whilst keeping an eye on a contractor who was up a ladder. I’d nearly finished the repairs, so when the contractor had gone, my manager appeared and decided to help finish off the last bit using the tractor whilst I continued with the wheelbarrow. A passer-by (I think really just trying to be friendly) walked past my exhausted self and said cheerfully “are you the little helper?” …That one could have been partly down to me looking younger than my age (as evidenced by being ID’d recently to receive a grocery delivery), but I doubt they’d have said the same to my manager if he’d been the one with the wheelbarrow.
My advice for any females wanting to get into practical conservation work would be: be yourself, work hard, be patient, focus on what interests you and what you’re achieving, and have a goal in mind to work towards. Talk to females in roles you’re interested in and find out about the career path they took to get there and if they can offer any advice.
You can do it.