ECOS 38 (6): Gender equality in the Wildlife Trusts

Women now have a near equal share of middle ranking and management roles amongst Wildlife Trust staff. Does this reflect the wider world of employment in nature conservation, and what will it take for women to improve their share of chief executive, trustee and figurehead roles amongst the Trusts?

Perceptions of nature conservation work

Is British nature conservation work male dominated? Traditionally countryside and habitat management tasks might have involved much physical and manual outdoors work. This might mean it is perceived as a career more suitable for men than for women, and thus encourage more men to aim for the sector, or the outdoors management strands of it. However, professional nature conservation work today is as likely to involve office based project management, engagement with communities, and advice to organisations and landowners, alongside the need for physical habitat management. These are tasks which women are just as suited to than men, thus no difference in the gender balance needs to be seen.


The Wildlife Trusts as a sample

I decided to investigate the numbers of men and women in conservation roles in the Wildlife Trusts. Although the basic figures of each sex working in the sector do not necessarily indicate whether the general environment is conducive for women, they are at least an indication of underlying trends.

The 47 Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of British nature conservation, playing a vital part in managing nature reserves, organising local conservation efforts and educating the public about wildlife. Annually they run over 11,000 conservation related events, directly manage 95,000 hectares of land, and indirectly influence conservation on more than 200,000 hectares. Thus examination of the gender of their staff could provide some indication of the general situation in nature conservation nationally. The websites of all the Wildlife Trusts in Britain were visited between 15 and 28 April 2017. Where provided, the names and roles of each member of staff was noted. These often appeared under web pages entitled, ‘about us’, or ‘our staff’. Details on staff role were collected.

Data on all trusts could not be obtained as some trusts did not provide staff details. Often only names of senior management or trustees were provided and not those engaged in actual conservation roles. Thus comparison between Trusts, or between job roles in terms of numbers was not possible. Information on staff details was obtained from 39 Trusts; with 1,361 names and roles being examined. Although a comprehensive list could not be made, the large sample of names studied means that general trends should be apparent.

Gender trends in the workforce

Of the 1,361 people working in Wildlife Trusts 758 (55.5 per cent) were found to be male, and 599 (44 per cent) female. There was broad equality in mainly ‘conservation’ roles, which included project officers, reserve managers, and the like. From the 448 such conservation roles noted, 218 were held by women (48 per cent), 229 by men (51 per cent), with 3 people being of unknown sex (0.6 per cent). This suggests that despite the traditional image of this being a male dominated career path, at least within the Wildlife Trusts there is a rough equality in number terms. This included roles relating to education and within such roles women were especially well represented. In 90 posts with a mainly education or engagement role, women held 67 posts (74 per cent). Women are also well represented in more senior managerial roles. In roles such as ‘directors’ or ‘heads of’ I was able to examine 152 posts. Men held 53 per cent and women 47 per cent.

However, ‘chief executive’ and ‘trustee and figurehead’ roles were heavily male dominated. Of the 34 instances of ‘chief executive’ found, 26 (76 percent), were held by men with only 8 (24 percent) being held by women. A similar picture was evident for trustees and presidents. Trustees play an important role in guiding the management of Wildlife Trusts. The role of president, patron, or ambassador is often more ceremonial. Nearly 70 percent of trustees were male, and 72 percent of presidents or ambassadors.

The analysis is far from perfect. Job titles often fail to fully reflect the actual tasks involved. In many strands of conservation, staff are required to improvise and take a flexible approach to the role. Examining only the numbers of each gender working in the sector is a crude measure of equality. Just as important is a working environment where both men and women are enabled to work to their best and feel comfortable and respected. Women may have different needs from men in the workplace such as provision for child care flexibility, and these factors were not examined. However, simply looking at the basic figures of each sex is an easy initial step and at least shows the general situation.

Chiefly concerns

In conclusion, 44 per cent of conservation roles were held by women and 47 per cent of more senior management roles. Although this offers scope for improvement, it at least shows that women are well represented in these roles in the Wildlife Trusts. However, the lack of women in chief executive, trustee and figurehead roles remains a concern. Perhaps this is in large part stems from a historical legacy reflecting earlier lack of opportunity and more equality will be seen in the future.

The analysis did not consider the numerous volunteers who do much vital work of all types for the Wildlife Trusts, and who are not credited on the web sites. However, despite these limitations the results may prompt interest and debate on this topic, and help how to make nature conservation bodies even fairer and more diverse.

Figure 1: The percentage of men and women working in different roles within British Wildlife Trusts; a survey of 1,361 people working across 39 trusts.

 Views from the coalface

To get a small sample of views on some of these issues, ECOS asked the following two questions to a selection of women working in nature conservation, especially amongst the Wildlife Trusts:

A. What’s the single biggest advance you’ve noticed or experienced for women in conservation in your career so far (in relation to attitudes and/or conditions)?

B. What’s the biggest disappointment you feel in relation to women working in conservation (again in relation to conditions and/or attitudes) ?

We are grateful to our four respondents for the comments received and reproduced below. Inevitably the points expressed represent the individuals’ views not those of their employers.

A. What’s the single biggest advance you’ve noticed or experienced for women in conservation in your career so far (in relation to attitudes and/or conditions)?

Lisa Schneidau, Devon Wildlife Trust

I think it’s great that there are a number of wildlife charities who have female CEOs or female Chairs, and this has definitely increased while I’ve been working in the sector.

Debbie Tann, Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

Far more women working in conservation jobs traditionally thought of as male roles (such as reserves managers), together with more women in senior jobs such as chief executives.

Ruth Testa, Devon Wildlife Trust

The single biggest advance that I have noticed in the 10 years I’ve worked in conservation are that there are more women within conservation organisations, spread across much wider variety of roles. When I started there was only one other woman working in a practical land management role within my organisation (out of 9). By the time I left 9 years later this had increased to 5 out of 12.

Imogen Davenport, Dorset Wildlife Trust

Since the late 1800s nature conservation has been fortunate in attracting some strong female enthusiasts and so there have always been role models, albeit tending to be of a type active in the charitable sector.  The biggest advance for me is the introduction of modern, professional terms and conditions of employment and better understanding of maintaining good mental health. This has been to the benefit of all genders, but has allowed women to pursue a career in the sector independent of other financial support. Previously there were unwritten expectations of everyone, not just women, perhaps even self-imposed burdens, that meant horrendous workloads. This was compounded by long hours and acceptance of very low pay, until you broke, because the volunteers running the organisations were doing it for nothing and the organisation’s finances were so stretched.    

Most of the direct overt sexism I have ever encountered in conservation (going back to the 1980s) comes during interactions with some people we work with outside of wildlife organisations. I have always found nature conservation a very welcoming working environment. 

B. What’s the biggest disappointment you feel in relation to women working in conservation (again in relation to conditions and/or attitudes)?

Lisa Schneidau, Devon Wildlife Trust

There is definitely still a bias towards men working in ecological and nature reserves aspects of conservation, and women working in education and marketing. I also find that there is still a lot of sexism in men’s behavior in conservation – women have to work much harder to be taken seriously, and many men still favour other men in day-to-day work. Strangely, I find that it’s often the men who consider themselves to be liberal, who even describe themselves as ‘feminist’, who show the strongest unconscious sexist attitudes.

Debbie Tann, Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

There is still a significant gender pay gap, and although there has been a rise in senior roles, women leaders are still in the minority.

Ruth Testa, Devon Wildlife Trust

The assumption that women are not as capable in terms of practical land management and are more suited to survey, educational or office based roles. On successfully gaining my first role as a reserve officer, there were questions raised by other members of staff as to whether I would be able to cope with the physical nature of the role. I had hoped that in 2009 this would no longer be a consideration, but unfortunately this kind of attitude is still encountered in 2017.

Imogen Davenport, Dorset Wildlife Trust

In a world where pretty much every conservation organisation knows it has a huge amount of work to do to reflect the full breadth of society in its employees, trustees and supporters, not enough is being done to learn from how women have been and could be better engaged. Examples could include working structures that favour more collaboration, mutual support and job sharing, less reliance on hierarchy, greater flexibility in working patterns and hours even at senior levels, and different attitudes so that a fuller range of leadership qualities are valued. This could transform what are currently some fairly isolated, pressured and unsupported senior roles to be much more appealing to a wider variety of people of any gender.  

There are now very few days when I look round the room and find myself the only female, the opposite is in fact more likely in some cases. But though there are many more women working in conservation in all sorts of roles now, there are very much still roles with proportionally few female employees (eg. reserves wardening) and those with proportionally few males (eg. administration, education and outreach), so we cannot say all barriers have been successfully overcome in any direction. 

I think there has been much progress in the past few years, with many more senior roles being occupied by women. But there is still a big (24%) gender pay gap for ‘Conservation professionals’, according to the ONS so there is still much to do.  


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Walker, Mark “ECOS 38 (6): Gender equality in the Wildlife Trusts” ECOS vol. 38(6), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,