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Against the Tide: Women in Science and Conservation

Behind multiple success stories in conservation, there are leading women—empowered, courageous, resilient, and determined—with a fervent heart full of endless dreams who, day by day, build a better world.

In a world driven by scientific and technological advancements, women’s participation in these fields is essential to address the global challenges we face. One of these challenges is undoubtedly the protection and sustainable management of nature.

Effective conservation is not possible without the active involvement of women. Their voices, values, experiences, knowledge, leadership, and resilience are crucial for addressing the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Diversity enables the discovery of new perspectives and solutions.

However, gender equality in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is still very much in its infancy and a matter of concern. In fact, research published by Cambridge University revealed that many women are excluded from access, use, and decision-making related to the proper management of natural resources and wildlife.

When women lead conservation efforts, more success indicators related to solidarity, empathy, equity, law compliance, and ecological restoration are achieved, to name a few. Unfortunately, as if achieving nature conservation was not a challenge big enough on its own, several women also have to fight against prejudice, discrimination, threats, harassment, and even violence.

Balancing the gender scales goes beyond being an unquestionable human right. Women and men experience and interact with their natural environments differently. Therefore, their needs, roles, responsibilities, and expectations are not the same.

From BirdLife International, we are proud to know that behind multiple success stories in conservation, there are leading women—empowered, courageous, resilient, and determined—with a fervent heart full of endless dreams who, day by day, build a better world.

Today, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we celebrate the crucial role that women play within our community.

Be Inspired by Testimonies and Thoughts from Women in Our Flock from the Americas.
Who stand out for their dedication and contribution to science and conservation.

Danielle Ethier – Bird Population Scientist,
Birds Canada (Canada)

Working as a scientist in the field of conservation means I have the ongoing opportunity to be curious, ask questions, and seek answers to meaningful questions that have the potential to influence the way we approach the conservation of the natural world. There is no better way to spend day-to-day life than working to achieve results that benefit the conservation of biodiversity in Canada and beyond.

Looking back, I chose science because I had a high school counselor who nurtured my strengths instead of focusing on my weaknesses. When he asked me what my favourite hobby was and I responded “camping,” he encouraged me to study Biology. Until that moment, I hadn’t been encouraged to think beyond high school or how I could combine my passion for the outdoors and my strengths in math and science into a career. It was this mentor (and several others after) who set me on the path to becoming a scientist.

I don’t come from a family with a university education. My parents made the most of limited resources, and I learned from them the value of a strong work ethic. This meant I had to fund my own higher education through scholarships, loans, and summer jobs. I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome when I started university. I felt like I didn’t belong and that I wouldn’t be successful. These challenges are not unique to me, but are faced by many students, especially those from low-income or working-class homes. Through this experience, I learned that asking for help (financial, intellectual, or emotional) is not admitting defeat or failure, but a testament to courage and determination to succeed.

Balancing work-life is difficult for all workers, especially those with young families. Women often take on a disproportionate share in terms of child-rearing while trying to pursue their professional ambitions. I’ve learned not to expect 100% from myself on both sides of the work-life equation, as this creates an unattainable goal and unrealistic expectations of oneself.

Being a member of BirdLife means being part of a larger scientific community working towards the same conservation goals. Birds do not see geopolitical borders, and therefore, our research and conservation initiatives must have an increasingly international scope. BirdLife offers better opportunities for international collaborations that will ultimately help guide global biodiversity conservation.

Ser miembro de BirdLife significa ser parte de una comunidad científica más grande que trabaja por los mismos objetivos de conservación. Las aves no ven fronteras geopolíticas y, por lo tanto, nuestras iniciativas de investigación y conservación deben tener un alcance cada vez más internacional. BirdLife ofrece mejores oportunidades para colaboraciones internacionales que, en última instancia, ayudarán a guiar la conservación de la biodiversidad global.

“There is no obstacle you cannot overcome, nor is any goal too big to achieve. Often, our greatest barrier to success is our own doubts. Remind yourself daily that you are as deserving and capable as anyone else. All of life’s challenges can be overcome if they are broken down into their components and addressed sequentially. Inspire! Be that person who inspires others to reach their maximum potential. There is no greater gift than to see others succeed and develop their own self-confidence.”

Danielle Ethier – Bird Population Scientist, Birds Canada (Canada)

Priscilla Santos – Policy and Campaigns Officer, Nature Canada (Canada)

Working in science and conservation means I work in a field that I care about, with things that matter to me. It baffles me that many of us currently live in a way that exploits and destroys the very nature we depend on to live. The disconnect is alarming. The good news is that there are ways to live in harmony and respect with nature, and I have a role to play in making that happen.

I decided to work in science because I like to understand, or at least try to understand, how life works. I grew up on a tropical island and have always been fascinated and amazed by how vibrant life is above and below water. However, I also witnessed port expansions, urban sprawl, and pollution of all kinds, to name a few. Seeing how that rich life was being threatened made me realize that I had to do something about it. So I became a biologist to study life and help protect and restore it.

I believe the biggest challenge to becoming a conservation scientist is the lack of accessible opportunities. Funding for research is scarce and often insufficient. I met amazing, competent, and very passionate people who “squeezed milk from stones” –as we say in Brazil– to be able to continue with their work. While this has its merits, it shouldn’t be so hard. Especially considering how urgent and crucial it is to understand and work to safeguard species, ecosystems and ecological dynamics in the face of rapidly changing climate.

Personally, my biggest challenge in pursuing a career as a conservation scientist came after graduating. During my undergraduate degree, I carried out two research projects as part of a much larger project focused on understanding the movement ecology of jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal. But after graduating, I couldn’t find a reasonable entry-level job in this field. Once again, accessibility was a problem: low to non-existent salaries and controversial requirements are a reality that must change. I finally applied and successfully got into a fully funded master’s program in Environmental Science and Policy, which presented me the opportunity to explore community-based conservation further and dive into the world of conservation policies.

Now that I work with federal conservation policy, I believe the biggest challenge for me is facing the urgency of socio-ecological transitions towards a healthier way of living for both humans and non-humans, despite the generally slow pace of change. It has been a great learning journey with advancements and setbacks along the way. Policy change is slow, but when done correctly, it can produce significant results with lasting impacts. I work to help materialize positive and lasting impacts.

BirdLife helped me to better understand (and experience) the importance of collaboration and public engagement. We were at COP15 to drive change, where we not only represented but also brought with us the voices of people who also want to see positive changes for nature on the global stage.

“I once attended an event where a knowledgeable person said something like: ‘If you are doing this work, it’s not by accident. Nature is calling you, and you heard it. Now, you have a mission.’ It instantly made sense to me. If conservation speaks to your heart, trust your instincts and go for it! It’s not always easy; getting from A to B doesn’t always follow a straight line. But if this is your calling, believe me, you will find the way.”

Priscilla Santos – Policy and Campaigns Officer, Nature Canada (Canada)

Tatiana Santander – Deputy Director of Conservation, Birds and Conservation (Ecuador)

It’s a privilege to be able to generate information, to have knowledge and understanding of biodiversity and the processes that occur in nature. This work is not isolated, and being able to collaborate with other scientists has provided me with unique and enriching experiences. Not only for my professional life but also for my personal growth. Moreover, having the opportunity to use this science-based information, apply it in conservation, and share it with the general public is priceless.

I chose to study Biology because I have always felt admiration and had a very close connection with nature since I was a child. Despite being afraid of various organisms (e.g., spiders, moths, snakes, among others), I also wanted to know what they did, where they lived, and it is this curiosity that drives science.

We face many challenges as women in science. For women, it is more difficult to complete a degree and maintain a work-life balance with children or family. In my case, I always did fieldwork and had to perform in an environment mainly with male participation. Unfortunately, we often feel vulnerable, as the issue of safety has always been a concern. There is also the challenge of being heard and valued, and having our decisions taken into account.

The challenges still remain. Perhaps some to a lesser extent than before. Maintaining leadership requires constant work, as women we have more tasks and less credibility, which is also reflected in both professional and economic recognition. However, there are also many positives, and I am excited that every day is different. Every outing brings new surprises, and there is always something new to learn and do.

I am very proud to work in the 4th country in the world with the highest diversity of birds and to be in the position to generate proposals for their conservation, make decisions, and work alongside other women in a regional and global context like that of BirdLife. In this way, we can share experiences and multiply impacts on a wider scale.

“Challenges and failures will always be there. The important thing is to keep moving forward and learn from them. To clearly define our role and our motivations. To know that we are not alone and that we can work with the support of others. To believe in ourselves, that we can make a difference, and that the more women get involved in science, the better the results will be.”

Tatiana Santander – Deputy Director of Conservation, Birds and Conservation (Ecuador)

Claudia Macías – Deputy Director of Conservation, ProNatura Sur (Mexico)

Working in science is a magnificent opportunity to innovate, propose, seek answers, and translate them into action. Working in conservation has become a passion and a mission in my life. I know that what I do contributes to nature and people, filling me with satisfaction and fulfillment. I chose a career in science because I wanted to contribute knowledge, actions, and results that benefit wildlife, people, and the planet.

Becoming a scientist involved facing various challenges—consolidating my education, studying, and acquiring the necessary skills. Learning another language to communicate with the world. It takes time, but it hasn’t seemed complicated to me. All women have the ability to achieve this and more.

In my daily life, I encounter several challenges: busy schedules, learning to understand and communicate effectively with different audiences, from indigenous communities to political spheres, and integrating ecology with the economy. Measuring the real impacts of what we do is a constant endeavor.

Thanks to BirdLife, I have been able to expand my experiences and knowledge, strengthen collaborative ties, create learning opportunities, and disseminate our work globally.

“Dare to dream. Aim for the highest goals you desire. There is no greater limit than the one we impose on ourselves. Trust yourself. You have the complete capacity to achieve whatever you set out to do. If you fall, you learn a lot. Get up and go for more.”

Claudia Macías – Deputy Director of Conservation, ProNatura Sur (Mexico)

Fabiana Benitez – Project Coordinator for the Site Conservation Program, Guyra Paraguay (Paraguay)

For me, working in science means being aware that what I do today has a positive effect on species and their habitats.

I chose a career in sciences because, as a child, I was always in contact with nature. What marks us as children never leaves us, and that created the passion I have today for my work and what I do.

To become what I am, I had to overcome several obstacles. I support the scientists’ findings, which are the basis of biodiversity conservation initiatives. It’s not easy to start and continue in a profession with prejudices about women working in protected areas and biodiversity, linked to the belief that we cannot meet the standards. However, many other women who paved the first paths in science and conservation have inspired me.

The challenges I face mainly have to do with managing the work team to keep them motivated in the face of threats to protected areas; where our own lives are also in danger.

Thanks to BirdLife, I understood how to catalyze conservation actions. Being part of BirdLife is like being in a great school where we learn from each other. Actions have a tripled impact, and efforts are better directed, as they work on different levels.

“Although much is said about the dangers and how difficult it is to work in science and conservation, never just stick with the first opinions. If you are interested in protecting nature, the first thing you should learn is that it will always be your best ally, and fear is just a curtain or the antechamber to the greatest adventure of your life. Living while protecting biodiversity will always bring you rewarding results: not only for yourself but also for your future generations.”

Fabiana Benitez – Project Coordinator for the Site Conservation Program, Guyra Paraguay (Paraguay)

Camila Dávila – Coordinator of the KBA Project in Peru and Conserva Aves, ECOAN (Peru)

Working in science and conservation is beautiful because, despite all the challenges, the achievements contribute to the planet, and not just to oneself. I see that what I do adds to the conservation of nature, and even a small action can be very important for a species. Working in science and conservation is very rewarding. I have achieved many of the dreams I had as a child. Every field trip is like living those documentaries; I just need to get to Africa and Australia!

At six years old, I really liked watching ‘Animal Planet Extreme’ and nature documentaries, which sparked my interest in studying nature. Initially, I thought this was something veterinarians did, but then I learned about the career in biology, and that’s what I wanted to be. I was born and grew up in Chiclayo (north of Peru), always liking to go to the field and the beach. I also lived a couple of years in the mountains of Cusco. When traveling with my family, I enjoyed walking in the forest and seeing animals. I think that’s where I knew I wanted to study a profession related to nature and persisted until I achieved it.

During my university education, many people do not see the sciences as a career with a future or job opportunities. In those years, most people specialized in health sciences or microbiology. There were very few of us who wanted botany and zoology.

On the other hand, many people doubt your abilities to do things, especially they compare you with men, and if there are group works, they give the credit to the guys. They see women as companions or assistants. Although I had both male and female teachers, I also saw that the majority of those with postgraduate degrees were men; women get trained but had to attend to their families.

There were also economic challenges. It is very difficult to afford specialized courses. Studying sciences is not cheap. You need equipment, to travel, special clothing in some cases, but even though it is not an area that receives a lot of support, there are scholarships. I won two important ones. One for a three-month course at the Cocha Cashu biological station and another to study my master’s in ecology in Brazil.

The part of studying is the easy part, the difficult thing is when you graduate and look for a job and continue to develop yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to find job offers compared to other more “classic” or trendy careers. My family always supported me, but one gets to hear comments or suggestions about studying a second career. Fortunately, I see that now there are more opportunities not only in sciences but also directed towards women.

La parte de estudiar la carrera es lo fácil, lo difícil es cuando egresas y buscas desenvolverte y seguir desarrollándote. A veces es difícil encontrar ofertas laborales a comparación de otras carreras más “clásicas” o en tendencia. Mi familia siempre me apoyó, pero uno llega a escuchar comentarios o sugerencias como de estudiar una segunda carrera. Afortunadamente, veo que ahora hay más oportunidades no solo en ciencias, sino también dirigidas a mujeres.

Men are listened to and not questioned, but it’s hard for women to be heard. They question our capabilities, and they only pay attention to us after demonstrating great results. Sometimes I’m also underestimated because of my age, but I take it as a challenge.

BirdLife has opened the doors for me to face new challenges and participate in projects that a few years ago I didn’t think I could take on. It has motivated me to look for solutions, develop capabilities, and achieve incredible results. It has also helped me to meet more people working in conservation.

“You’re going to encounter many challenges, but with effort, they can be overcome. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a scientist or do important things for nature. Seeing your results and the changes you can make for the planet will inspire you to keep going.”

Camila Dávila – Coordinator of the KBA Project in Peru and Conserva Aves, ECOAN (Peru)

Yvonne Arias – Executive Director, Grupo Jaragua (Dominican Republic)

Working in science and conservation is a great satisfaction because I feel that I am fulfilling a moral and ethical commitment. I feel that I adhere to my principles. That I contribute to giving back what I have received as a citizen. It is very gratifying to fulfill the responsibility of contributing to justice and social equity, to lay the foundations of a legacy for present and future generations. I have had the opportunity to work for conservation and advocacy, based on science, and I have been able to influence at various levels for better decision-making.

I was born in the countryside and had contact with nature every day of my life. Then, in the city, I longed for the days in the countryside and was a girl scout. As a young person, I had many concerns about the need to achieve social equity and decided to study pedagogy to teach biology and chemistry, with the intention of winning supporters for the cause, but I felt that I was missing something, which was fieldwork. I decided to work with reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, where I became the Curator of Reptiles. Then I became a university professor, from where I have continued my path in science and conservation.

I have faced several challenges. I had to work before entering the university and travel by bus from my town, with scarce economic resources. When I chose the career of pedagogy, those who knew me told me I should study a different career. When I graduated and started studying biology, I was questioned why, if that career didn’t remotely pay well. In addition to that, being in love with field trips, I was also questioned for being a woman. Being a herpetologist was even harder.

The challenges I face on a daily basis are mainly related to unsustainable development, especially in places of high biological diversity and fragility. Trying to explain and convince decision-makers that it is essential to conserve natural resources in a small developing insular state. I agree with development, but it must be sustainable.

BirdLife has contributed a lot, even before we became partners and by actively participating in the EXCRA of the Americas and in the Global Council (for five years). We have been able to contribute information and criteria for IBAs and KBAs; which have been identified and placed at the national level as key denominations for conserving crucial sites. We have been able to contribute with partners facing similar problems and have been supported. We have also been actors in the development of regional and global strategies, which we land at the local level. Sharing experiences with partners has enriched the conservation vision and I have gained many colleagues and friends very valuable as scientists, conservationists, and human beings.

“Knowing nature is key to loving and defending it, which produces immeasurable satisfaction and great pride. If we take on the commitment, from being little until old, it is even more gratifying and productive. By making the path as we walk, we can correct mistakes, improve and see the results.

Even if it is not understood at the beginning why we dedicate ourselves to science, we must continue without taking a step back or to gather momentum. We must be more resilient in the face of obstacles. If they label us as weird, uncompromising, or rebellious (even though they recognize that we are meritorious, admired, and respected), we should take it as encouragement to continue with more strength.

Yvonne Arias – Executive Director, Grupo Jaragua (Dominican Republic)

Daniela Schossler – Coordinator of the Grassland Alliance, Aves Uruguay (Uruguay)

For me, working in science and conservation is something genuine, an everyday mission. My work today is very much aligned with my values, principles, and beliefs. Nature is a divine gift; we must take care of it, and my personal motto is: work in favour of nature.

I am the granddaughter and daughter of ranchers. I have always liked the countryside and all the possibilities that Agricultural Engineering allowed me to access. Since I was a child, I liked to study, make beautiful summaries, and, above all, to know, to delve deeply, and to understand the landscape in a more holistic way. I remember, as a child, I drew countless times a hill we had in front of our ranch house. Its lines, its trees. It was like an attempt to understand the why of things.

During my college years, there were much fewer women, and even fewer working with large crops or productions. I had to do many internships, several of them voluntarily. In total it was 2600 hours in a scientific station, in addition to college. I was an entrepreneur. I had a landscape project company. It was not easy to make the decision, 6 years later and already financially stable, to go back to being a student. It was, to say the least, a painful decision. To go back to being a scholarship holder, to depend in a way on my parents until finding the desired path again after my postgraduate studies. Having degrees that no one can take away from us, they are our achievements. When I went to work in livestock and conservation, I had to face some barriers. I believe that being from the countryside, communicative, and seeking incentives for production, made my path easier.

I am from Brazil, but I have lived and worked in the countryside in Uruguay for five years, in a livestock company belonging to my husband’s grandparents. I have two children, and one goes to a rural school. Sharing this experience (which everyone knows how challenging it is) validates my work. It makes me understand many things and makes everything much easier. My challenges today are not professional. They have much more to do with the lack of educational structure and activities for rural children. This makes me constantly return to the city with our children, which distances them from their father and the countryside.

I have a special affection for BirdLife International. In 2014, it enabled me to reconnect, through support for science, with my dream of supporting sustainable livestock activity. It allowed me to continue conserving our ecosystem and gaucho culture. I was invited by the coordinator of Brazil to lead the application of an ecosystem services evaluation methodology in the natural fields of the Grassland Alliance members in the four countries, and I managed to transform that into my master’s thesis and then a doctoral thesis. This research managed to develop a lot of scientific information, using tools like the Grassland Conservation Index, soil carbon sequestration, perception of ranchers, and threats to this activity. BirdLife financed the field part of my research, and today I see how avant-garde they were in developing, along with the University of Cambridge and other institutions, a methodology like TESSA, which today is the most modern.

“Stay firm in your purposes and beliefs. Always deliver the best you can, with ethics and firm values. Study and listen much more than you speak. Take a stance when you have the knowledge. Work with what makes you happy and do not let yourself be influenced by opinions different from those of your heart. Living in the countryside is fabulous and necessary in today’s and future world. Do not be afraid to take risks when you feel you are on the right path. Have someone by your side who supports, values, and encourages you. If you can, have a family and children. They are the meaning of life, and your actions are the seed for eternity. Think big!”

Daniela Schossler – Coordinator of the Grassland Alliance, Aves Uruguay (Uruguay)

Eliana Fierro – International Conservation Project Officer, American Bird Conservancy (USA)

Working in science and conservation is both inspiring and difficult. Part of my daily work is to interact with wonderful people who do their utmost to protect endangered birds and their habitats. I love hearing their stories and learning how they and their organizations grow and evolve, but we also often find out that threats to certain birds are increasing, or that there were fewer individuals of a species in the most recent study. That has been a shock to me. However, I realized that if I stop what I am doing, maybe other species would be in the same situation. I suppose it can be a bit sad when you look at it that way, but I found it challenging and rewarding.

When I was younger, I liked being outdoors. We used to go fishing with my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings on the weekends to Salento, in the central Andes of Colombia. We camped and hiked. It was a lot of fun, but it never occurred to me that I could make a living studying nature. I didn’t know biology was a career! Until my older sister started studying it. So, you could say I was influenced by her. When I was in high school, I used to read scientific articles she shared with me and I used to watch the fruit flies she sometimes brought home. At that moment in life, I also knew I didn’t want a job that required a strict 9 to 5 schedule, in an office, for the rest of my life. I guess it was a bit of this and a bit of that.

I have been very lucky. My family has supported me a lot and along the way, I have met wonderful people from whom I have learned. I have spent my professional life surrounded by women in most of the organizations and teams I have been part of. I have been part of teams mostly composed of female scientists. They have been a great inspiration and support. However, I have also faced challenging and uncomfortable situations. There were many occasions when I was underestimated because I was a young woman working in the field and in conservation, and as a Latina, it was difficult to find opportunities outside my native Colombia. I am sure many people have gone through this. I applied for many temporary jobs and universities before being able to start working internationally. I am very grateful for that first seasonal job and the professor who made it possible.

Working with people is hard! And I know this is a peculiar statement, but it’s true. Especially in science, I feel that sometimes people’s personalities, habits, or egos hinder conservation. That’s why I personally try to be very honest and build trust with our partners so we can have an open conversation and reach agreements to work for the benefit of the birds we love so much.

One benefit of American Bird Conservancy being part of BirdLife has been our leadership and participation in Conserva Aves; which has helped to fund several projects in Colombia in which I am involved. With this initiative, it has been very rewarding to be able to support various Colombian partners in the creation and expansion of subnational protected areas to conserve birds. Another benefit is the network of partners, in Latin America and globally, with whom we can communicate when we have questions about conservation in different countries, or when we are interested in starting a project in a country and want to better understand the situation on the ground. It’s fantastic to have a network of like-minded organizations that we can count on in BirdLife.

“I fear it may sound cliché, but these are some pieces of advice that have been important to me in my professional career. Do not be afraid to take advantage of new and challenging opportunities that will help you grow. Be willing to learn from people and situations. Have confidence. You won’t always be right, but being a woman or being young doesn’t mean you are wrong. Speak up. Your voice and your personal experiences matter.”

Eliana Fierro – International Conservation Project Officer, American Bird Conservancy (USA)

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