We interview the amazing women leading BirdLife’s work across the world
In celebration of International Women’s Day, we interview some of the key women of the BirdLife Partnership. They tell their fascinating stories, and give their advice to other women aiming to embark on careers like theirs.
From Patricia Zurita, the first woman from a developing country to become CEO of an international conservation organisaion, to Steph Winnard, measuring albatross eggs on remote islands, BirdLife is full of amazing women. Conservation hasn’t always been a stereotypically “feminine” sector, but that’s changing, and there are now women all across the world who are instrumental in taking BirdLife’s valuable work to new and exciting places. We invited just a few of them to share their stories, asking them three questions: the day-to-day life of their role, the route they took to get to where they are today, and what advice they’d give to women wanting to enter their field.
These are women that have come from all different backgrounds and taken completely different routes to get where they are today. Women without whom BirdLife would not be able to function. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
CEO, BirdLife International
"Every time I get to showcase BirdLife's achievements, it's an amazing feeling."
My day-to-day work could involve anything from talking to high-status donors, attracting new donors, filming a BirdLife anniversary video, or developing a new strategy with the conservation team. Every time I have the chance to represent BirdLife at an event, and showcase our brilliant achievements to an audience who might not even know we exist, it’s an amazing feeling.
I actually started out studying Architecture, but got bored and started taking seminars in Birds of the Andes. This led me to a degree in Environmental Science. I worked with the Ecuador Government and the oil and gas industry, which made me realise that I would need to take a Masters in Economics to make a difference in conservation. Then followed a lot of ecosystem services evaluation. For five years I headed up the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund - then I came to BirdLife. I've done a lot of different things!
For a woman, especially from a developing country, getting to where I am now was difficult, but not impossible. It requires a lot of patience, and you do have to work harder. Being a working mother is an extra challenge. You need to make sure you build a really good team underneath you that you can rely on, and also have a supportive team of loved ones at home. It can be a juggling game, but if you enjoy it, it’s definitely worth it.
EU Marine & Fisheries Policy Officer, BirdLife Europe
“I became much more aware of how politics play a role in conservation”
I like to say that my role is “saving nature one word at a time”. I spend my time campaigning to change European Union legislation to benefit nature – in particular marine life. My most exciting moment is probably going through a vote in the European Parliament, when you realise you were effective, and that politicians listened to you.
I am actually a Zoologist by training, with a masters in applied Ecology. I was not always interested in politics. However, when doing my MSc, I became much more aware of how politics play a role in conservation, so I decided to do an internship in the European Commission. After that I came to BirdLife.
Working for an NGO in politics already comes with a lot of stereotypes. Working as a woman in an NGO comes with even more – let alone being an ethnic minority (as in my case). You have to be very committed because a lot of people will underestimate you. My advice is to know what you want to accomplish, and don’t give up on your morals.
Capacity Development Officer, West Africa
"I managed to keep the workshop exciting by making people work out!"
My role involves a lot of travelling and building strong relationships with Partners in Africa, which is not always easy as a lot of people believe that women don’t have a say in this world! Setting up training workshops can be a challenge: in Sierra Leone, I had to organise a four-day workshop in a place with no power and no projector, so I managed to keep it exciting by making people work out to remain energetic!
My background is… varied. I started my career by being an IT project manager for a multinational organisation, then worked in development and fundraising for several years before joining BirdLife. All these different positions helped me get a perspective from all sides: private sector, donor, governmental institution, local NGO… which is very useful for my current role.
My advice: be prepared to being challenged for being a woman, but keep in mind that women are strong and resourceful!
Executive Director, Les Amis des Oiseaux (AAO - BirdLife in Tunisia)
"I left home at the age of 17 and trained as a gardener."
I am at the head of one of the most active NGOs in Tunisia. It is working with people from different backgrounds and lifestyles that fascinates me the most.
I was born in northern Germany, and my childhood memories are dominated by harvesting in our own vegetable garden. After school I left home at the age of 17 and trained as a gardener. Later I studied at the University of Paderborn to become engineer in landscape management. During my years at university I was under the good influence of some friends (I tenderly call them "my crazy wild friends") who were mainly interested in bird conservation. I started to participate in bird conservation camps in southern Italy, where I met my husband, who is Tunisian and was at the time already an active member of AAO.
After two years, I left Germany to settle in Tunisia. During the next few years I gave birth to my daughter Yasmine and helped to develop the first bird watching and ecotourism programs in Tunisia. Soon after, I found myself the first ever staff of AAO.
It is certainly important to have good training, goals and role models, but to me it seems even more important to follow your intuition and to trust your skills, even in unexpected situations. It is more helpful to be open minded, curious and flexible and put relationships with others in the center. Do not focus too hard on your career objectives, rather look to the left and right and enjoy the journey… it might not take you directly to where you thought, but if you listen to yourself you will find your place.
International Marine Project Manager
“I studied albatrosses in the sub-Antarctic for three years.”
I work to reduce the huge number of albatrosses killed in high seas fisheries, specifically focusing on Asian tuna fleets. Recently I’ve been setting up outreach work with Taiwanese vessels visiting the port in Mauritius.
After my degree in Biology, I worked for the Environment Agency whilst training for my bird ringing license in my free time (think lots of 3am starts). This led me to work for the British Antarctic Survey Where I studied albatrosses in the sub-Antarctic for three years.
My advice: build your skill set up outside of your degree, as there are so many graduates now with good biological degrees. Gain some experience in project management (however small). Language skills are hugely desirable – so keep going with those French classes, and if you can spend any time volunteering, then do!
Conservation Project Manager, Americas Office
“Don’t lose hope when government decisions go against what you believe.”
The most enjoyable part of my role is when the people participating in a project get as excited as you. Nothing is more rewarding than the moment when the project proposal you have sweated over for weeks is accepted for funding, and you can share the good news with your partners.
I was involved in the Local BirdLife group at University, where I studied Biology. Birds have always been my hobby and passion. My best friends are also biologists, so it was wonderful to develop our professional careers together: sharing days and hours in the field, and sharing our advice and concerns.
In terms of developing your profession: if you want it, is absolutely possible. Don't lose hope when government decisions go against what you believe. Instead, go to bed each day satisfied that your efforts are making a huge difference, and that friends and colleagues across the world are also working hard to improve nature and the environment.
Local Engagement and Empowerment Programme Coordinator, BirdLife Africa
“Living in a different cultural setting was a mind-opening experience”
I head up Africa’s Local Engagement and Empowerment Programme, which encourages local communities to be stewards of their own natural resources.
My passion for Mother Nature began in High School, where I was the leader of the school’s Scout Movement. I then went on to gain a BSc in Environmental Studies from Kenyatta University, Kenya. After my graduation, I participated in a voluntary exchange program in Canada for three months. This was the first time I had travelled outside my country, and living in a different cultural setting was a mind-opening experience. It was after this program that I joined BirdLife International.
We need more women in conservation, especially in Africa. It’s sometimes challenging to work with local communities that are dominated by men, but seeing positive results is always fulfilling and gratifying.
Principal Policy Officer, RSPB (BirdLife in the UK)
“I have loved birds since I could first talk.”
I lead BirdLife’s global policy work on migratory birds, including being the BirdLife focal point for the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species. This is focused on getting governments and other key allies to share BirdLife’s objectives. What that means in practice is lots of emails, skype calls and international meetings, building alliances that culminate in government decisions.
I have loved birds since I could first talk and knew I wanted to work to save them since I was about 11. Little did I know, when I volunteered with the RSPB for six months between school and university, that a decade later I would return as a full time employee – 25 years on I’m still on the staff. In between was a zoology degree at Durham, along with seven trips to the Arctic to study shorebirds, and fieldwork in Canada and New Zealand.
My advice: focus on the conservation objectives, and be confident that “feminine” attributes are often what is needed in international policy advocacy work. Also if you have children, don’t be afraid to ask to keep your job but work part time.
Lesser White-fronted Goose Project Manager, Hellenic Ornithological Society (BirdLife in Greece)
“Sometimes the path chooses you.”
The work of a manager can be so varied - on one day you can be reading scientific literature and the other budgeting for educational activities, or discussing policy documents. My day-to-day business includes lots of planning, and making the most of the cash we have available. The most exciting moment so far - apart from helping to ring Dalmatian Pelicans - could perhaps be the filming of the Lesser White-fronted Goose documentary.
Originally captivated by molecular biology and genetics, I spent my early career inside the laboratories of Edinburgh University in Scotland. Soon the outdoors called, and through my postgraduate studies in ecological engineering, I found myself under the wing of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the UK. Right now, I am happy to be a part of a truly unique team in BirdLife Greece. Sometimes the path chooses you.
My advice to everyone - not only to women - is to follow what truly makes sense to you and excites your spirit. If you can see the magic in your work then that is the right work for you. And yes, do a lot of volunteering…
Global Species Officer (Red List & Mapping)
“I spent a year combatting bird trapping in Malta”
My team is responsible for updating the IUCN Red List status of the world’s birds. This entails consulting bird experts across the globe to make sure we have the most up-to-date information about bird species, to work out which ones are threatened with extinction.
I studied Zoology at university, followed by a Master’s degree in Biodiversity & Conservation, for which I surveyed a parrot on a remote Pacific Island. After graduating, I worked for Natural England - the English government agency for nature protection. I also spent a year doing European Voluntary Service at BirdLife Malta, helping to deter the hunting and trapping of birds.
If at first you don’t succeed, persevere – I was interviewed for three jobs at BirdLife International before I got one. Choosing the right degree is important, and getting work experience is really useful, even if it is through volunteering.
Conservation Units and Sites Programme Officer, Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife Partner)
“Share what you learn and stay curious.”
My job is very varied and involves working with park rangers, protected areas and government authorities. The most exciting part of my job is the field trips, because I get to be in touch with nature and interact with different local communities.
I was a student in Environmental Engineering at the National University of Asunción when I started to get involved with conservation by volunteering for Guyra Paraguay. This opportunity allowed me to learn about the reality of fieldwork, and to become aware of the problems and threats related to biodiversity conservation. I joined Guyra Paraguay's team in 2015. Right now I aim to obtain a Master’s Degree in Ecology and Conservation Biology.
Get involved – we need more people working in this area. Get trained. Help each other, because we can only obtain the best results by working together. Share what you learn and stay curious.
Vulture Conservation Manager
“I started out fundraising through social media.”
I support partners in a range of projects, from stopping illegal wildlife poisoning to establishing Vulture Safe Zones.
I have a BSc in Ecology and an MSc in Conservation Biology. I started out in Kenya by supporting conservationists in Africa, raising much needed funds through social media. I later focused on sustainable agriculture in the world’s drylands, which increased my appreciation for its key role in preserving biodiversity. It wasn’t long before my passion for biodiversity and birds of prey led me straight to my current job.
Hold onto your passion and determination, it will help you attain your goals, even when they seem hard to reach.
Programme Manager, Biodiveristy & Livelihoods
“I think I got the job on the basis of being able to speak French!”
My current role involves working with communities across the world, to try to find conservation solutions which also help people's livelihoods and wellbeing.
I first went to Africa as a student, researching Bee-eaters in Senegal. I didn't really know what I wanted to do after that, except that it wasn't research, but it was conservation and working with local people. My first "proper" job was with RSPB, managing projects in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. I didn't have a great deal of experience when I started, but I think I got the job on the basis of being able to speak French and having lived and worked in Africa! Then I became the first Head of the BirdLife Africa Programme, left BirdLife and returned to Scotland to raise a family, and spent more than 20 years as a consultant. Now I’m back -part-time with BirdLife and loving it!
Follow your passions, seize opportunities and believe in yourself but also listen to others (especially other women!). Also, listen to the communities who are most affected by whatever "solutions" or actions are proposed - they may just have something useful to say.