Addressing Gender Bias in Conservation Organizations

- Blog

Source: Land Trust Alliance

Women in conservation experience gender bias just as women in other fields do. What does it look like, and what can we do about it?

Photo by Alachua Conservation Trust

by Elisabeth Ptak, Saving Lands 2018, Land Trust Alliance. Read the full article here!


Even the mother of the modern conservation movement, Rachel Carson, experienced sexism in her field. Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring, written on the dangers of pesticides, was maligned as “emotional,” “shrill” and “hysterical.” Fifty-six years later, women in conservation, including those who lead or work for land trusts, still experience some of the same gender bias as women in Carson’s era. But with the advent of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and the accountability they call for, a bright spotlight once again shines on women’s issues.

Recognizing the Problem

Assessing the land trust community, the Land Trust Alliance’s 2017 Land Trust Salaries and Benefits Survey gathered data from organizations in 47 states and the District of Columbia, comparing wages across job categories and experience levels. For executive directors, it also asked respondents to identify their gender. Educational Services Manager Katie Chang estimates that about 280 (44%) of staffed land trusts nationwide are led by women. However, the salary survey found “on average, male executive directors are paid about $10,000 more than female directors with the same years of experience, budget and number of staff. This disparity persists regardless of whether the organization offers better benefits or more workplace flexibility,” says Chang.

At the same time that the Alliance was looking at pay disparity, some land trusts were, too. The female executive director of one land trust discovered that a young man and a young woman hired about the same time for similar jobs were making slightly different amounts of money — in part because the man had asked for more. “The people were in their mid-20s, and we realized that if we didn’t correct this, we were putting them on a trajectory where in 10 or 20 years, the discrepancy could be really substantial.”

Creating Change

After nearly five years as executive director of the accredited Mississippi Valley Conservancy in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Carol Abrahamzon could feel proud of the strides the conservancy had made under her leadership, showing significant growth in donors, sponsors and staffing while protecting nearly 4,000 acres of forests, farms, prairies and streams from development (the conservancy has protected over 20,000 acres in total). At budget time this year, she reviewed staff salaries. “I wanted to make sure that some of the folks who were a little bit newer and hadn’t been hired at a high enough level or were working their way up were being compensated adequately.” The Alliance’s salary survey was the perfect resource. And then she looked at her own pay.

“When I saw from the salary survey how much ‘under’ I was, I decided to put together a proposal to advocate for myself and all that I had done. And the interesting thing was that, even with the information from the salary survey, in my initial proposal I asked for less than the average.” When her businesswoman daughter read it, she commented, “Why would you advocate for less than what they’re telling you you’re worth?” Abrahamzon revised her proposal. “My executive committee reviewed it, and they came back with more than I asked for. I was shocked.”

In conversations with women leaders, Russell has noticed that “We often inadvertently disempower ourselves, and because of historical patterns — what we’ve done as women to make things work in a biased world—it takes a lot of energy and focus to shift.”

“It’s not a simple equation that the men are at fault and they’re doing this to us,” she says. “It’s a lot more complex and more difficult. Bias happens in our institutions no matter what our intentions are. I think empowering women is as important as helping men be self-aware about that dynamic.”

The accredited Columbia Land Trust (CLT) in the Pacific Northwest wants to elevate equity as a core organizational value, according to Executive Director Glenn Lamb. They’ve created a statement of equity commitments, based on the belief that “a more diverse, inclusive conservation movement is a stronger, more innovative movement.” The staff — and the board to a lesser extent — have been attending Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings.

“The approach that we’re taking is focusing on each one of us as individuals and how we may unintentionally be allowing racism and sexism to continue to exist,” says Lamb. “We have been trying to develop some practical tools to interrupt biased behavior. We’re not trying to belittle or judge or make someone feel that they have to shut themselves down. What we’re trying to do is cultivate a spirit of curiosity around the fact that we all have implicit bias.”

During a discussion of finances at an organizational meeting, CLT Finance Director Amy Costello gave a detailed report about budget performance to targets. After she’d made her presentation, one person twice asked specific questions about the financials — questions that were clearly answered in the report she had just given. Both queries were directed to Lamb, not to her. “It wasn’t as though he was looking for additional, supplemental information that only the executive director would be able to give him,” remembers Costello. “Previously, I thought it was just common practice. I thought nothing of it. They’re just asking for confirmation from my supervisor. It’s something that has happened my entire career. Now that our training has made me aware of it, it does bother me, and I won’t be afraid to speak up.”

Looking at Leadership

While many environmental nonprofits are staffed mostly by women, the leadership is often male, including the boards of directors. Seven of the eight employees at the Mississippi Valley Conservancy are women, but female representation on the board is less than 25%, says Abrahamzon, even though the organization reviews board balance every year. “More men crop up on the list really really fast when you have a lot of men already on the board and on the governance committee. They’re thinking of people they know, and the people they know are men. It isn’t intentional — we actually are trying to be more diverse. But it has been hard and it has been slow.”

Meagan Cupka, assistant director of the accredited Blue Ridge Land Conservancy in Roanoke, Virginia, thinks part of the problem might be the generation of older, retired white men that typically comprises board members. As Abrahamzon noted, like reaches out to like. Unless you diversify the search committee, “you’re likely to keep the same ratio of men to women,” says Cupka.

A Concerted Effort at All Levels

How else can women both equip themselves with the appropriate tools to deal with these issues, and equip male coworkers to be more effective allies?

LTA’s Katie Chang knows that data can empower people. “It was very moving for me to hear how people are using the salary and benefits survey information in their personal interactions or in negotiating their salaries. I would love to see more organizations take this on. It’s not just about individuals advocating for themselves, which is important, but how do we move this to organizational change?”

Companies need to approach gender inequality as they would any business problem: with hard data, posits Harvard Business Review. “Most programs created to combat gender inequality are based on anecdotal evidence or cursory surveys. But to tailor a solution to a company’s specific problems, you need to seek data to answer fundamental questions, such as ‘When are women dropping out?’ and ‘Are women acting differently than men in the office?’ and ‘What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?’ When organizations implement a solution, they need to measure the outcomes of both behavior and advancement in the office. Only then can they transition from the debate about the causes of gender inequality (bias versus behavior) and advance to the needed stage of a solution.”

It’s going to take a concerted effort from all levels of staff, board members and our community as a whole, points out Cupka. “I’m not saying to reward women without merit — I think if there’s more representation by women in every part of the organization, then women will be treated more fairly.”


Read the full article.