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New book highlights challenges faced by women in wildlife biology

A young girl in a pink shirt stands with a hand on the shoulder of a woman who is kneeling beside a tree to check a wildlife camera, with prickly pear cactus in the distance.
Melissa Sevigny
A wildlife biologist with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection checks a camera trap in the Sonoran Desert with her daughter.

Women make up nearly half of the people working in the life sciences in the United States, including biology, conservation, and wildlife professions. Even so, they face discrimination and harassment. Now, a new book gathers dozens of stories from female wildlife biologists to highlight the challenges they face. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with coeditor Carol Chambers of Northern Arizona University about the project.

So you’re one of the editors of this new book, Women in Wildlife Science. Tell me what inspired you to get started on this project?

We interviewed women just to ask about their perspectives in the wildlife profession. And while many people said we now see a lot more women in the profession, notably, most people said, there are few women of color. So we still have a ways to go in terms of building that…. Women experience harassment at high rates. And the comments were, it’s more subtle now than it would have been maybe 30 years ago. Those were the inspirations—how do we make our environment better for women and especially for women of color? How do we make sure everybody feels invited and welcomed in the wildlife profession?

So yeah, more than 40 women contributed to writing this book, what were some of the common threads you saw in their stories?

You know a lot of women—we are trained to be professionals, we’re going into wildlife because we want to be contributing to the wildlife profession, and that seems to be difficult for some people to experience. They have colleagues telling them, “gee I’d like to go out with you, you’re really cute,” and not listening to the information the women are bringing forward. They’re belittled or harassed… We’d just like to be treated equally. We’re different. We have some different needs. But we will work to deal with those in the field, whether it’s… I know women who have children and they are breast milk pumping in the field. Women will go to great lengths to do this job, and we just wanted to be treated fairly.

What do you think the profession of wildlife science loses when it drives women away?

Well, I’m a big believer in diversity and there are a number of studies that show the more diverse the group is making decisions, the better the decision is going to be. Because you’re taking into account things you wouldn’t have thought about if you’re only talking to people who are like you. You’re going to tend to have the same thoughts and experiences, and that will affect how you make decisions.

We’ve touched on how there are layers of obstacles that women face, and especially women of color face, everything from harassment to pay gaps, all kinds of things they have to climb through. If you could magically solve one problem, what would it be?

I would love to put a bunch of money into educating and recruiting young women of color into this profession…. But you look at the struggles people still face, struggles for acceptance and to be heard. That’s not fair. And it really deprives the profession of so much more.

What advice would you give a young person who wants to enter the field of wildlife biology?

Find a mentor or an advocate or role model to help keep you inspired. And to find time to get out—wildlife biologists like to be outside, so find time to be out, because that’s one of the most positive things you can do for yourself. It’s being out in nature, I think we all need that.

Carol Chambers, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.