Women in Conservation Leadership Network


The ‘Women in Conservation Leadership Network’ was founded in the September 2013. The network is growing every month and as of May 2014, has around 140 members. The two main focus areas for the network are institutional change and personal empowerment, both facilitated by learning from good practice.


The purpose of the network is to support women already in and those wanting to move into leadership roles so as a profession, we make best use of everyone’s skills to enhance conservation outcomes.  We would like to build the confidence of women to lead – both those actively involved in the network, but also beyond to inspire others across the conservation sector. For this to be happen, we need to drive cultural change in organisations and recruitment practices.

Operating principles

The network is a Cambridge Conservation Forum (CCF) group and will be promoted using the established CCF communications channels, mostly website and newsletters

It aims to

  • Be open to all (some events may be women only meetings)
  • Be inclusive of everyone’s ideas and aspirations
  • Inspire people and promote/create role models
  • Support women working in biodiversity conservation
  • Support women in and wanting to move into leadership positions
  • Be self organised and self sustaining
  • Facilitate structural/institutional change as well as personal empowerment
  • Be a collective voice to strengthen  ideas and actions that individually might not have traction
  • Provide practical advice on how to approach and plan for all stages of people’s career

“A leader is anyone who has followers.”

 We agreed that leadership can be demonstrated in any position and is not exclusive to those appointed to positions of “formal” leadership (e.g. senior management/technical expert roles, board membership).  Some people do not aspire to be at the top levels of management in an organisation.  This network will look at all kinds of leadership and not lose the broader definition of leadership by focusing solely on positions.

Why do we need a women’s network?

  • There are plenty of well qualified women with great potential at lower levels (e.g. officer level), but not very many in senior roles.
  • There are fewer women giving high profile lectures/presentations as invited speakers, gender balance on panel discussions.
  • Women are less likely to voice their views, ask questions, get their opinions across so their valuable contributions aren't always heard.

In terms of appointment to “leadership” roles it’s not totally clear where the problem lies – is it women not applying for jobs, or not being selected?  It’s likely a combination of both, we will drill deeper and look at the statistics on what happens at short-listing and final-decision stages of recruitment.


  • Invited speakers (lecture style). Invite inspiring women to talk about their careers and how got where they are.  We can ask them to reflect on certain issues. Try to get gender balance in the audience. Aim is to raise awareness / promote discussion, as well as inspire. Doesn’t need to be restricted to speakers from conservation – good to get some examples of how leadership /gender equality tackled in other sectors.
  • Informal presentation/discussion and dinner.  This could give opportunities for in-depth discussion of issues and building a network of women in conservation. We could ask people to reflect on their careers.
  • Facebook group where people can post resources (TED talks, case studies, articles) https://www.facebook.com/groups/209056369299418/members/#!/groups/209056369299418/
  • Making effort to get relevant content into CCF newsletter (talks, events). No separate section, but “mainstreamed”.
  • Researching and sharing good practices in CCF organisations. There are examples already of positive efforts being made to improve gender balance, support flexible working, return from maternity leave, etc.
  • Getting some data on the gender balance in senior management / boards of organisations in CCF.  How does conservation compare to other sectors – is it really that bad? Information is first step.
  • Discussions with HR staff to understand how gender equality is addressed in practice. Could e.g. interview training be improved? Some organisations have formal staff training on gender equality – does this then translate into equality in recruitment and opportunity?
  • Visits to CCF organisations to discuss and share good practice
  • Mentoring. Several people mentioned the difficulties of doing this within their own organisations – senior people don’t have time. We'd like to explore setting this up across CCF. We can arrange some group sessions to complement one -to-one, mentoring. We encourage people to put themselves forward as a mentor- there's always someone less experienced.
  • Group sessions – themed sessions to provide peer to peer support
  • Job Shadowing. Potentially easier to arrange than mentoring and less onerous on individual mentors and a good insight into 
  • Sponsorship - Senior conservationists sponsor women wanting to move into leadership  to increase their confidence and capability
  • Coaching - explore the creation of a leadership coaching programme for women from across the CCF community
  • Funding - Explore the potential for CCF organisations or external organisations to fund specific activities of the network
  • Training – Encourage organisations to fund training in gender equality, find out what commercial organisations do- e.g. IBM training for women moving into senior roles
  • Social media/webinars. Could we use social media and other technologies to reach out to women in conservation beyond Cambridge?  There was interest from women working abroad- and to share ideas with the whole network
  • MOTI/MPhil project – a proposal for a MPhil in conservation leadership wasn't taken up - we need to explore alternative funding/volunteers to research the current status and actions and make recommendations for what needs to be done to enable more women to move into conservation leadership positions in CCI/CCF organisations

What presents possible barriers to leadership?

  • Confidence.  This isn’t specific to conservation.
  • Difficulties of combining family life with career.  Conservation involves a lot of travelling. Women often make a conscious decision to give up fieldwork because it doesn't fit with their out of work responsibilities. There is a long hours culture in many conservation organisations.
  • Unclear career paths. people spend a long time on short-term contracts in academia and NGOs. Difficult for all people trying to forge a career, but may be particularly off-putting for women
  • Biases in appointment. Fewer women are appointed to senior positions from where they can lead and act as a role model

What could we do to help overcome these barriers?

  • Role models, mentors and peer support
  • Policies to address gender balance issues. There are plenty of examples that can be drawn on outside of conservation.
  • Targets for gender equality
  • An award for organisations demonstrating good practice in implementing gender diversity policies, possibly modelled on the Athena SWAN Award for academic institutions
  • Awareness and support from institutions to balance responsibilities outside work including caring responsibilities and returning from maternity leave back into leadership
  • Share good practice

 If an organisation is serious about more women in leadership roles, all of these things are needed, as much as possible.

Pamela Abbott


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