Guest blog – Where are all the women? by Sue Walker

My name is Sue Walker and I’m a freelance writer and interpretation consultant for nature conservation organisations, mostly in Scotland. I have my own blog called ‘Writes for Nature’ www.writesfornature.blogspot.com. My thanks go to Mark for giving me the chance to write a guest blog here. His own pithy, witty and well-informed blogs make him a hard act to follow, but here goes…

I’ll start with a list of some of my favourite natural history writers and commentators: Mark Avery (of course), Mark Cocker, Mark Carwardine, Simon Barnes, Michael McCarthy, Kathleen Jamie, and Richard Mabey. What do you notice about the list (apart from the fact that there are an awful lot of Marks)? Yep – all but one of them are male. This is not good.

It’s tempting to start by asking why this is the case. But I’m not a sociologist, and the reasons are surely too long and complex to discuss here. So today I just want to do three things: flag up the lack of women writing about nature conservation issues; explain why I think it’s a bad thing; and ask the question ‘how could we put this right?’

It’s true that in the past women had a very low profile in nature conservation generally. But women now head up some of the country’s leading conservation organisations, including Natural England (Helen Phillips – until recently), the Wildlife Trusts (Stephanie Hilborne), and the National Trust (Dame Fiona Reynolds – although she is off too!). Despite this, women’s names are still eerily absent from Amazon’s nature writing best-seller lists, and from the bylines of nature conservation columns in the national papers. Most of the major TV nature presenters are male too – but perhaps that’s a blog for another day.

Why does it matter? The people I mentioned at the beginning do a fantastic job as advocates for nature. Surely that’s what counts? Well yes – and no. Part of me can’t help suspecting that somewhere down the line women are, perhaps unintentionally, being excluded from joining the club. I think there might be women out there who are fantastic writers, but who can’t get through the hedge – albeit a native one. It’s just a hunch. I have absolutely no hard evidence – and I’m not talking from personal experience. I’d be very happy to be contradicted.

It’s not that I believe women writing about the same subjects would (or should) somehow have a different voice – or, God forbid, a more ‘emotional’ approach. I do believe that women writers are sometimes capable of bringing a different perspective. But that’s not the real issue.

What I do strongly believe is that the best of our nature writers and journalists provide fantastic inspiration for the rest of us, and especially for young people thinking about coming into conservation. And that’s where I think having women in the limelight is most important. There’s a growing body of research that shows that positive female role models are particularly important for young women in choosing career paths. The nature conservation world is crying out for more young people with the enthusiasm, knowledge and field skills to protect our natural heritage. Fifty per cent of that pool of potential future naturalists is female. Surely we want to give them all the inspiration we can?

And of course women also make up half of the adult, voting, decision-making, spending population. Give more female nature writers a voice and I believe more women would listen – and begin to speak up for nature through the ballot box, and through their own lifestyles.

So, finally – how can we change things? How can we get women writing about nature? Or if they are indeed writing already, how can we get more of them published? Sadly I have no answers. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog. I wanted to see if anyone else out there has noticed the whisper of women’s voices for nature, and whether you believe we need to turn it into a shout. If you have an opinion, or even better a solution, please write a comment – whatever your gender!

27 Comments

  1. David Beattie says:

    May I add to the list of women who lead conservation groups in Lancashire. We have Ann Selby, CEO of Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Jo Bates, chair of Lancashire Badger Group. Both these ladies give a strong lead to their organisations which has inspired me to committ my energies there as well. Thanks to both!

    • Jo says:

      Thanks David! Very kind of you to put my name in the same sentence as our local WT CEO! A very interesting blog, I think I’ve felt it but not noticed it. There are obviously plenty of female nature bloggers out there (I shall be checking some of them out later), but as you say Sue, not well known.
      I blog for the group (although I don’t get a lot of time), and have my own personal blog. There are two reasons I don’t do as much as I would like. Time, I have a ten month old and I run a charity (with my trusty committee and volunteers of course). David may I say at this point that I am inspired by the group itself, thank YOU. The second reason, I write my personal nature blog, but in a way I hope no-one ever finds out who the writer is! I’m no fan of the limelight, I just feel that some things need to be ‘out there’. Perhaps those two reasons are the same for other female writers, but there may well be more to it. I do think, as many have said, that it is something we should be thinking about more.

  2. Deb says:

    I’m originally from the UK but work in conservation in North Queensland, Australia, and it’s a very male dominated business here. To the extent that there are many things women are quietly but firmly prevented from doing. Other than the Aussie equivalent of The Really Wild Show (Totally Wild) and the Irwins, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman presenting a nature or conservation issue on TV here. In fact I just watched a news report involving a female friend – a zoologist – releasing a turtle after rehabilitation. The male presenter didn’t allow her to say a single word! We are all too often denied a voice. So I’ve started to try and find my own, and started blogging about nature. Quietly. I haven’t said much yet. But I’m working up the courage to start blogging about more more challenging conservation issues. It’s good to be reminded that other women are asking the same questions, because too many here are afraid to rock the boat. I look forward to reading your blog Sue!

  3. Alistair Gammell says:

    Another excellent writer and blogger is Helen Scales and on the important subject of marine conservation; See http://theseamonster.net/2012/03/charles-on-chagos

    Also http://www.helenscales.com/

  4. Bob Philpott says:

    Sue, I would love to see more women openly active in conservation and if we did we might get more sensible and less divisive comments. You only have to look at some of the extreme views on various blogs to work that out.

    So what happened to the crusading women’s voices that started the RSPB; I suspect there are more female RSPB members than male but most of them would be among the ‘silent’ majoity. At the same time look at the gender make up of those that make the news on blogs- the so called Twitchers, egg collectors, landowners and even pigeon fanciers.

    As a hot blooded male ( well a bit cooler blooded at my age) I do disagree with one of your comments and think it should read ” Give more female nature writers a voice and I believe more PEOPLE would listen “.

  5. Dennis Ames says:

    Hi Sue,a very good blog,well done and put over in a very polite manner,had not even thought about this but would like a more equal number and agree with all Bobs comments.Think it must be simply because females for some reason do not get blogging as I suppose anyone can easily get on and do one.
    Strangely on the RSPB forum I would at a guess say that females outnumber males on there two to one.
    Personally now that you have made me think about it I think we would gain a lot from more female bloggers.

  6. Derek Moore says:

    Now you mention it I am amazed how few women are writing about nature. As you mention there are many women working in nature conservation and some have got to the very top. During my working career in nature conservation I worked with and met many very talented women and in most cases they seemed to deliver far better than some of the men involved. In particular Jane Madgwick was so impressive to work with and I learned so much from her about the conservation World and quite a bit about women in the workplace. I gather she is now doing great things in the Netherlands.

    Their tenacity was impressive and their tolerance of constantly being patronised especially by trustees and members inspirational.

    Maybe they are not writing because they are so busy delivering conservation on the ground? Let’s hope so!

    Anyway I agree with all you say and would encourage everyone male of female to get their thoughts down on our wildlife at every opportunity.

  7. Nicola Shearer says:

    Hi Sue, I am back at university trying to start a second career in conservation and although I am still learning I keep a blog about what I get up to (http:\thehappyconservationist.blogspot.com). I have also started writing about wildlife for my local field club newsletter. It’s a small, inconspicuous start but I hope eventually it will go somewhere in my future career as a naturalist/ecologist/nature writer/yet to be decided!! Will certainly be having at look at your blog!

  8. There are plenty of women blogging about nature. Very high quality writing, too. Try heartandsoil.blogspot.com, or my own blog at docsquid.blogspot.com. There are plenty more. I write about our wonderful woodland which we manage for wildlife and community groups. Hen is inspirational, and her blog about sustainable living is excellent. I think the problem is that people don’t look, rather than that women aren’t there, writing away, and working hard for nature.

  9. Maya Plas says:

    Hi, I’ve been working in marine conservation for the last 10 years. I set up a project to raise awareness about the marine environment http://www.learntosea.co.uk (mostly working with children) and am now writing the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore. Through my experience I have seen many women working in the field of conservation / science /education. I think there are just less women who are in more pivotal, visible roles. I think and hope times are changing and we should focus on continuing to provide a positive message for science/conservation whatever our gender so that we may inspire the next generation to connect with our natural world. The role of education is, I feel, more important than the gender issue. We need to make sure children are educated and given the opportunity to get outdoors and learn more than ensuring any female role models. Although I see they have a role too and hope there will be more role models male or female that inspire future conservationists. Let’s just get our kids outside! Best fishes, Maya

  10. Gert Corfield says:

    Sue – you’re very right, but take heart the 2 books that have influenced me the most and set me down the path of nature conservation were The Theft of the Countryside by Marion Shoard and, of course, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

  11. Sue Walker says:

    First of all, many thanks to all the people who read the blog and made such thoughtful comments. My piece wasn’t meant to be controversial as such, and I think that’s reflected in the tone of the comments. What I was trying to say is that there are, as some of you have pointed out, many women writing excellent stuff about nature and conservation (‘I think there might be women out there who are fantastic writers’), but that they don’t, on the whole, have the same profile as the guys. Maya and Bob touched on this in their comments. And while I agree with Maya wholeheartedly that it’s education that’s the key to switching on the next generation to nature, I do believe that offering more pivotal female role models is important to reaching teenage girls.

    And Sarah – I will certainly be looking up your blog and the others you recommend. The question, I suppose, is why more people aren’t looking at them? Do women nature writers need to be more assertive!? Or do people have less positive images of what they might say? I hope people like Deb and Nicola can change that with their new blogs.

    And to Derek and Dennis, thanks for saying that the blog made you think about it a bit more! If there’s anything you can do to help make it happen that would be great!

    • Redwood says:

      Sue Everett who has written in British Wildlife for years provides an EXCELLENT review of many key issues and hot topics. Invaluable and interesting.

      Lots of women work in environmental and nature conservation policy. And in my part of the UK, 5 of the 6 local BAP co-ordinators were female (but BAPs are dying).
      But far fewer women are site managers / countryside managers, and that needs addressing.

  12. Sue –
    A really good point which has made me think hard. Thanks!

    The strange thing is, if someone suddenly asked me to name two excellent “wildlife bloggers” – I’d name two women immediately but you’re right, there does seem to be a lack of more famous female nature commentators.

    Why?
    I guesss traditionally, wildlife shooting (firstly) or collection (secondly) or research film-making or photography, (thirdly) were originally seen as very male past-times.
    Not now (obviously), but perhaps the old traditional way of thinking is still around (although diluted).

    What can we do about it?
    Starts with (school) education I suppose but other than that, I have no idea. Sorry.

    Anyway…. thanks for making me think!

    Doug

  13. To create nature writing you need to get out into the landscape alone and observe. I know many women who are frightened to do this because of their fear of men, and many years ago an past girlfriend of mine was hospitalised by being whacked over the head in Sankey Valley Country park, St Helens by a young lad. She was sitting alone sketching nature for her art college studies. Does anyone consider this – as a male you can stride about with less fear than a woman?

  14. Maya Plass says:

    Hi Sue,
    I have been thinking about your blog, Sue and just to add…I do think it’s hard for woman to become those “pivotal roles” and sometimes women are chosen for those roles for the wrong reasons. I have been in situations where male naturalists have turned to me and said, “Listen love, you stick to your rockpools” in such a patronising way…grrr! I don’t think this man would have made a similar type or tone of comment to a fellow man. Women have to be assertive to be heard and this isn’t always easy when you are put into a more diminutive role by patronising comments. On an aside, my key role model was my mum and as parents I think mums have such a huge influence in the way we perceive what is possible for women. Women’s representation in media generally is unhelpful. During my school years I did a sociology GCSE. I carried out some research into womens perception in media. I chose 3 tabloids and 3 broadsheet papers and listed all the adjectives relating to men and women. The interesting thing was that the broadsheets did not fair much better than the tabloids. The majority of articles described women by their appearance, hair colour, attractiveness etc while the men were described mostly for their profession or status. This was back in 1995ish, I would be interested to see how a similar test would fair today. This exercise certainly made me aware of the way women are portrayed and made me vow to prove that we are more than “blonde” but naturalists, scientists, police officers etc in our own right. If I have a moment I might just try out this research again! Thanks for your thought provoking blog, Sue!

  15. I am not quite sure what all the fuss is about – we have Caroline Spelman in the most influential environmental post in Government and probably in the UK. Caroline Spelman has often written about her love of nature…

  16. Sue Walker says:

    Thanks for the further comments, and some interesting points I hadn’t considered before! Duncan’s point about women feeling threatened in the outdoors, for example. I suppose I’m lucky in that I live in a rural area, but I know this is an issue for some women. Having said that I do think the perception of danger created by the media is much worse than the actual threat – and to be fair, we’re all probably much more likely to be hurt in a car accident than venturing out in the wild. Again an education issue perhaps?
    And Maya’s second comment raises a whole suite of issues about society’s perception of women generally which make me feel ‘where do we start to change things?!’.
    And thanks, Pete for reminding us about Caroline Spelman. How could I possibly have left her out given the dramatic effect she’s having on our natural environment?
    On a positive note, I did watch a BBC programme called ‘Orbit’ last night about the effect of our orbit round the Sun on the natural world – presented by not one but two women – which must be progress!

  17. Beulah Garner says:

    Hi Sue,
    Excellent piece; and thank you for even writing about it in the first place. One point resonates with me, and that is ‘the old boys’ club’. It is very difficult for a female to engage, take part or even be heard by groups (nature conservation / natural history) that are still predominantly made up of men. One group whom I won’t specifically mention generally hold their ‘field weekends’ in something akin to an old army barracks, where all the ‘boys’ bed down together – hardly appropriate for a (lone) female to attend – so I don’t! This does seem to trickle through to writing about nature conservation etc.. But the thing with writing is that it confers a freedom; so I just get on and do it, because I can. Perhaps there are more of us out there than we know, its just that our little voices are not loud enough!
    Here’s the blog I write on behalf of the Natural History Museum, which is about taxonomy, which of course underpins conservation; and I also include my (female) colleagues blog about Diptera!
    Beetle blog:
    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/beetles
    Fly blog:
    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/diptera-blog

    • Mark says:

      Beulah – welcome and thank you for your comment.

    • Sue Walker says:

      Thanks for the kind comments Beulah. Checked out your blog and really enjoyed it. It seems an appreciation of poo goes hand in hand with being a naturalist, no matter what discipline you’re involved with. My other half manages the Isle of May NNR, which is a key seabird research site, and it’s amazing how many times discussions revolve around the stuff! Will be revisiting your blog (and the fly blog). Is there a way of ‘following’ it so that I can see when there’s been a new entry? I couldn’t work it out but this may be because I’m not that computer-savvy!

  18. Hi Sue, Thanks for writing about this topic. I had noticed the silences in writings about nature in the UK. I became interested in reading about nature – nature writing or, more broadly, environmental literature – through picking up books by North American writers. Female nature writers appear in print in North America as often as their male counterparts. The difference in the UK really struck me when I bought a copy of ‘Nature Tales: Encounters with Britain’s Wildlife’ (2010). The compilers of the book, Michael Allen and Sonya Patel Ellis, write that they hope the natural history anthology is ‘representative’. Of the 60 pieces included in the collection only 7 are by women. Yes, it is an anthology of the last few centuries and, as in literature generally, fewer women writers were published in the past. But still, hardly representative.
    That is only one example of course. In an anthology of contemporary nature writing in the UK, ‘A Wilder Vein’ (2009), the majority of pieces were by female writers. But I wonder if the fact the editor was a woman, Linda Cracknell, affected the selection(?).
    As people have noted above, there are many women writing about nature out there. I don’t think there is one solution to being read/heard; simply keep writing, point out the silences (gender and ethnic) and, perhaps, join together to write and publish.

  19. susan cross says:

    Hi Sue (*waves*)and all

    This is very interesting. My comments come from the perspective of someone who has worked as a consultant, trainer and mentor in environmental and heritage interpretation for more than 25 years. My passion and life work is communication particularly about wildlife and the natural world (although I have a different passion for communicating human heritage).

    I write a blog about interpretation (http://susancrosstelltale.wordpress.com) where for the last few posts I have been writing about nature viewing experiences. But it is not a nature blog – the few posts after this for example will be about writing/ storytelling or possibly interpretation as memorial and remembrance. Okay, that’s enough plug and intro to me.

    Why so few women nature writers? Probably for the same reasons there are so few women novelists, playwrights, poets. I am not sure that I absolutely know those reasons. I think having rich lives (including babies), focusing on doing rather than being seen to be doing, reticence and modesty as well as possibly, historically, a lack of some of the things that help men find the time to write, are key components.

    I think women are out there doing nature conservation even if they are not writing about it. This has shifted over the past two or three decades. I have run training courses for conservation organisations for 25 years. In the beginning at least 75% of course participants were male, now at least 80% are women. Women are really prominent in the public facing, communication roles and they are getting out there and spreading the word to urban people, young people , people who really matter.

    It riles me that I suspect this predominance of women is only partly because of playing to female strengths. The fact that this role is under-regarded and underpaid plays a part. But that’s another story.

    I meet great women all over the place in the conservation movement*. I think most of them are doing great work, passionately, persistently and quietly. At the end of the day maybe we feel we’d rather know we’d done the job, than have written about it.

    Please add the brilliant Frances Cattanach, Director of the North Wales Wildlife Trust to this role call of great women who are up there in the business.

    * For the record I meet great men too. Great life, eh?

  20. Peter Grant says:

    Thanks for your stimulating post Sue (and a great blog site Mark). Being from Tasmania, I can’t speak with any authority on the UK scene. However in my experience of running the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize, we’ve have a preponderance of entries from women in the 10 years we’ve been running the prize. And over 50% of awardees have been women.

    In my own reading/writing, UK writers like Kathleen Jamie and Linda Cracknell are influential. And I should add that Susan Cross is the person who pointed me to this blog! Of course in the US there are many women nature writers. Some of my other thoughts on this can be found here http://www.naturescribe.com/2011/04/nature-writer-interview-with-fortyspot.html

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