8 Mar 2019


Rachel Lowry

Chief Conservation Officer WWF-Australia

I love International Women’s Day. It’s a day worthy of reflection, alongside dates such as Australia’s Threatened Species Day (a day marked by the extinction of the thylacine), World Day for Cultural Diversity (a day I use as an excuse to frequent food festivals and sample cuisine from every corner of the world) and International Children’s Day (because who doesn’t want a world that improves the welfare of our children?). In fact, each of these events mean a great deal to me, no doubt because they celebrate the very values that I pride myself on carrying across my personal and professional life, equality being central.

Last year, on 8 March, as I readied myself for a ghastly early start, thanks to whomever dreamed up the idea of women’s breakfasts (I know, they’re great once you’re there), my son Cooper asked why there was a day just for ‘girls’? I explained that Australia has had 30 prime ministers, yet only one of those has been female. I also explained that for every one female that has received our world’s greatest prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, 16 times more men have received it.

I didn’t explain the gender pay gap, the fact that it only recently became legal for women to vote in Saudi Arabia (and still isn’t allowed in the Vatican) and so on, because he’s six years old, and central to his core worry list is whether he’ll get a good turn on the monkey bars come recess, a worry list I have no desire to change at this age. However, the idea of just one girl within his school getting pupil of the week, followed by 16 boys, certainly sold him on the idea that it’s worth celebrating the fact that girls are equally fabulous, and worthy of the same opportunities as boys. And so, hoorah for #InternationalWomensDay2019, I say. A day that reminds us that while we have come along way, there’s plenty more to do to strike the gender balance so that we can all enjoy a better world.

Before I joined WWF-Australia, I was working at Zoos Victoria as Director of Wildlife Conservation and Science. Around this time each year, I’m often asked to speak about the gender gap across Australia’s science industry. In essence, studies show that many women continue to be squeezed out of science-based roles, especially leadership positions and advanced learning opportunities due to structural barriers. When we look across senior science professions based in academia, women make up almost half of junior academic roles, however less than one-fifth of senior professors are women. In an effort to do my part to address inequity, while managing one the largest groups of scientists focused on threatened species conservation in Victoria, I’m proud to have shifted the gender ratio of PhD’s employed within the team that I led at Zoos Victoria’s from an imbalanced ratio of 1:5 to 1:1 over my eight years as director.

Given my passion and commitment for gender equity, it probably won’t come as a surprise that one of the first programs that I fell in love with when I joined WWF-Australia as Chief Conservation Officer, was the Women Rangers Environmental Network Program. While I recognise that it’s in its early stages, I feel confident that we are onto a winner with this important initiative and cannot wait to see it grow.

I experienced first-hand the importance of building the capacity of women to engage in conservation whilst working in Kenya. In 2008, I was asked to visit a conservancy within Northern Kenya, Melako, to conduct a conservation community needs assessment. Alongside a fellow conservationist passionate about the interface between community development and wildlife conservation, we had been asked to advise the Northern Rangelands Trust on how best to help reduce human-wildlife conflict issues during times of drought, and ultimately secure the critically endangered Grévy's zebra within the reserve. As a consequence of that visit, the Beads for Wildlife community-trade campaign originated.

The drought was causing many waterholes to dry up. Women were having to walk further distances each day to herd goats towards water, and children were being pulled out of school to help share the load. Grévy's zebra were turning up to waterholes that were monopolised by goats, and women reported feeling less connected with their community, as they had less time to enjoy their favourite social experience, which was to sit under shady trees beading. After committing to sell the beadwork from any family that agreed to lighten their load of goats during times of drought and re-enrol children back to school, we saw Grévy's zebra numbers rise and three additional schools needed to be built to accommodate the influx of students. Equally exciting, impact research found that the women benefited from the initiative immensely.

When my colleague returned a year later to film a woman that I had sat with just 12 months prior discussing her desire to be part of the Beads for Wildlife trial, I almost cried when watching her response to the question - “What has been the best outcome?”. It was not the reply I had been expecting. Josephine said, “In all honesty, it’s been feeling cleaner, and all getting sick less. It’s the first time in my life as a mother I have been able to afford soap”. Wins that benefit wildlife and people are the ones worth striving for. Not only for ethical reasons, but because they’re the easiest to sustain. That program has now sold more than one million dollars worth of beaded items throughout zoos all over the world, and Grévy's zebra remain a feature of the Melako landscape.

Fast forward to 2019, and I have now joined WWF-Australia, an organisation that understands the importance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals better than most. While I’ve been surprised in my first month to discover the full breadth of the incredible work that WWF-Australia undertakes, I haven’t been surprised by its importance. 10 years ago, while developing Melbourne Zoo’s Don’t Palm Us Off campaign, at a time when not a single food manufacturer within Australia was sourcing Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), I worked closely with WWF behind the scenes to help engage major corporations to commit to CSPO. I am confident that without WWF’s early involvement, the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign would not have secured more than half a million Australian signatures seeking mandatory labelling of palm oil, as well as the commitment of the top six Australian food manufacturers to do better by species such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers.

I’ve therefore seen the power of the WWF brand and change model from the lens of an external partner. I’m so looking forward to seeing what goals WWF-Australia will kick next as we continue to consolidate the foundations of a workforce committed to equity, and through the lens of innovation, integration and impact drive progress forward for nature.

How will I celebrate International Women’s Day in 2019 you ask? It’ll start by participating in a strategic review session with WWF-Australia’s leadership team, and will end when I sit down to read my daughter and son one of our favourite books in our household, Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World by Kate Pankhust. I’d encourage you to carve out some time to reflect on the gender equity issue International Women’s Day. To celebrate how far we’ve come, and of course, how far we have to go. If you haven’t done so already, check out 1millionwomen.com.au and consider encouraging your friends to join the movement of women from every corner of the planet building a lifestyle revolution to fight the climate crisis. Or, perhaps like my one-year-old Josie in the picture, you’ll find the time to read a good book and reflect on women who have changed the world, and of course the men and women who will help to bring their efforts home.

Josie reading Women Who Changed the World
© Rachel Lowry