Championing change in conservation

I started my career as a land management ranger in Kakadu National Park back in 1979. There were no female rangers working alongside me. 

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Pic: Floppy Hat by Hailey Martin at Edgbaston Reserve (Qld) Source: Bush Heritage Australia

In fact, I recall one female colleague who was going for a ranger job being asked “but could you lift an outboard motor off the back of a boat?” in her interview.

" Thankfully attitudes to women in the conservation workforce have changed, for the benefit of society and the environment at large.”

In those less enlightened days, physical strength was seen as one of the main requirements for the job and it was widely perceived women just weren’t going to cut it on that basis.  Whilst she didn’t get the job that time, my colleague did go onto a successful career in the field.

In a sign of things to come in Kakadu, two women were part of the fist Aboriginal ranger training program and both went onto successful careers as rangers and leaders in the park.

Thankfully attitudes to women in the conservation workforce have changed, for the benefit of society and the environment at large.

The conservation sector blends science and practical land management with science-based monitoring, informing what we do for best outcomes. It’s now commonplace to see female rangers, land managers, ecologists, reserve managers and environmental scientists working hard to protect our natural environment.


The old stereotypes of the bloke in khaki or in a lab coat needs to be put to rest as we enter a new era of working together.

With our financial institutions, large corporations and government making concerted efforts to ensure women are represented, paid equally and offered the same opportunities as their male counterparts. I’ve seen a seismic shift in the science and land management sectors to ensure women have an equal seat at the table.

I’ve been fortunate to see this shift personally during my time at Bush Heritage Australia.

When I started in 2011, we had around a third of our land management roles filled by women; now it’s a more balanced 50 per cent. I am pleased with the progress we have made in addressing the balance of senior roles and Board membership at Bush Heritage to include many talented, intelligent and ambitious women and to do my bit to make sure we make use of a diverse range of backgrounds, expertise and views in our decision making.

To that effect, both our Board and our senior management team have reached gender parity. In fact, as I finish my seven-year tenure at the helm of Bush Heritage, I’m very pleased to be handing over the reins to Heather Campbell, who will be our first female CEO.

We know increasing female participation has enormous positive impacts across a range of indicators.

The United Nations tells us “companies greatly benefit from increasing leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organisational effectiveness. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organisational effectiveness”. 

And we need to be more effective if we want to see some of the damage done to our environment repaired.

Looking out to the wider conservation landscape in Australia, there’s a wealth of women leading the charge to effect the change we need and secure a better future for the generations to come.

Taking charge of change

  • Kelly O’Shanassy is CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, making great strides in advocacy and campaigning
  • Victoria Marles is from Trust for Nature Victoria who are protecting over 100,000 hectares across the state
  • Lesley Hughes is a Distinguished Professor of Biological Science at Macquarie University and a master at communicating the devastating projections of climate change
  • Dr Rebecca Spindler, Bush Heritage’s Head of Science and Conservation leads our knowledge strategy across more than 8 million hectares of Australian bush
  • Natalie Issacs is CEO of 1 Million Women, a digital initiative to harness the collective power of women to save the environment and now has more than 600,000 women signed up
  • Amanda McKenzie is the CEO of the Climate Council, which was launched in 2014 after Australia’s largest-ever crowdfunding campaign.

There are thousands more I could add to this illustrious list. 

I am personally indebted to our female board directors, committee members, senior management team, and staff who help lead our conservation work with innovation and collaboration, for being thought leaders, role models and mentors and for bringing a wealth of experience and a diversity of approaches to the work we do.

One of our Board members, Professor Michelle Leishman, recently co-edited a special issue of Pacific Conservation Biology showcasing the work of women in conservation science. In the opening editorial, Michelle noted gender parity initiatives “should help identify and redress some of the barriers that to date have prevented some talented women entering conservation science”.

I’ve seen some of those barriers first-hand: entrenched attitudes towards women and their capabilities, unsupportive and inflexible work arrangements that didn’t take into account outside commitments, and unconscious gender bias all at play to restrict women from being offered leadership opportunities.

As environmental leaders, we must work collaboratively to solve the big challenges we are faced with.

Breaking down those barriers and ensuring we have the best minds and skills at the table will ultimately mean a brighter future for our environment, and for the generations ahead.

Gerard O’Neill is the Former Chief Executive Officer at Bush Heritage Australia

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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