08/03/2021

British Science Week and International Women’s Day

This past year has highlighted the importance of science as well as the undeniable achievements of women within the industry.

So, as we approach the anniversary of the first lockdown later this month, it seems quite fitting that two internationally-recognised events - British Science Week (5-16 March) and International Women’s Day (8 March) - should overlap in the calendar. 

To celebrate we spoke to three female colleagues to find out more about their roles and the challenges the pandemic has created as they’ve continued to work safeguarding threatened species both in the UK and across the world. 

These colleagues make up just a small proportion of the 127 passionate and driven female workers that Bristol Zoological Society employs across a range of scientific departments - from animal husbandry and veterinary care, to field conservation and science and education.

Later this week we will share insights from one of our in-house veterinarians, Rowena Killick.

Dr Grainne McCabe is head of field conservation and science

She has worked at Bristol Zoological Society since 2014.

What is your favourite part of your role?

Visiting our field project sites and working closely with field teams and local partners to undertake actions that help to protect species in the wild.

Which traits in your female colleagues inspire you?

While more and more women are represented in science careers each year, it is still a challenging environment for women. In addition, many of the women I work with are balancing their responsibilities as mothers or carers for family members, on top of performing at a very high level at work (teaching, leading conservation or animal welfare projects, supervising students and participating in committees and working groups externally in their fields of expertise as well). This level of hard work, dedication, perseverance and passion for their work, given their external commitments, is so inspiring to me!

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Managing expectations. We are a small organisation with big ambition and have a lot of exciting projects and opportunities on the horizon with the move to the new Bristol Zoo but it takes time to make big changes and we all need to move ahead together.

What is the best part of your role?

Travel! I am so lucky to be able to spend time in some of the most beautiful and biodiverse regions of the planet.

Looking back over the past year specifically, what has been the biggest challenge for you professionally during this pandemic?

We have had a lot of change in the department over the past 12 months and that has required a lot of time spent on making plans for accommodating our higher education students on site safely, covering conservation projects and teaching workload, and good communication with partners in higher education and our worldwide projects to ensure they know we are working on plans to be covid-secure and continue work in the future. 

It has meant a lot of firefighting and not much time to think through decisions as carefully as I would have liked or check-in more closely with all members of the team to see how they were doing personally. Thankfully, having such a strong team meant that we got through it and the work the department has been able to complete is exceptional, despite these challenges.

And personally?

Homeschooling during the first lockdown was a real challenge! There is a reason I am not a primary school teacher! Also, being so far from family and my home in Canada has been really difficult for me and for my family.

How has the pandemic changed the way that you / your team have to work?

The team are now experts at online teaching. At one point in the November lockdown, higher education delivery was still face to face, but some students were shielding at home. So the lecturers and HE managers were teaching some students face to face in the lecture theatres at the zoo, while simultaneously teaching some students at home through the laptop and trying to maintain engagement with both groups at the same time. It was really extraordinary! 

In addition, some lecturers then had to record the same lectures separately for those students who were unable to attend either live session. This obviously increased workloads and challenged creativity to keep all these different groups engaged, but our student feedback has been so positive about the efforts of the team.

What has the past year taught you about strength, understanding and determination within teams?

It has taught me that we are more resilient and flexible than we probably ever realised before. It has also reinforced how important it is to remember we are all going through difficult, challenging things at home that we might not bring into work, so just being kind and patient and empathetic to everyone is such an important trait to have. It is really heartwarming to see some members of my team checking on each other and checking on their managers as well, which isn't something everyone thinks to do. That understanding is what gets a team through something as challenging as the past year.

What are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?

I am currently working on an IUCN Conservation Action Plan for Mangadrills. These are African monkeys including mangabeys, drills and mandrills, which are highly threatened but very little known. I am working with a great team from across Africa, the UK, the US and Europe to bring this plan together, which will highlight priority conservation actions for each of the 10 species/subspecies. It will be launched in the summer of 2021.

What is it like to be a professional female within your industry?

Being a female conservation professional can be challenging at times. Sometimes when working in the field in Africa or Central America, government officials don't believe I am the project lead and will automatically speak to the men in our group. Obviously, this is very frustrating and often means I need to work much harder to get respect or get a seat at the decision-making table - so to speak. But there are other advantages. In many local communities around the world, women may make the decisions about household matters like what food to buy, or where to get firewood - things that are directly related to conservation. They are also impacted differently by some initiatives designed to combat climate change or unsustainable use of natural resources, and as a woman, it can be easier for me to have those discussions than if I was man. 

So we still have a ways to go in conservation to have equality for men and women, but as I see more and more young women entering our conservation degree programmes and joining our local field teams around the world, I am optimistic about the future for women in conservation.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in this world, what would it be?

Good question! I would like to see global food and water security. So much of the civil conflicts that we see, and the habitat loss and disturbance that impact wildlife and people, are a result of the need for more land or access to freshwater.

Tell us something that we might not know about you…

I don't really enjoy watching nature documentaries… I much prefer an action movie!

Carmen Solan is senior bugworld keeper

Carmen has worked for Bristol Zoological Society since 2008 and cares for a range of fascinating invertebrates, including the critically endangered wolf spider, Lord Howe Island stick insects and five species of partula snail.

What is your favourite part of your role?

Definitely meeting someone who is already excited about invertebrates, or helping someone realise just how interesting and special the world of invertebrates is!

Also getting to work with a lot of work experience students, and volunteers - watching their skills and passion grow. If they go off to get a job in the field it makes me so proud!

Which traits in your female colleagues inspire you?

Community, perseverance, passion, empathy and adaptability! Everyone has worked really hard to be here - pulling together, supporting each other and being able to adapt to all situations!

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Seeing the negative perception that many still have about bugs, often without a reason or any experiences with them - kind of a fear of the unknown.

What is the best part of your role?

Working with all the animals and a great team (closely and across the Society)

Looking back over the past year specifically, what has been the biggest challenge for you professionally during this pandemic?

Adapting to new working procedures with social distancing. Sometimes you don’t see anyone else for a long time and break times only involve a couple of team members. I miss having all of my colleagues around, and knowing they would love to be on site to help if they could be - it seems like all their smiley faces are just a memory! I have really missed seeing all of our wonderful volunteers too! We have kept in touch with updates, which is the best we can do but it's still not the same.

And personally?

Like everyone, not being able to spend time with my family and friends has been tough! I am grateful every day that they are healthy but I feel so much for those who aren't or have lost loved ones during this time, or missed beautiful moments that would have normally been shared.

How has the pandemic changed the way that you / your team have to work?

We have a lot of procedures in place to keep as safe as possible, including a lot of additional cleaning/disinfecting which has felt like second nature for quite a while now. Days are planned to minimise lots of cross over between us and we have split breaks and lunches - some times means you go a long time without seeing an actual person.

What has the past year taught you about strength, understanding and determination within teams?

Our invertebrate team has been so resilient with a variety of changes - powering through, mucking in and pulling together has all made pandemic working more bearable.

What is it like to be a professional female within your industry?

I feel we are all treated equally, and every one has the same opportunities! I have seen great changes in the time I've been working within the industry. When I first started we had quite a male-dominated, higher management team but now it's much more equally split. I also had colleagues who found it difficult (impossible) to return to work as they'd like to after having a child - because the opportunities such as flexible working weren't really available back then. I'm glad that has evolved for us all equally. I am fortunate enough to not have personally experienced bias in my career, but am very aware it is still very much out there in the world!

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in this world, what would it be?

For everyone to coexist in a sustainable, happy world.

Tell us something that we might not know about you…

I was born and grew up in South Africa, I was told as a child to be careful and stay away from bugs, but I had too much of a fascination and my parents nurtured that - now I love them!

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