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Implicit gender, racial biases may hinder effectiveness of conservation science, experts warn

  • Implicit gender and racial biases are just as prevalent in the conservation science community as elsewhere, experts say, and could be harming the effectiveness of the work being done, particularly in developing countries.
  • The mostly male and Western scientists working in this field may be shutting out important contributions from local researchers and practitioners in tropical developing countries, as well as preventing a diversity of perspectives in the scientific literature.
  • Having a diverse team and being inclusive at every step, especially in the decision-making process for a conservation project, are some of the ways to resolve these biases, the researchers suggest.

KUCHING, Malaysia — Implicit gender and race bias within the conservation community may be undermining researchers’ work in both the field and in science publication, experts say.

“One of the things that we hear all the time is that science is unbiased,” Emilio Bruna, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, said at a panel discussion at the 2018 conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Kuching, Malaysia, on July 2.

“That’s truly aspirational,” Bruna added, “but science is done by people and people are biased.”

The conservation science community working in tropical countries has been widely criticized for the unbalanced representation of gender and race, dominated as it is by men from developed countries.

At the discussion in Kuching, the panelists suggested this lack of balance in the community could lead to failures in conservation work in tropical developing countries.

Speakers at a recent panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in tropical conservation science (from left): Emilio Bruna, Neha Sinha, Cecilia Dahlsjö and Sheema Abdul Aziz. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Bruna, who is also an editor for the scientific journal BioTropica, cited a 2017 report led by Johanna Espin, a sociology and criminology researcher at the University of Florida, that showed a persistent lack of international representation on editorial boards in environmental biology. He also noted a 2014 study by Alyssa Cho, an agronomy researcher at the same university, that reported the underrepresentation of women on the editorial boards of science journals of the same discipline. Bruna was involved in both reports.

In 2014, Bruna noted, there were more than 4,200 first authors in the journals that were reviewed by Bruna’s team for the report. They found that many of these authors were based in the global South, but in that same year, there were more editors from the Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand than there were from China, Brazil and Mexico.

He said that the Netherlands “was overly represented,” with 40 editors from that country, while there were only 15 people from Brazil and nine from Mexico on the editorial boards.

“People tend to self-aggregate, people tend to work with, live with, spend time with people who are similar to them — that includes scientific community — people tend to collaborate with people who have similar perspective,” Bruna said.

“As editors [of scientific journals], we shape the direction of the field, both by choosing who we allow to enter this community of scholars via our perspective on what we think is interesting and important and relevant,” he said.

The percentage of environmental biology editors based in different countries, global regions, and World Bank national income categories. Image by Espin et al.

Cecilia Dahlsjö, a postdoctoral researcher in tropical ecology at the University of Oxford, conducted a survey among the participants of the ATBC conference before the event took place. Of the 281 respondents, 53 percent identified as female, 41 percent male, and the rest chose not to identify their gender.

The majority of female respondents — much more than their male counterparts — said gender had an impact on their opportunities, and they had experienced feeling threatened or in danger in their workplace.

At the discussion, Dahlsjö also read out a comment from a respondent identified as a female professor, who said, “On multiple occasions I’ve experienced sexual advances in the field and/or the workplace that make me feel uncomfortable and powerless.”

“So, on the one hand, we have these commitments from employers, we have policies towards gender equality, but the majority of you [participants] say that your employers don’t do quite well,” Dahlsjö said.

“It’s not just policy — the policies are there — and even if they could put women in powerful positions, if they’re constantly subjected to gender biases, whether they’re not respected or they feel threatened, how are they ever going to be able to thrive?” she added.

“All of these will have an impact on the ability of women to get into decisions, their ability to do their job, thriving through the positions, but also their ability to inspire other women to get there,” Dahlsjö said.

The discussion also highlighted the limited role of local researchers and practitioners in the conservation activities that take place in tropical developing countries.

Sheema Abdul Aziz, co-founder and president of Rimba, a Malaysian nonprofit research group conducting conservation science, said foreign scientists and practitioners would come into a tropical developing country with preconceived conservation values that might demean local knowledge and traditions.

“A lot of foreign scientists and practitioners, especially Western, white people … sometimes have a bit of paternalistic patronizing attitude to local people [researchers and practitioners] from tropical developing countries,” Aziz said.

“I hear a lot of the time people [foreign researchers and practitioners] talk about local capacity building and empowering local people, but even that narrative sometimes comes with a sort of paternalistic attitude. It comes with the assumption, a lot of the time from Western countries, that we [foreign researchers and practitioners] have to help them [local researchers and practitioners], we have to guide them and help bring them up.”

A field researcher talks with a local man in the process of cutting planks. Image by Christina Selby.

Aziz also said the voice of local researchers and practitioners were often overlooked in the process of designing conservation projects in their home villages or countries.

“We have unique knowledge and unique experiences which are valuable for tropical ecology and conservation. We know our country best, we know our culture and our issues best, we know what solutions will work and will not work,” she said at the discussion.

To address this problem, Bruna called for the conservation science community to start understanding and discussing more about these implicit biases.

“One of the things that we should start to do is understand a little bit about these biases so that we can learn how to mitigate them and how to approach them and how do we address them as we try to move forward in terms of a more equitable way of sharing the information that we generate to the world,” he said.

“There is ample evidence from studies of organizations and private sectors [showing] that more diverse teams are more efficient, they come up with more creative solutions when presented with problems, and they’re more productive,” Bruna said. “And you can translate that to our corner of the world as well.”

Training local scientists from developing countries to lead the writing of scientific papers is also important, he said.

“We reviewed 1.25 million articles in the web of science, and we looked at how many countries … were represented on the list of authors, and there are two very clear patterns: the most important is that the more countries that are represented on your list of authors, the more citations your work will get, the higher tier journal that research is going to be published in. And this is relative to other stuff. It just makes your science better,” Bruna said.

Local researchers participating in a project to manage grasslands more sustainably in Peru. Image by Anelí Gómez/Mountain Institute.

Dahlsjö suggested addressing gender equality at home as a start, saying it was strongly linked to the gender imbalance in the workplace.

“I think that we overlook the gender biases within the home that I think are very related to stereotypes, and I think that’s something to talk about and think about a lot more,” she said.

Aziz said having representatives from a diverse group on decision-making boards was key to reducing implicit biases in conservation.

“It goes back to the fact that a lot of the voices that are being excluded are valuable voices. And we need those voices and that knowledge, especially when you’re talking about conservation,” she said.

“If you exclude those valuable voices from the narrative, from your processes, then you’re essentially depriving yourself of that valuable knowledge that can help you be more effective in what you’re trying to achieve,” Aziz said.

“There should be more of us from [tropical] developing countries on the boards, in the committees, part of the decision-making, consulted and included as equal partners right from the beginning and not just as an afterthought, not just to tick a box,” she said.

Author’s note 7/9/2018: Minor changes to the presentation of Sheema Abdul Aziz’s views have been made in response to clarification from Aziz.

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