Environmental NGOs in Washington- are they gender balanced?

In recognition of Women’s Climate Justice Day of Action today, September 29th, I’ve pulled together a little survey looking at gender and the environment in my own state. I’m doing this because I’ve been curious about it for a few months now, but haven’t ever seen something like this done before. I did a quick survey of the apparent genders of the board members for the following environmental groups working primarily in Washington State. Where information was unavailable, for example, there are in-state staff but no in-state board, those organizations were included in one table but not the other.

NGO Board Men Women
Conservation Northwest 7 6
Puget Soundkeeper 13 5
WA Conservation Voters 9 7
WA Toxics Coalition 1 7
NW Straits Commission 10 3
Harbor Wild Watch 3 3
WA Environmental Council 10 12
NW Energy Coalition 7 7
Sound Action 3 3
Audubon 11 10
Mountains to Sound 42 15
The Nature Conservancy Washington 17 7
Total 133 85

85 out of 218 board members of local environmental NGOs are women. That’s 39% women. 7 chairs/presidents of the board were men and 2 were women.

NGO Staff Men Women
Conservation Northwest 11 10
Puget Soundkeeper 3 9
WA Conservation Voters 5 11
WA Toxics Coalition 0 6
NW Straits Commission 1 5
Harbor Wild Watch 1 5
WA Environmental Council 11 19
Environment Washington 2 0
NW Energy Coalition 4 6
Audubon 1 5
Mountains to Sound 10 8
The Nature Conservancy Washington 2 8
Surfrider Foundation 3 0
Total 54 92

92 out of 146 staff members of environmental NGOs are women. That’s 63% women. I also found that 7 executive directors were women and 4 executive directors were men.

Climate Justice means to me that people of all genders have equal opportunity to influence environmental policy and management. It’s pretty awesome that enviro NGO staff are heavily women, even in the leadership positions. But it appears there may be an imbalance as the boards are men heavy, yet the staff are women heavy- and it makes me wonder what else is going on, and what else we can do today and beyond this Day of Action.

Do these results surprise you? What’s your experience with men and women in environmental groups in Washington? Let’s chat. @Women_and_Fish


*I used the use of “he” and “she” to identify a person’s gender. Obviously my cursory analysis only includes 2 genders, but I did not find any staff bios with gender neutral pronouns. I’d love to do a more detailed survey, so please contribute to the list if you have additional information or NGOs to include.

1st anniversary of questioning misogyny in fisheries

Today is the 1st anniversary of the first post on womenandfish, and as it is June 8, it is also #worldoceansday .  Yesterday, I successfully made it through my thesis defense and presented my research to a room full of friends, family, and colleagues.  I answered a few great questions- one in particular I am still chewing on.

In response to my results (specifically those in the post Becoming butterflies) my buddy Raz asked, “Is the level of misogyny in Siquijor going to limit the ability of women to participate in fisheries management?”  The short answer is no, because while it may limit it today, it doesn’t have to limit it tomorrow.  Let’s continue with two examples.

1) In the field, I completed an interview with a female Bureau of Fisheries staff who thought it was incomprehensible that women could or should guard marine protected areas from poachers.  After I turned off the recorder, I told her about the women in Maite who approached violators on the beach day and night.  Her eyebrows raised, her eyes went big, and she said, “really?!” I think her opinion on what women can do changed in that moment, and a big window of opportunity flew open.

2) Also in the field, when I ended a presentation of my preliminary results, the group of 30+ was very quiet for a few moments.  And then a hand raised and a man asked, “So, do you think women make better project managers? Because that is also what I am beginning to observe in the mountains with land management.”  I explained that perhaps sometimes they do make better project managers, but I don’t mean to say that we should be excluding men from fisheries management.  Androgyny will not serve us any better than misogyny.  It is very likely that some of the fishermen in attendance were embarrassed by the quotes I had captured from them that were degrading to women.  Fishermen are half the story and I do not support pushing them aside.

These two examples illustrate that misogyny is not the end of the story, but only a moment in time.  Exposure to new things challenges and shapes our worldviews whether we are American or Filipino, highly educated or barely literate, woman or man.  As I have talked and written a lot about what the women in Maite had accomplished, it seemed that around the island, and even around the world, people are interested in the possibilities that women bring to the table of environmental management.  The exchange of information pokes holes in people’s perceptions of women.  I have seen that the consequences of sharing what I’ve learned is real, and it can have a positive impact not only on women’s well being but also on our planet ocean and our global village.  So let’s celebrate #worldoceansday by flinging open the windows of opportunity for women. Please share this story with a friend.


Becoming Butterflies

I guess one of the most surprising results I have had here are learning about people’s perceptions of women.  I have asked many people over the past two months, formally (in interviews) but also informally, “how are women involved in coastal resource management?”  Most of these people are aware what coastal resource management (CRM) means in the Philippines, but I’ll just brief that for my readers:

CRM includes a variety of activities, like making fisheries policies, replanting mangrove forests, or establishing sanctuaries.  These activities are led by the local government and NGOs staff, and often funded by foreign aid (especially major players like USAID, GIZ).  Whereas in Seattle, I would expect the government agencies to do all of these activities on their own, here in the Philippines, everybody is involved, and the reality is that they have to be.  The government is limited in its capacity, and that is why they pull in every citizen to help with CRM.   So when we say “CRM” here, that can include the high school students who plant mangroves, the fish wardens out patrolling the waters, and especially sanctuaries.  With sanctuaries, many members of the community have to come together and voluntarily work to maintain the sanctuary and protect it from intruders who might want to plunder its bounty.

There are 16 sanctuaries on Siquijor right now and over 1,000 in the Philippines.  So I guessed in asking so many people their opinions on “how are women involved?” that I could try and get a clear picture.  But it started out really foggy; all I could uncover was anecdotes; that women show up to sanctuary meetings if their husbands are out fishing, that women join their husband in the guardhouse, that they cook for everybody during CRM activities.  A lovely friend and colleague here even said “Barbie, I don’t know! What is women in CRM? I haven’t even thought about it!”

So then on Siquijor I asked people the same question. Two young female government employees who work closely with CRM projects gave me these insights; they have witnessed women:

-do the most of the work in any seaweed farming project

-participate in mangrove replanting

-act as secretaries and maintain good documentation of projects

-handle money and sell products of projects (fish, seaweed, etc.)

-take initiative in projects

-delegate tasks

-are detail oriented

-participate in decision making

-voice their opinions at meetings

-increase understanding among group members

-keep projects organized better

Unfortunately, while these young women have their eyes open, the truth is that we are all up against the barrier of discrimination and what people expect of us.

“it’s very impossible for women to guard (the sanctuary) day and night… if there are intrusions of illegal fishers its very risky for the women to react on the illegal fishers in the marine sanctuary during nighttime… with their forces combined of the illegal fishers, what can the women do against the men? It’s very hard for women because we are weaker than men so when we’re in trouble, we’ll be put in deep sea (drowned)” (female government staff)

me: “What would be the benefit of including women?”

Men: “it would be clean here… and they could cook for us. And if our wives were involved… we would (have sex in the guardhouse while guarding the sanctuary at night)”.

And that’s all.  The men couldn’t think of any other benefit.

It reminds me of a child I knew who put a caterpillar in a jar because she didn’t know it would become a butterfly…


Fish for sex

Have you ever heard that saying, A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”? The cartoon that goes with it, of a fish awkwardly peddling a bike, makes me giggle inwardly.  This post is, unfortunately, a lot less silly than that, but I can’t get the quote out of my head. I recently learned that sometimes, a man needs a woman like a woman needs a fish.  This is a well-documented social behavior called “FFS” or Fish For Sex.

A year ago, the only thought I had about the link between conservation and sex was this: we should try to slow down population growth to reduce pressure on the environment.  Maybe simplistic, but that’s as far as a conclusion as I had come to, and I didn’t bother looking into it further.

And then I met Richard Pollnac, Eddie Allison, and Jamie Bechtel.  I can thank them for educating me on this issue, and I’m going to attempt to explain it here.

My studies are interdisciplinary, which is a good thing for someone like me- who asks so many questions.  So we have these four global pieces of the puzzle that we can kind of categorize like this:

1)   Environmental issue: collapsing fish stocks

2)   Development issue: population growth

3)   Economic issue: poverty

4)   Political issue: conflict over natural resources

Now, let’s add in one more:

5)   Public health issue: HIV/AIDS.

When this was first brought to my attention, I thought, huh? But here’s why we have to add HIV/AIDS to the list:

“Fishing communities in developing countries are among the socio-professional groups with the highest levels of HIV/AIDS prevalence” (Béné and Merten 2008).

Ouch.  So we add into this quintuple-whammy of issues the fact that sometimes women trade sex to obtain fish from a fisherman.  This can happen if women lack the resources to catch the fish herself and also lack the cash to purchase the fish.

Widowed, divorced, or single women are most likely to trade sexual favors for fish. They could be trying to get fish for themselves, for their families to eat, or to re-sell. They are often portrayed as either willing participants or portrayed as the alternative-victims (Béné and Merten 2008). But I could imagine that the situation is not always one or the other.  I have been fortunate enough to have never been in the position where I had to make a decision like this, and I cannot place judgment on the choice a woman would make to feed herself or her children.  In fact, it’s incredibly challenging for me to even imagine how difficult this is on a personal level, so I prefer to step back and examine it from a wider lens.

What I can say is, the trading of fish for sex is clearly connected to all these other global issues.  While 97% of the documented cases on FFS were in Africa and only 3% were in Asia, it seems that there is really not enough documentation of these issues to understand the problem.

I would argue that FFS is actually “hiding” the poverty of women in coastal communities.  FFS is an economic transaction that you won’t see on any ledgers, but it is affecting the spread of HIV/AIDS and hiding the real economics of resource-dependent communities.  “Most of these fish-for-sex transactions involve unprotected sex, putting both parties—the fisher and the fish trader—at risk” (Béné and Merten 2008).

When we evaluate the resources of a coastal community, as I have observed in the Philippines, we might ask questions like “what profit do you normally get for one kilo of fish?”  What we are not doing is asking fishermen “how many times a week do you accept sexual favors as payment for fish?” Is anyone asking women “how many sexual acts do you participate in each week to feed your family?”  For example, if a woman is willing and highly valued as a sexual partner, how many partners on average before she contracts HIV?  If she is not valued as a sexual partner, does she send her daughter to the fishermen instead?  If a fisherman can choose one port over another where to take his catch, does this disproportionately affect the spread of HIV?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think we should be looking for them. At the very least, we need to be putting together the puzzle, piece by piece.


If you are inclined to my main source, it’s called “Women and Fish-for-Sex: Transactional Sex, HIV/AIDS and Gender in African Fisheries” (Béné and Merten 2008).

I found them!

Back to my own research…I found my women! I found them! Aged from 23-73, there are 28 women in the management group for the marine sanctuary in Maite, Siquijor.  It’s a humble little reserve right in front of their houses, but it’s a no-fishing zone.  Only non-extractive activities like diving and snorkeling are allowed.

Friends already! Behind is the monthly budget allocations from what they earned from a user fee for diving/snorkeling.

I was lucky enough to have Meeshel (CCE staff) accompany me to Maite on Sunday, and we held a focus group with some of the women who help manage the sanctuary.

One of the questions I asked was why the women were involved in the sanctuary. These were two responses.

1) In my part, I get involved in this project because this is one of the problems of the government.  And being a citizen of the Philippines and the province and the barangay as well, it is one of my duties as a citizen to help, to help protect and preserve the marine animals.  And this is also one way of uplifting the quality of life to the fishermen.


2) We are the pioneers- the barangay officials who opened this sanctuary. Because we have to preserve our sanctuary we have to preserve our resources, the corals and the fish, because mostly we have so many fishing- illegal fishing in our area.  So we have to defend, like this, we have to make our guardhouse, make our schedule of duty- for the illegal fishing. So we have to protect our sanctuary for the future of our children.  Maybe someday we have so many fish.

Aren’t they beautifully said?

You know what I noticed as I listened? How unselfish the answers were to this question.  Whenever I read about MPAs before, it looked like the main reason was to increase the fish available for fishermen to catch, and to effectively increase their income.  So I figured the women’s responses would be somewhat in line with that idea; that they wanted an MPA mainly for an economic incentive.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I wasn’t really planning on holding a focus group with the men in the management group, but now I hope I can ask them the same question.  Considering the men will almost all be fishers who sell their catch, I wonder if their answers are very different, don’t you?