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  • Writer's pictureImma Oliveras

Pursuing balance in challenging working environments

(Posted for #InternationalWomensDay at journal of Ecology blog;

I knew I wanted to be a forest ecologist since a very early age. I was born in a rural region of a country with a remarkable machismo culture, and that at the time it was just getting back to democracy after more than four decades of dictatorship. However, I grew up in an environment in which no one ever told me I could not do something because of my gender, so I grew dreaming of becoming a forest scientist and travelling to the most remote areas of the world; this is what ultimately made me who I am today. I never thought that I should be denied an opportunity because of my gender or culture, and this certainty has helped me to deal with and overcome many gender issues I have come across throughout my career.

Fieldwork in Peru. Trying to go make it back to our camp after a long day working in the forest plots in an expedition where I was the only female. Fun times! (In memory of Rommel Bravo, forever in our hearts).

I will illustrate this with an example. Many years ago I led a long and challenging field campaign in a country that I had not worked in before, which had a very different culture and society to what I had previously known. My local collaborator (a fantastic man) hired a large field team before my arrival, which consisted of mostly men. On the first day with the team I presented the working plan I had designed and allocated tasks and responsibilities to different people (which I had just met) without taking into account gender or age. I soon realised that the team did not accept my authority, they would not only overlook my instructions but also ignore me when I asked them to do something. They talked in their local language, so I could not understand what they were saying but I felt they were laughing at me. Regardless of my internal despair, I would be the first to get up and the last to go to bed every single day, and I engaged with the work as hard as I could. I tried to show them that to me there were no gender differences: I would not let any man carry things for me, I would dig soils and undertake heavy work. But none of this would improve things much. I eventually realised that I had to somehow make them feel responsible and involve them in the team management, so they did not feel that a foreign woman was trying to command them. I called a general meeting and I re-organised the team and changed the way of operating: I suggested creating small groups of 4-5 people and that each group would be responsible for a task. Each group would have a coordinator that would rotate among themselves (so each person would be group leaders eventually) and would coordinate the work schedule and logistics with me. There were daily evening briefings with the team leaders where we discussed matters of the day and tasks for the following day. They organised the teams and work tasks among themselves. The change was remarkable and the work started flowing; the team atmosphere could not have been better. They also started a joke-game about earning points to marry me – something that would be unthinkable in my normal working environment, but there I took as a joke and I even engaged with it. I still frequently had to make critical decisions based on my knowledge and experience, however I did it in a way that didn’t come across as imposing and instead allowed it to emerge from facilitated team discussions. They learned to respect me and I learned to respect them. Today, many years later, I still keep in touch with most of them and we maintain an excellent relationship.

Fieldwork in Ghana setting up a seedling experiment – we made beautiful pink necklaces for everyone!

I could provide many such examples, and certainly some less pleasant than others, but I firmly believe that the best way to pursue your professional career in a gender imbalanced and multicultural context is with a passion for learning, trust on yourself, developing mutual respect, and openness for growth. Embrace your journey!

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