In conversation with Louise MacCallum and Barbara Promberger: International Women’s Day 2024

Posted: 8th March 2024

Photo: Calin Serban

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. This interview was conducted by Iona Haines, Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme Communications and Network Coordinator. 

I joined Louise MacCallum and Barbara Promberger for a discussion about their lives, careers, and experiences as women in conservation. Barbara is a co-founder and executive director of Foundation Conservation Carpathia, which works to create a world-class wilderness reserve in Romania’s Southern Carpathian Mountains, and leader of the ELSP Carpathian Mountains project. Louise works for the Blue Marine Foundation managing the Solent Seascape Project, which aims to restore the Solent, a strait of water between the Isle of Wight and the south coast of England.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “inspire inclusion”. Statistics about women’s inclusion in the conservation sector are difficult to find, but if we look at similar sectors like environmental politics, the optics don’t look good. In 2020, data from the IUCN showed that only 15% of 881 national environmental ministries across 193 countries were led by women. A 2019 study that interviewed 56 women leaders in conservation found that all of them had experienced or witnessed gender-related workplace challenges, for example salary inequality, harassment, or assumptions of incompetence. A 2015 study on the environmental sector in the USA found that women made up over half of interns and junior staff members, but as “the seniority, power, and visibility of the staffing level increased, the percentage of women holding such positions decreased”.

These statistics are why I wanted to speak to Louise and Barbara, both prominent and senior conservationists and leaders of ELSP projects, about their experiences in the sector. We found a time on a Friday afternoon to have a call. “This is a welcome respite”, Louise told me. “I’ve been working on budgets all day and my head is swimming”.

Iona: Would you be able to tell me a little bit about your background and how you became interested in conservation?

Louise: When I was a little girl, my dad loved wildlife. We grew up in the Welsh valleys, and he always had a bird table outside our living room window. During the summers, we’d go to the beach for picnics with my mum, brother, and sister. My dad would make me wait until the tide was low because I was really interested in marine creatures. Waiting for low tide felt like a thousand years as a 5 or 6-year-old. But when the tide went down, he’d take me paddling. He’d pick up big rocks so I could see what creatures lived underneath them. I was fascinated by the fish, starfish, and crustaceans we could see.

He used to put the rocks back very carefully, teaching me to respect nature. As I went through school, I decided I wanted to use my voice and what I knew about nature as nature’s voice because it doesn’t have one of its own.

A lot of people weren’t supportive of me taking a degree in marine biology because they thought it would be a very difficult career path to break into, which is certainly true. I understand their concerns, but I did go and do a degree at Liverpool University in marine biology. Since then, my career has been quite chequered because people are right that it is very difficult to have a career in conservation that allows you to pay your bills.

Louise MacCallum working on the Solent Seascape Project’s oyster restoration in the River Hamble. Photo: Blue Marine Foundation.

Barbara: I also grew up in the countryside, and I think that really imprinted on me early on because whilst my friends were longing for city life at 14 or 15, I always enjoyed it. I loved animals, plants, and of course, wildlife. I spent a lot of my time playing in the forest, just exploring.

Two years ago, I met a cousin at a family event whom I hadn’t seen for about 25 years. She remembered me as the crazy one who picked up everything found on the ground. I would pick up the most common things, like bones, and fill my pockets with all kinds of stuff from nature. She recalled that vividly, and it made me realise that my interest in nature started early.

I realised that studying animal behaviour was exactly what I wanted to do, and so enrolled in university.

When I finished and went to Romania for the first time to study wolves, the first couple of years were exactly what I imagined — studying wildlife in wild places, being out all day, following wildlife. I tremendously enjoyed it, and it was exactly what I was passionate about. But over the years, I realised that while it was fulfilling on a personal level, it didn’t make a big difference to the long-term perception of wolves in Romania or their population in the Carpathians.

That’s when I shifted from research to the conservation side of what I was doing. I believe it’s very important to have many people fighting for conservation and trying to maintain what we have, so there’s something to study in the future.

Barbara Promberger during the recent filming of a documentary in the Carpathian Mountains. Photo: FCC.

Iona: Louise, which women have inspired you throughout your career?

Louise: I do have to give a shout out to Sylvia Earle, who I’m sure both of you will know. She’s an American marine biologist who for many decades has been a huge advocate for ocean conservation. She’s spoken particularly eloquently about the commercial fishing industry and the inappropriate way that’s managed in many regions and the devastation that’s causing to marine ecosystems.

Out of almost all of the 9 other partners of the Solent Seascape Project, the primary person we work with is a woman. If you have a look on the Blue Marine website, who I work for, and you look at the people page, there are so many women who work here. I feel so lucky that I work for them. On my first day, I remember vividly thinking that I was so happy because I was with my tribe. There are just the most amazing, inspiring people to work with. So yeah, I feel quite lucky.

Iona: Do you think if there were more women in these prominent positions in conservation that would have been helpful to you when you were starting out?

Louise: I definitely think so. My experience of the conservation world in the UK definitely is that there’s a lot of men. When I used to go to meetings in the Solent, for example, it was not that unusual for me to be the only woman.

So, yeah, I think if in my early career there had been more strong women that I could have worked with and listened to their stories, it would have definitely made me realise that I could push myself toward my dreams and that my career was a possibility. Whereas some of the time, I felt like as a woman, that it was more of a challenge than if I’d fit the more normal demographic.

Louise holding a heart-shaped oyster. Photo: Luke Helmer.

Barbara:  Yeah, I think this is the reality. As you said, it’s much more challenging for women because you always feel like you have to prove yourself. It was the same for me in Romania, which is a very male-dominated country, especially after the fall of communism; especially in the forestry, wildlife, and game management sectors I was going into. Also, I think the culture here was quite different to where I’m from in Austria.

As a woman, you are really not expected to be the one to speak up. You were not even the one to drive the car because that meant that the man sitting next to you is drunk. Coming from a Western country, and being 20, it was clear that I could drive a car. All of a sudden I realised, wow, I’ve got them into a really difficult position because if I’m driving, the man next to me is considered to be either too weak or too drunk to drive. Things like this? Yeah, you have to come to terms with them. It’s annoying because you’re not expecting it. You don’t want to accept it, but yeah, it is what it is.

Sometimes I still struggle with that nowadays because there are so few women in the field that are really accepted.

Barbara in Yukon in 1998. Photo: Barbara and Christoph Promberger.

Iona: Louise, what are you the most proud of in your career?

Louise: There’s a big question, right? In my previous job, I worked for a little harbour authority in the Solent. There were only seven of us. I was the only person who worked in an environmental role.

In the harbour where I was working, which is called Langstone Harbour, which is one of my favourite places on Earth, there was a quay, a derelict massive concrete quay, which historically had been used to land salt and to produce salt.

But over time, it became a dumping ground. People used to use it to fly-tip. I would regularly go there, and someone would have pushed a piano off or dumped their Christmas tree or anything they just couldn’t get rid of. They just used to use this because you could drive right up to it, so they used to use it to chuck stuff off into the sea, and it was ugly. It was an eyesore, and I thought, “Oh wow, if that quay wasn’t there, it would be an extra almost a square kilometre of mudflat.”

So, I spoke with some people and said, “How much do you think it would cost to get rid of that derelict quay? Because it’s ugly and condemned and fly-tip central.” And it was just over a million pounds. So, I was like, “Oh, we’re just never gonna be able to do that.” But I just couldn’t let it go.

A few years later, the people in the Solent, the local authorities basically who maintained the flood defences, needed to build in some compensation because they were going to be removing a piece of habitat to build flood defences. And so I went to the partnership who work with sea defences and suggested that they could maybe take this quay away to regain mudflats as compensation. At first, they were like, “Oh, it’s too difficult. It’s going to cost too much money.” But along with others—I can’t take sole credit for this—I just couldn’t let it go and I kept working at them. And the upshot of this story is eventually they did take the quay away.

And if you ever come to Langstone Harbour, I will take you to the spot where that quay used to be, which is now, I would say it’s probably eight years later, and it’s just back to mudflat. And a few years ago, I went there one day to have a look at it, and there was a flock of avocets feeding where that quay once stood. And you know, in the scheme of the world, creating an extra square kilometre of mudflat isn’t going to change the world. I’m not going to save the world that way, but I feel like I couldn’t let it go, and now, those birds have got more space to feed, so I feel really proud of myself for that.

Langstone Harbour from above. Photo: Wez Smith.

Iona: Do you think that determination is a trait that’s helped you to make a difference in conservation?

Louise: I think everybody who I know who works with wildlife and really cares about conservation and restoration is inherently extremely determined. I think we have to be because we’re competing with other sectors, at the requirements or the wishes for the land that we’re working on. And those other requirements or wishes are often more likely to generate money for organisations and businesses. I am super determined, sometimes so much so that it’s to my own detriment, I would have to say. But I absolutely don’t think that I’d be where I am now if I wasn’t as determined, and I think that’s true of all restoration practitioners.

Barbara: Doug Tompkins once said “if you wanna be liked by people, then don’t go into conservation”. And I think it’s very right. But that means that you need to compensate this with a lot of passion and a lot of dedication. Otherwise, you will not succeed.

Louise: Barbara, what are you most proud of?

Barbara: Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I was quite happy that I didn’t have to answer the question!

What we are aiming for is a National Park in the Făgăraș Mountains. I will definitely be super proud of it once we have the National Park designated. I’m also proud about what we have achieved already: we have managed to convince donors to trust us and support us to protect 70,000 hectares of forests which even though it is not yet a national park, it will be protected in perpetuity. So that’s already cool. We’ve also brought back species that have been gone for over 200 years, for example the European bison we have released which are already producing offspring and surviving the winters.

Barbara installing camera traps for beavers. Photo: Barbara and Christoph Promberger.

Iona: Do you have any advice to give to young women who want to work in conservation or who are starting out in conservation?

Louise: I do. I think that, when you go and do a degree at university, you learn lots about things like policy and science and really useful skills. But I personally feel like you can’t really have empathy with nature and  therefore, use your voice to protect nature unless you really understand nature. So, my top piece of advice for anybody, not just women, but anybody who wants to work in conservation is to go out into the wild first and actually see wild animals and plants out there in the wild.

I think that can be more challenging for women because being out in the wilderness, depending on what kind of country and situation you live in, can be quite intimidating. Quite often when you are out bird watching, for example, or beachcombing, you can be vulnerable as a woman on your own. I would encourage women to join volunteering groups or with their local volunteering agencies to give them access to that wilderness.

And then apart from that, just to meet as many people as you can. There’s obviously a phrase which is “it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.” But I think that stands very, very true in the world of conservation in the UK, certainly.

Louise holding a worm pipefish in the Solent. Photo: Luke Helmer.

Barbara: I think the most important thing is to grow a thick skin because that’s what you’ll need in conservation.

University is really important, and it gives you the baseline knowledge, but it’s important to then do practical work in a variety of different projects. This gives you so much more insight into some of the problems, and sometimes you might be stuck in your way of thinking.

For women, it’s sometimes a bit more difficult, and you may have to be even a bit better to be recognised. It’s definitely worth it to have this extra experience and a university degree, especially for women.

We said our goodbyes, and I left the call feeling inspired and hopeful, and with a sense of camaraderie for these experiences and challenges shared across generations, cultures, and sectors.

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