‘It’s a dream’: CSU holds first training for female conservation leaders

A group of 17 leaders from nine Latin American countries heard from a rock-star lineup of female trailblazers in conservation on Friday, Oct. 25, at the Sylvan Dale Ranch in Loveland. The panel discussion was part of the first Women’s Leadership in Conservation seminar, organized by the Center for Protected Area Management at Colorado State University.

The training was years in the making, said Rosa Maria Vidal Rodriguez, senior advisor with CPAM. The aim was to “conduct a female-focused training, so that women could speak freely and in an open way, without judgments,” she said.

CSU Assistant Professor Jennifer Solomon and Megan Jones, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, have found that harassment is one of many gender-related challenges that frequently confront women conservation leaders.

At the seminar, women not only shared their experiences of how they have succeeded in a workplace traditionally dominated by men, but they also learned how to advocate for the programs they lead, and how to support other women in conservation.

Assertiveness and mentoring

Darla Sidles, the first woman to serve as superintendent at Rocky Mountain National Park in 100 years, said that being assertive has served her well on the job. She was named superintendent of one of the nation’s most-visited parks in June 2016.

She encouraged women in the audience to find mentors, both men and women.

“Get out of your comfort zone,” Sidles said. “Be confident in your abilities, challenge yourself and be present.”

Questions during the panel discussion picked up on her further advice: “Think like a man… sometimes.”

“Hopefully, in 20 years, we won’t have to say that anymore,” Sidles added.

Darla Sidles (right) responds to a question during a panel discussion
Rocky Mountain National Park Superintendent Darla Sidles responds to a question during the panel discussion, organized by CSU’s Center for Protected Area Management.

Katie Donahue, Canyon Lakes district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, acknowledged that sexual harassment is still an issue they are grappling with in the workplace.

“The way you prove yourself is working your hardest,” she said.

Donahue, Sidles and women from other countries discussed the shortage of female firefighters. “It’s probably still a network that is not promoting women,” said Sidles.

“I spend extra time with my female firefighters,” Donahue said. “I look them in the eye and let them know that they have a support network.”

Meegan Flenniken, resource program manager for Larimer County, suggested assigning tasks in the workplace, so that women aren’t the only ones cleaning the kitchen.

“Even our director has a two-week cleaning duty,” she said.

Inspiring perspectives

Marisi Lopez (lower left) listens to a response from the panel
Marisi Lopez, who works in public relations for Tompkins Conservation in Argentina (left), said the diverse perspectives presented were helpful.

Marisi Lopez, who works in public relations for Tompkins Conservation in Argentina, said the diverse perspectives were helpful.

“I am a woman, I am a leader in my country and I care about other experiences, how [other women] face challenges in their positions and in their institutions,” she said. “For me, it’s very inspiring. Every conversation we have, every moment is very, very rich.”

Lesly Aldana, senior project manager with the Rainforest Alliance in Mexico City who received a master’s degree in conservation leadership from CSU in 2014, said that she was inspired by what she learned from women on the panel and her fellow trainees.

“All of them are [making] great changes in their countries,” she said. We are sharing our stories, “support to transform the gender issues in our countries, and learning and understanding the different perspectives of other people in different countries.”

Vidal Rodriguez said it was “a dream” to see all of the women from around the world who attended the training.

“We’re proud and happy to have the support of the university to put together this program and to show, by doing this, that we are breaking through to new areas of capacity-building in protected areas,” she said.

Sidles told the participants it is their responsibility to challenge gender roles in the workplace.

“The amazing, smart, inspirational women that all of you are, you’re going to make a difference,” she said.