Earthyear and the IUCN (World Conservation Union)-South Africa embarked on an ambitious and controversial initiative in Women’s Month to provide a momentary snapshot of the gender shift in the conservation sector.

Before both organisations agreed to form a partnership for this special issue, we debated intensely the approach we wanted to take. We asked: ‘Should we do it?” After a brief survey among some of our members and partners, the answer was: ‘Yes”. Why? Because something like this has never been done before in the conservation sector.

In the end, the decision to go ahead was considered important, precisely because we want the question of women’s roles and their portrayal in both the conservation sector and broader society to be debated openly.

Our intent is simple: to profile some of the women in conservation who are driving change through their leadership in their sectors. In general, the conservation sector is largely white and male. As a result, there is no doubt conservation ideology and practice has largely centred around males .

In the past 10 years, though, there have been a lot of changes that have gone unnoticed as more and more women enter the field, who are now playing a stronger leadership role. Despite this, there is little recognition for their contribution.

This special feature in Earthyear aims to put forward to the public the interesting work these women do, the issues they face and some of the reasons for their success and dedication in a field which famously provides little monetary reward but a lot of personal fulfilment.

Of the 30 women who agreed to participate in this initiative, 19 come from previously disadvantaged groups. More and more black women want to get involved in conservation. Some say the slow growth rate in the sector is not enough, but it is encouraging nonetheless. These women are role models for others and are serving to inspire a new cadre of women to enter the field.

The process of selecting which women to feature involved nominations from within the conservation sector. We wanted to feature a representative sample of women of different ages and races, with a diversity of expertise and in different leadership roles. All the women selected had the opportunity to choose their preferred mode of dress and presentation.

There are no doubt different ways in which this special focus could have been developed, designed or written. This is our first bash at it. We expect both negative and positive reactions – but we hope that in the end the feature not only raises the profile of the participants but also serves to focus attention on the continuing challenges that women in the field face when trying to make their mark. — Saliem Fakir, director IUCN-SA

Shooting for the planet

During Women’s Month in August, an unprecedented event took place at the Johannesburg Zoo. A team of fashion professionals were on site to dress up 30 women environmentalists and photograph them. The idea was not only to give long-overdue recognition to these women but for them to have some fun in the process.

Faced with the challenge of putting a shoot of this magnitude together — obviously not in the normal realm of experience for environmentalists — the partners in the venture, IUCN-SA and Earthyear, had to scout for experts in the fashion field.

Bethea Clayton and her company, Glamour Mechanics, came to the rescue. Overnight, they put together a team of professionals who were prepared to work on a shoestring budget, contributing their expertise and time to the shoot for the sake of conservation.

Jennifer Grey, CEO of the Johannesburg Zoo, offered the zoo premises as a site for the shoot for free, saving us the hassle and expense of hiring a studio. Using the zoo was not only convenient, but also appropriate in the context.

For five days, the enthusiastic team of artists worked from dawn to way past dusk to capture the characters of the 30 women through styling, outfitting and filming. They had done their homework, and knew exactly how to reflect the different characters.

Some of the women felt a little ill at ease when they first arrived on site, mainly because they were not sure about what to expect. But within no time at all, in the hands of the relaxed, easy-going professionals, they felt comfortable and enjoyed themselves.

It was a learning experience all round, and one that surely won’t be forgotten by any of the people involved.

Photography: Stephen Karallis

Make-up artist: Desireé Angus

Stylist: Ivan van den Boogaard

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