5 lessons we've learned as women in conservation science

Scientists Shauna Mahajan and Gabby Ahmadia embrace a form of leadership that values cooperation over competition

Shauna and Gabby smile at the camera with their arms around one another in front of the ocean in Madagascar

Shauna Mahajan is a senior social scientist committed to developing inclusive and holistic conservation solutions. With an interdisciplinary background in resilience thinking, environment, and development, her work and research focus on the social dimensions of conservation.

Gabby Ahmadia, Ph.D., is a director of marine science at WWF focused on conservation in coastal ecosystems and lucky enough to work with colleagues and communities to help conserve some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Despite diversity, equity, and inclusion gaining mainstream attention in conservation, the data shows that we still have a long way to go to make meaningful progress towards creating a truly inclusive conservation science community. But there’s a lot to be hopeful for: the scientific community is increasingly challenging the norms about what a scientist should look like and recognizing the barriers that women in science face. Change is on the horizon.

As women in conservation science, we have found that embracing what is sometimes called the “feminine” form of leadership—cooperation over competition; empathy over aggression—has been a powerful way not only to exceed our goals, but also to contribute to building a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable conservation science community. By leaning into these ways of leading and working, we’ve been grateful to find ourselves on meaningful career paths, and have had a lot of fun along the way! Here are a few of the things we’ve learned:

1. Always embrace diversity

Gabby Ahmadia, senior marine scientist at WWF, surveys a reef in the Selat Dampier MPA, Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

Ahmadia surveys a reef in the Selat Dampier Marine Protected Area, Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia.

Science has shown that diversity improves our capacity to generate new ideas and do more innovative research. So promoting and encouraging diversity in our work has been critical not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it helps us do our work better.

Diversity comes in many forms. We are both mixed race, with different scientific backgrounds, and have varied experience in conservation science. We gain so much from working together and learning from each other’s differences and considering each other’s perspectives. We also make sure that in our work, we partner with scientists across the world to embrace a diversity of voices, especially in the places where we work. But truly embracing diversity takes time. It takes investing in building meaningful and trusting relationships with those who may think differently than us. This often requires checking our own biases and branching out of our comfort zones.

Embracing diversity also requires empathy and compassion—and a willingness to understand how others might experience the world, or view the problems we try to solve together.

2. Be there for your community

Working in conservation science is not always easy: our mission is inspiring but at times daunting. And while the momentum for diversity and inclusion is strong now, there will always be some who do not want to relinquish their power and may push back against women and people of color gaining power and decision-making authority. We have found that thriving in conservation requires having a strong community and trusted friends and colleagues who can support each other when times get tough. These people will help problem-solve when the work gets hard and support you when you stand up to those who abuse power. Our community of women in science consists of not only those with whom we work every day but also former colleagues or friends who we’ve met along our journey. All these connections matter. Find your community and cultivate it over time—it will be there for you for life!

3. Find your superpower and own it

As scientists, we’re trained to become experts in our field of work. But all too often, women and people of color suffer more frequently from what is known as “imposter syndrome”—those deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy despite measurable success. These feelings get worse when you may look or think differently than others in your workplace. While imposter syndrome arises from systemic inequities that we need to address, we have found that working with trusted friends and colleagues to ‘find your superpower’ is an effective way to put your energy towards where your strengths lie, instead of focusing on insecurities. Over time, the practice of recognizing your strengths and added value to your work can help you develop confidence in what you have to offer.

4. But don't forget to listen first

Shauna Mahajan sits in the middle of a group of women wearing colorful head wear on a dock on the water.

Mahajan visits a WWF project site in Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia to learn more about seaweed farming.

The flipside of finding confidence in what you know is also acknowledging what you don’t know. Scientists become experts in certain areas, but it’s especially important to know when you’re not the expert, and when it’s time to listen and learn.

We’ve worked together for the last five years and have found great power in playing off each other's strengths while humbly acknowledging our limitations. We’ve gotten good at asking each other and others around us for feedback to help understand how we can improve and grow and to learn more about things we don’t know.

This also plays out in how we work with others. Working in conservation inevitably means working with diverse groups of people where many different power dynamics are at play. Always embracing a humble mindset and listening deeply to others—understanding other’s hopes, motivations, and histories—can help you ensure that you are also part of creating a more diverse and inclusive conservation movement.

5. And finally, pave the way for the next generation

We wouldn’t be where we are today without our mentors. We both continue to nurture relationships with our old and new mentors to this day—inside and outside of WWF! When looking for a mentor, it’s helpful to think about what kind of skills you want to develop. You can also look around you and think about what capacities you see in others that you wish to build in yourself. And just ask! Informal mentorship relationships have helped us both to navigate tough decisions, relationships, and tricky scientific questions in our work. We’ve also found that it is never too early to become a mentor yourself. Sharing what you learn in real-time with those around you is not only a powerful way to empower the next generation of conservation scientists, but is also a wonderful way to help you grow and learn more about yourself. To this day, we both have and are mentors to others.