Savanna Ferguson is an associate at California Environmental Associates (CEA) and a nonfiction writer focusing on natural history and the environment. At CEA, Savanna works on program strategy and recruiting for environmental and conservation nonprofits. Prior to CEA, Savanna was an assistant editor at Island Press and the geology technician and environmental studies field program manager at Whitman College. A Udall Scholar, Savanna holds a bachelor’s in environmental studies and writing and minors in geology and biology from Whitman, and an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
What environmental issues are of most concern to you?
On a global scale, climate change, water, and the loss of biodiversity. I am devastated by the destruction being caused by mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.
What difficulties do you see facing women who are interested in becoming more involved in the environmental sector?
One challenge is that as environmental organizations are constantly trying to increase their diversity, men are sometimes seen as the desirable, underrepresented candidates. It’s a little surreal.
Another potential challenge is compensation, especially if the environmental work women want to do is being done by nonprofits. Women, we know, are still paid less than men on average, and the nonprofit sector generally pays less than the for-profit sector does—and often less than government, too. Can the women who want to do this work afford to? The question of compensation is further complicated by the fact that there is a general belief that if you’re doing mission-driven work, you’re not in it for the money. This simple truth—that doing work you care about is more important to you than getting the highest pay—is often twisted to mean that you should be willing to do the work for a below-market salary. I disagree. If we want the best and the brightest to work on environmental issues, we need to offer competitive compensation.
As the environmental sector has matured, there has been a greater emphasis placed on specialization, and in recent years environmental organizations seem particularly keen to recruit individuals with strong skills in quantitative work, fundraising, and business. We have yet to see whether this emphasis will produce the desired effects, but there is no question that many organizations are attempting to shift towards a more business-like model. The trouble for women in this shift is that, though I acknowledge it’s a generalization, most of us have been socialized to be strong generalists with good communication and interpersonal skills, a nurturing demeanor, and a focus on qualitative work. Not only are these supposedly feminine traits, these “soft skills,” assigned less value—throughout society, not just in the environmental sector—but women are now often at a disadvantage when competing for quantitative roles or those that seek the hard-nosed and masculine traits we associate with business.
Similarly, I see women at the greatest disadvantage when competing for leadership roles in organizations. Despite the high numbers of women in the environmental sector, we are greatly underrepresented among the sector’s leaders.
Lastly, I fear that one of the reasons that the environment is not given the priority it deserves in politics and the public realm is because it is an area dominated by women. Despite the leaps and bounds women have made thanks to the work of so many who came before us, we are still not equal. Most of the prejudices we continue to face in this country, however, are more subtle and insidious than the bald-faced discrimination experienced by earlier generations of women. That means the remaining problems will be harder to fix.
Any recommendations on how women can become involved in advocating for a sustainable environment?
The simplest is vote. Educate yourself about ballot issues that affect the environment and about the environmental positions of candidates who are up for election. Choose the issues of top concern to you and identify a handful of groups working on those issues. Get on their listservs. Write letters and make calls when they ask you to. Go to meetings and hearings. Donate. Bring sustainability into your daily life: eat less meat or no meat, drive less often, fly less often, cut down your energy use, move your money out of the big banks and traditional investments and into credit unions or small, sustainability-oriented banks and SRIs. And when you do these things, talk to your friends, family, and colleagues about the changes you’ve made and why. If you don’t already work in the environmental sector, consider how your professional skills or other resources you have access to in your job could benefit the environment, and offer them up to a cause in need. Whether it’s pro-bono services, communications advice, content expertise, software, or simply a space to host an event, it’s all valuable.