At about 1:30am this morning, I had a profound realization about how powerful, inspirational and character shaping women have been throughout my life. Finding myself in a nightclub despite having avoided them for the past five years, I found myself awkwardly dancing in a very un-clubby outfit which comprised of long black pants, boots and a shirt and feeling a bit too old and a bit too tall for my surroundings. Following my friend into the bathroom, a young girl who was probably half my age and height looked up at me and just blurted out:
“I love your legs! They are so long!”
I blushed because she was the perfect example of what I thought the ideal clubite was, and she was the one who was envious of the long legs I was so ashamed of just moments before. This flooded my brain with a wealth of recent examples of when women have allowed me to grow and blossom in my industry as well during everyday life.
As a child, it was my mother who handed me a toy gorilla that sparked my passion for animals and it was her that pointed out every bird and flower and critter, calling it by its real name and allowing my curiosity to grow. Growing up, my conservation heroes were Leaky’s Trimates; Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, who were all young women who were sent out into the field with nothing but a notebook and a sense of observation. Little did they know at the time, all three women would return from the forest as icons for their respective species, the chimpanzee, gorilla and the orangutan alike.
In my first long stint as a professional conservationist on a Madagascan island it was my good friend Lou, who despite everything that happened to us during those six months, was always there at the bench looking out over the ocean ready to talk about life, or to dress up and party down or just to laugh about inventing new names for groups of gorillas with. After all the emotions, tears and smiles, she was always there. Years later, it was Shermin, from Trunks and Leaves that discovered me at a dinner table at a conference in Singapore. Just from overhearing me talk about my forest fairy elephants over dinner, she offered me the chance to work with her team in Sri Lanka and to get to know a whole other race of elephant.
It was a woman that recommended me to get into community programs which allowed me to get funding for Heroic Tourism, women that helped me form my first team and women that came together to give me help and advice on my endeavours. Throughout all the time I spent working hard to impress the standards of male workers and failing time and time again, it has been the women of the conservation world that have carried me through and have given me something to believe in.
As I sit here planning to accompany an old friend, who also shares my passion for conservation, on her field work next week, I now have all the faith in the world that women are a great and indestructible force within our planet. Maybe that is why they call her Mother Earth, but now I can see that compassion and building communities is what we are best at. Instead of working harder and longer to surpass the male expectations around me, I will now aim to work smarter with amazing people who provide support and encouragement. Done are the days of disappointment and defeat, for this is a new era for being empowered and encouraged by other amazing women in science.
Being labelled as an honourary man used to be a reward, but now I feel that I deserve more. I deserve to be who I am, and represented as who I am while allowing my achievements and personality to be able to stand for what it is. This is the time where I am going to allow myself to thrive despite my age, appearance or gender and let my true skills shine through. I was not put on this planet to be anybody else, so today and from now on, I am going to be proud of the powerful woman that I believe I am and I am going to harness the inner Jane, Dian and Birute that lives inside of me. Yes my legs are too long for their own good, but damn, they are powerful vessels of transportation and sometimes all it takes is a young girl in a dark bathroom to remind me of their value, and in extension, my own value as well.