Women still aren't allowed to charge for environmental work. And i'm tired.
I’m writing this blog post because of a bad experience that happened two days ago. It’s something that has happened many times in the past but this time I was able to connect the dots.
When I was a little girl I had a baby vulture pet. His name was Zopi, from zopilote, the Spanish word for vulture. Zopi came to me, or to be more precise to my father, after a fire burned down the tree where Zopi’s nest was. Someone rescued the cute tiny ball of white feathers and brought it to my father who lives in the south of Mexico. I remember Zopi loved eating dead toads and I loved watching him.
I grew up in Mexico City so every visit to my father meant meeting new wild animals and falling in love with each and every one of them.
Sadly, every visit also meant noticing how the rainforest was deteriorating.
At 18 years old -and like many people that age- I thought the only thing the rainforest needed to improve was me. I decided to become a veterinarian to help birds like Zopi. My initial optimism hit a brick wall when I left Mexico to do an internship at an oil spill facility in the U.S. I still carry the scars of that experience.
I understood how urgently birds and other wildlife needed help so I kept doing research on the best path to help them. After a master’s degree, a PhD, a bunch of volunteering in different conservation projects, and a year of experimenting with different pathways I finally had a plan to help!
I designed and launched a program to create habitats for birds in Mexico City. It’s a cool program where everyday people can take a 7-week course where they learn from me and from Indigenous women how to transform their backyard, patio, etc into a habitat. We follow each habitat for a year to collect data to assess how the birds are doing, etc.
This program runs through RECREA, a small environmental education business I co-founded many years ago. Our main platform is Instagram, where we constantly share free valuable information. It was on IG where we got the angry message.
To compensate for the guilt I was feeling for having a paid program, I created a free one. After many weeks of doing research, creating PowerPoints, and recording a bunch of videos, I was ready to launch a FREE mini-course on how to help native bees. I was really proud of the course. It contained practical information to help the bees and therefore birds because without insects there are no birds! I shared the great news on our IG account and headed to the garden to relax and celebrate with a beer.
As I’m enjoying my beer I get a message along the lines of:
“You should not charge for this type of information. Everybody should be able to help the bees.”
My first instinct was to respond “don’t worry, the course is absolutely free.” This was far from being the first message we got from upset people demanding that we offer our work for free. Except this time, the course was already for free.
People that send us these angry messages often do it following one of these two arguments:
By not offering our courses for free, we are withholding the knowledge to make the world a better place, and therefore we are part of the problem; or by charging for our work, we are creating inequality because we only allow privileged classes to help the Earth.
This message arrived three days before I planned on opening the doors of Santuario de Aves, my PAID program to create habitats for birds. With the message, old fears arrived: should I lower the price? Am I going to get a bunch of angry comments? How will I answer those comments? But more importantly, I felt the guilt returning: should I really be charging? Is it ethical to charge for information that makes the world a better place?
The repeated story
It’s not only IG followers that demand our work for free. We’ve had our business for 10 years and we’ve got requests from the government, non-profits, universities, and other businesses to work for free. Private schools have demanded our environmental education program for schools (which includes books, workbooks, and other materials) for free.
I’ve lost track of all the hours I’ve put into FREE veterinary advice, FREE information to take care of birds, FREE environmental education workshops, FREE meetings with companies that want to convince you to give them your work for free.
During the 10 years, we’ve had our little business, we’ve come to notice that not only do people demand our work to be free, they EXPECT it to be free because it’s about the environment. “Thank you for all the work that you do. I love your work! How can I have access to the free course on…?” even though the price is published next to it.
If you say you charge people look at you differently. In seconds you pass from being this “virtuous” person to a capitalist pig.
This doesn’t happen only with the environmental education work that I do. It also extends to my work as a veterinarian of wild birds. When someone finds a wild bird they expect me to drop everything to go help them right away and to cheer on them for being such great humans for caring for the bird. If I don’t charge I’m a hero and they are forever grateful to me. If I charge, people get really confused. Sometimes they get angry and tell me if I was so interested in money I should have picked a different line of work.
The internalized messages
Years of navigating this duality of hero-villain make it really hard to not internalize the message that helping the environment should be for free. You start thinking that maybe it’s not only OK but it’s the right thing to do. In the end, you are helping the animals and that is the most important thing.
Capitalist society tells me I’m not successful because I don’t make money. It also tells me I can’t charge because then I’m not doing my work for the right reasons. To make ends meet I’ve always relied on revenue from other sources: academic scholarships, teaching, being a research assistant, a teaching assistant. Since I can remember I’ve always been OVERWORKED.
If I’m not overworked I’m economically dependent on my husband, which leads to an internalized sense of failure: I chose to be a career woman and here I am, unable to be financially independent. This is a very vulnerable position to be in when there is no indication that this is just a temporary situation. If I can’t charge for my line of work, how am I going to get out of this situation? How am I going to save for retirement?
The turning point
As I was contemplating the message of the angry person demanding a free course (that was already free), I realized I didn’t even have the energy to respond. I was so exhausted and drained that all I could do was cry and cry and cry. In desperation, I posted a cry for help in a Facebook group of business owners. This is an international group with members mostly from developed countries and is NOT focused on the environment.
I got lots of responses, all of them from businesswomen that do not work in anything related to the environment. All of these women were extremely supportive (more on this later) yet all of them unaware of the pressure I get to offer my services for free. They just could not understand why I keep offering things for free.
A couple of minutes later I got a private message from someone that had read my post in the FB group. It was from a woman from the U.S. who also works in conservation/sustainability:
“I wanted to reach out and let you know you are not alone…it’s a big problem in the conservation space. Even things like unpaid internships and underpaid full-time jobs. We do them because we care but it’s not OK. It’s taking me a long time to realize that.”
This short message was eye-opening.
Before this message, I was convinced my financial problems were the result of my own shortcomings. I, as an individual, could not figure out how to make a living. I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to pay my rent. I was so wrapped up in my own problems that I couldn’t see outside of my own experience.
But the message I received reminded me of all the unpaid internships and unpaid volunteering I’ve done for other environmental organizations. Each of them in different geographies, all of them with something in common: at the core of all of them there are always OVERWORKED, UNPAID, AND UNDERPAID WOMEN.
I’ve seen this picture over and over and over again: I’ve seen it in Mexico with my veterinary colleagues that have their own wildlife practice for birds. I’ve seen it in the oil response facility in California where sometimes women don’t get a free day for weeks on end; I’ve seen it in the Australian rehabilitation clinic for wildlife where I volunteered while I was doing my PhD; I’ve seen it in Canada, where I am writing this from and where I currently live. Here I’ve seen it in two places: the local center that rehabilitates wildlife and the nursery that works to salvage native plants.
It’s a repetitive story: women that have accepted that they will never get paid or paid enough to live a comfortable life. Women that have internalized the message that working for the environment is a rewarding pathway that comes at the extent of not living a comfortable life. Women that wake up every day of their lives exhausted, yet ready to keep working because someone has to care for the non-human species that live on our planet.
I’ve seen it first hand in developed and developing countries, I’ve seen it in businesses, in non-profits, and in government organizations. The context doesn’t matter. The picture is ALWAYS the same: overworked, unpaid or underpaid women.
We are working every day of our lives to preserve our planet, and we are expected to do it out of virtuosity, with no or very little payment. Add the fact that we have been raised to not be confrontational and to please others. In the brief instances when we have been brave enough to ask for payment, we are instantly reminded that we do not get to charge for what we do and our morals are put into question.
You are offering a FREE course to help native bees? I’m still going to attack you in advance so you don’t get ideas of ever charging for your work because you deserve nothing in return for everything you do. You are a woman and you get to educate people on how to protect our planet for free.
Women’s work: the ongoing fight
It took me YEARS to understand that the reason I can’t make a living is not because I’m not good enough. Because I’m not smart enough. It’s because I am a woman that chose a path in “women’s work”. This term is used for work that is mostly performed by women because it matches stereotypical female gender roles of caring and nurturing.
Women’s work is often unpaid or underpaid and it is not considered as valuable as the work men do. Demanding recognition and payment for “women’s work” is often seen as a betrayal of our (socially shaped) nurturing character. How can women demand recognition and payment for raising their children? A mother’s job is to dedicate her entire life, selflessly, to take care of her children. Failing to do this means there is something wrong with that woman.
I’ve heard a friend from Mexico, a teacher, complain about it multiple times. I’ve heard a friend from Australia, a nurse, complain about this multiple times. I’ve engaged in multiple discussions on how terrible this is but always as an OUTSIDER.
Up until two days ago, I didn’t know I was doing “women’s work.”
Women’s work in conservation/sustainability:
Conservation and sustainability are not “women’s work.” It is actually a sphere dominated by men. None of the degrees I’ve studied are considered “women’s work.” In fact, they have been traditionally male-dominated spaces.
Veterinary medicine has been historically dominated by men. My master’s degree is in sciences, a field dominated by men. My PhD, although in education, is specifically in decoloniality, a field started by men and is still heavily dominated by men.
How I apply this knowledge into practice is, however, most definitely “women’s work”: I take care of wildlife, I take care of plants, and I educate people on how to take care of the planet.
Let’s look at some statistics. Starting with veterinary medicine, a field that is globally shifting to be dominated by women. Since this shift started, the profession has steadily suffered a decreasing trend in wages¹. This phenomenon is not a rare occurrence but has been reported in other professions as well.
There are very few jobs for veterinarians wanting to work with wildlife. Most of the people working with wildlife are wildlife rehabilitators. In the U.S. almost three-quarters of wildlife rehabilitators are women², and most of them work for free. The ones that get paid get mostly part-time jobs with no benefits³.
Let’s now look at environmental education: in the U.S. more than 60% of environmental educators are women and they get paid significantly less than men⁴. The biggest employers of this sector are non-profits⁵, which oftentimes translates in a lack of benefits and short-term contracts.
While I don’t have statistics for people that work with native plants, at least locally, it also seems to be dominated by women. Please correct me if I’m wrong. As an example, the local nursery of native plants of my city is run by a woman. She invests hours and hours to grow these plants and she does not get compensated for her time. Similarly, the organization that promotes native plants in my current city is mostly composed of women. Their website has the word “volunteer” SIXTEEN times.
Women are not choosing to be veterinarians, wildlife rehabbers, and environmental educators by chance. As women are raised under strict gender roles that tell us we need to be nurturers and caregivers.
Let’s take a quick look at a male-dominated area within the conservation/sustainability sphere: technology. Designing and developing the technology to fight climate change is heavily dominated by men. Again, due to strict gender roles. This line of work is not only considered more valuable than what we do for the environment but it’s highly profitable.
No one raises an eye when men demand a raise for the work they are conducting to help the planet. No one demands to have access to that technology for free because withholding it prevents us from improving the world.
No one blames them for being part of the problem.
No one questions the motives behind their decision to fight climate change. Their morals are never put into question.
Perpetuating systems of oppression.
“Women’s work” in conservation is hard to recognize. I’ve been at the center of it for at least a decade and a half and I could not see it. For my PhD, I spent 5 years studying systems of oppression related to Nature and I still could not see it. When something is so normalized and accepted by both the oppressed and the oppressors it becomes invisible, and that’s what makes it so dangerous.
Understanding that being unable to make a decent living was the result of a systemic problem led me to realize I was not only the victim of it, but I was playing a crucial role in perpetuating the problem.
My complicated role as both the oppressed and the oppressor:
By not charging for my work, I was reinforcing the narrative that the work of women is not valuable and should not be paid. By relying on qualified volunteers, I was perpetuating the cycle of unpaid women doing crucial work, leading them to internalize the idea that charging for this line of work is wrong.
By sharing a bunch of free courses on social media, I was telling conservation students that follow RECREA on social media that it is OK to not get anything in return for all the work that they do. By publicly justifying the cost of our courses in terms of what we had to pay every month, I was reinforcing the narrative that women can only charge money as long as the expenses go to the cause but nothing goes to our pockets.
As long as we continue to accept that helping the planet is an altruistic calling rather than a job that should be paid, we will continue to exploit the women that work day and night to make sure we can still have a planet with wildlife and plants. A planet that we all need if we want to survive.
After realizing this was a systemic problem (it literally took me less than 24 hours to put 2 and 2 together after I got the message from the woman in the U.S. saying I was not alone), I talked to my business partner. It all made sense to him too. After discussing the problem a little bit, we decided to NEVER AGAIN OFFER ANYTHING FOR FREE AND TO RAISE THE PRICE OF OUR COURSES TO PAY OURSELVES AND OUR VOLUNTEERS.
Non-coincidentally, the two volunteers that help me with the program to build habitats for birds are WOMEN. Like me, the two of them have environmental-related degrees in fields dominated by men yet are applying their knowledge to do women’s work. Both of them unaware of this.
My business partner and I made the decision to STOP PERPETUATING THIS SYSTEM OF OPPRESSION. The cycle stops with us. We will share a different message with younger generations. We will work to change the narrative of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.
We will show that our work is valuable and we deserve to live a comfortable life for the work that we do every day. That there is nothing wrong with getting paid for doing the very important work we do for conservation. That we need to stop justifying ourselves.
We want to show that what is unacceptable is normalizing not paying “women’s work” in conservation and how this practice is actively harming marginalized communities.
Although in the short-term this decision might result in having fewer students and therefore fewer habitats, I am sure this decision will translate into a bigger impact. If more people get paid to make this line of work, more people can teach how to create habitats.
I have no doubt that there will always be women rooting for us and supporting us while we are in this transition. Not only women I know but also women I don’t know like the many women that responded to my cry for help in the business Facebook group:
“you DESERVE to be paid for what you do”; “you don’t need to justify yourself”; “once you have a paid offer in English I want to support it”; “you have a whole community of people behind you”; “you deserve to get paid and it’s epic that you’re putting this out there. I want to share it.”
I’ve felt the power of women supporting each other when thousands of us took the streets of Mexico City to demand a stop in violence directed to us. I’ve felt the love of women in a workshop I took about feminismo comunitario. I know that t**ogether we are unstoppable.**
If you want to help end this practice next time you see a woman that does “women’s work” in conservation don’t tell her she is amazing for doing it, ask her if she is getting paid enough and assure her that she DESERVES to be paid for the work that she is doing.
If you identify with this post and feel overwhelmed, reach out. You are not alone.
Normalizing the idea that “women’s work” in conservation should be unpaid or underpaid not only affects women, but it has a negative impact on other marginalized groups. Statistics from the US show the ratio of environmental educators that belong to the LGBTQ+ community is pretty high: 25%⁶. This is similar to what we have seen in Mexico. My business partner is part of this community.
In our 10 years running RECREA, we’ve seen this never-changing trend within our team members: most of us are women, followed by gay men. In 10 years we’ve only had one straight man as part of our team, which accounts for less than 5% of the total people that have been involved in our project.
Accepting that people should not receive payment for this line of work is harming marginalized communities. Not only women and LGBTQ+, but also POC who do not have the privilege to continue working for free. This situation contributes to conservation/sustainability being a heavily white-dominated space.
Working in wildlife and plant conservation is hard, but it’s harder if you are a woman, queer, BIPOC, or belong to another marginalized community.
The reason working for the environment, especially if you are from a marginalized community is not new but is the result of colonial systems put into place 500 years ago. Systems that are more alive than ever and not only oppress people from the periphery (people that are not white cis heterosexual men) but are also responsible for the destruction of Nature.
I’ll be unpacking this in future posts.
Let’s be in touch
I will be periodically sharing the insights gained from my decolonial journey as a woman of color within the conservation/sustainability sphere. I’m sharing my journey in the hopes it can point other people in the right direction, so they can find their voice a bit quicker than I did. In the hopes that you don’t feel alone like I did.
If you liked this blog post (my first ever blog post!) you can subscribe to follow my decolonial journey at thepollinatormovement.com/blog
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 Veterinary medicine demographics — gender and stagnant wages. https://iloveveterinary.com/blog/female-vs-male-veterinary-doctors/
 Wildlife rehabilitators demographics https://www.zippia.com/wildlife-rehabilitator-jobs/demographics/
 Full-time and part-time contracts for wildlife rehabilitators in the U.S. https://www.careerexplorer.com/careers/wildlife-rehabilitator/demographics/
 Environmental Educator Statistics in the US https://www.zippia.com/environmental-educator-jobs/demographics/