The women changing the game for wildlife conservation


Hear the thoughts of some of the women leaders inspiring change at the RSPB now. #BreakTheBias is in our very foundations. Our female founders triumphed in their fight to save birds after male ornithologists dismissed them. For International Women’s Day we speak to the RSPB staff carrying their legacy.

Sparking a global force

What could women’s fashion have to do with wildlife conservation?

The answer is everything.

But the RSPB’s origin story starts in 1889 when the Bird Ornithologists’ Union ignored 34-year-old Emily Williamson’s pleas to take a stand against the plumage trade which was hunting birds to the edge of extinction to decorate hats.

Emily launched her own all-women Society for the Protection of Birds.

Later she joined forces with Etta Lemon and Eliza Phillips of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk of Croydon, and Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland. Not only did they help ban the import of plumage through the 1921 Plumage (Prohibition) Act but also founded a global force to save nature: the RSPB.

Celebrating our female founders

Last year, Eve Shepherd won a public vote to create a statue of Emily Williamson. From a distance the design is a Victorian woman in crinoline but closer up her skirts are a cliff face studded with birds once used in millinery; owl, heron, grebe, kingfisher. The statue, to be unveiled in April 2023, will stand at Emily's former home in Fletcher Moss Park, near Manchester, where the RSPB was founded.

The RSPB’s fight to protect wildlife is still unfolding. Today, women at the RSPB carry Emily’s torch and #BreakTheBias, from our Chief Executive Beccy Speight to field scientists working in some of the most wild and remote places on the planet. For International Women’s Day we’re telling a selection of their stories.

Chief Executive Beccy Speight 

Beccy said being CEO of the RSPB is her proudest career achievement: “It feels such an important time to be helping to lead an organisation with our capability to make sure we do enough to halt and reverse the nature crisis.”

She switched from working in management consultancy to running an estate for the National Trust in 2000 because she wanted to make a difference to causes close to her heart. “Since then, I have been on a bit of a trajectory to the parts of the sector that I felt were making most difference – for me that’s nature and biodiversity and the RSPB is on the front line.”

“I’ve had some really good and generous mentors in the sector along the way, including Dame Fiona Reynolds, Nicola Nicholls and Baroness Barbara Young.  They were all inspirational leaders to work with, at the National Trust and the Woodland Trust.  I also get inspired by women who have made a difference in the past for the movement – our own founders at the RSPB, Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring), Octavia Hill who helped found the National Trust.  And there are some amazing women working in the sector today including across all areas of our work here at the RSPB – they inspire me every day.

“I think women have in particular broadened the approach of the sector to embrace many disciplines as helpful to our cause.

“The sector embraces female leadership because it recognises we’re good at what we do.” 

Executive Director of global conservation Katie-Jo Luxton

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time outside as a child helping out on the farm and developed an understanding of how we need to work with the grain of our nature on our organic farm. I think these early experiencesd kindled a deep love of our wildlife and the natural world.

One of my favourite quotes is from Anthropologist Margaret Mead who said “never doubt that a small group of passionate individuals can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.   

When I joined RSPB in 1999 it felt like a very male dominated environment both in the organisation and in many of the partnerships we worked in.  I’m sure having more women in senior positions helps encourage others as have more family friendly and flexible working policies.  Girls are socialised to help others from an early age and I think this shapes many young women to strive for a better world in a wide range of humanitarian, equality or environmental causes. It’s good news for all of us if we can harness their energy, passion and skills for nature’s recovery.

"Girls are socialised to help others from an early’s good news for all of us if we can harness their energy, passion and skills for nature’s recovery."

Our founding cohort of ladies played a big role, as well as great communicators such as Rachel Carson, Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall and right through to Greta Thunberg today. However, there are thousands of brilliant women working in the conservation sector who don’t take up lime light whose work is so important and also millions of mothers and grandmothers who share their own love of nature with their children.

I can recall a number of incidents of sexist behaviour from a few colleagues when I started but my approach would either be to take them on (with a big smile) or use some humour to get that person to think again. Most of the time I have been very lucky to have been supported and encouraged by many brilliant colleagues in RSPB – both male and female. The biggest challenges are if you have young children when their needs and the needs of a job you care passionately about can collide.

Principal Policy Officer Nicola Crockford  

“I have loved birds since before I could talk and knew I wanted to work to save them since I was about 11.”

Nicola is a born conservationist – her first word was “duck”, and as a 13-year-old rode her pony through snow to undertake her monthly waterbird count at Whittledene Reservoir. After her A levels she started the first of seven Arctic field seasons.

Nicola’s achievements include; the first review of the impact of wind farms on birds, co-ordinating re-introductions of red kites and white-tailed eagles, work to combat raptor persecutions and internationally important flyways conservation work. She was one of the first women at the RSPB to keep her job on a part-time basis after having two daughters.

One of her biggest career triumphs was helping the Chinese government secure World Heritage listing (the highest level of protection in the world) for Yellow Sea shorebird habitat.

She said: “It seemed to me that the unprecedented rate of coastal wetland claim happening on the Yellow Sea coast of the Korean peninsula and China was the biggest threat facing migratory waterbirds globally. Everyone said it was impossible to fight. But I thought it was our duty to give it a go.”

In January 2020 Nicola received the Jiangsu Friendship Award in China granted to foreign nationals who have made outstanding contributions to the country’s economic and social progress recognising her support.

Marine Policy Officer Emily Williams  

I was first inspired by documentaries on jungle deforestation (I cannot believe this is still going on)! I never expected to work for an NGO. My work in RSPB focuses on reducing the impacts of activities, like fisheries and marine development, on seabirds in Wales. These days, what inspires me most about working in the environmental sector is the culture and the people.

I believe a lot of women (and colleagues in general) are attracted to leadership roles in eNGOs because they connect with the values upheld by the sector.

"These days, what inspires me most about working in the environmental sector is the culture and the people."

Everyone that works in this sector, shapes the sector. However, for me, having incredible female role models in senior positions has inspired me to be more confident in my abilities and leadership skills.

Working in policy often means having to provide constructive challenge and critique, often in public settings and often as the only woman in the room. This has never felt comfortable for me but I do it regularly. I am really proud of that.

I’ve been blessed to work in organisations with a real focus on equality, diversity and wellbeing and it has been great to see that grow during my career. The challenges that face women will vary depending on each person’s circumstances but there are some experiences, which are often shared by many women. For example, many women go through huge changes during their working life (including pregnancy and menopause). Whilst efforts are being made, it still baffles me that there isn’t more of a conversation around this and wellbeing.

Has Emily Williamson’s story left you hungry for more stories about the female founders of conservation? Join author Tessa Boase as she brings the story of The Women Who Saved the Birds to life in her online talk on 10 March.