At the Mic: Brooke McDonald
Brooke McDonald is a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm in Northern California. In her free time she birds, gardens, plays with her dogs, and researches an obscure Calvinist sect.
Most birders are women. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 report, “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis,” 54% of birders are women. At the Space Coast Birding Festival in 2011, 69% of attendees were women; at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in 2010, 60-65% of attendees were women; and at The Biggest Week in American Birding, around 60% of attendees have been women. Tropical Birding estimates that two-thirds of their American clients are women, VENT estimates that 60% of their clients are women, and another leading tour company said that 54.6% of their clients booked for upcoming trips are women.
However, by any measure, women are poorly represented in the upper ranks of birding.
- Women have 11.2% of the top ten eBird state lists for each U.S. state.
- Women are 9.3% of all state bird records committee members—a number that drops to 7.8% if the committee secretaries are excluded.
- There are eight women out of the American Birding Association’s top 100 ABA-area listers.
- Women are 3.6% of California county big day record holders.
- Finally, there has been only one woman out of the 35 current and former members of the American Birding Association’s Checklist Committee.
This disparity was explored in a paper by Caren Cooper and Jennifer Smith titled “Gender Patterns in Bird-related Recreation in the USA and UK” published in 2010 in Ecology and Society. Cooper and Smith classified birding into four categories of increasing difficulty: Supportive, Participatory, Competitive, and Authoritative. They found that women’s participation decreased at each successive level. For example, membership in the National Audubon Society, a Supportive activity, was 63% female; Project FeederWatch and the Christmas Bird Count, Participatory activities, were, respectively, 66% and 37% female; inclusion in the ABA Big Day and ABA List Report, a Competitive activity, was 20% female; and service as an eBird state editor, an Authoritative activity, was 7% female.
Unlike the challenge of bringing people of different races and ethnicities into the birding community, this is not an issue that can be resolved by simply introducing more women to birding. Women are already here, but they are not attaining high status in the community.
Authority in the birding community is a function not only of one’s skills but of confidence in one’s skills. According to Cooper and Smith, men are more likely to be overconfident in rating their own birding skills while women are more likely to be under confident. But what factors are responsible for this difference in confidence levels?
“A lot of women tell me that they’re glad to see a woman taking the lead in the birding world.” — Debi Shearwater
Most of the women I spoke with said that some male birders either ignore women entirely or are crushingly dismissive, patronizing, or condescending towards them.
“A lot of men just won't take a woman seriously,” said Susan Myers. “I get it all the time—people walk right past me. I'm the only one carrying a scope and I'm standing out front calling the birds and I’m magically invisible.”
One woman who wished to remain anonymous told me about a female friend of hers who had rediscovered a bird that had been presumed extinct. A meeting was held to discuss the status and conservation of the bird, and during this meeting, the woman in question was totally ignored—until one of the men asked her to make coffee.
Sheri Williamson said that some men have displayed outright incredulity at the fact that she wrote a field guide. She went on to say, “It's hard to get into a position of influence if you're not accorded the respect you deserve.”
Many women in the birding community are treated as the lesser half of a couple, coasting on their partner’s superior ability and only faintly reflecting their partner’s superior skills. Even women who were serious birders before they met their partners are often treated as if any birding ability they have was gained just by exposure to the rarefied air surrounding their partners. Women who actually were introduced to birding by their partners are treated as though this somehow cheapens and invalidates their interest in birds. If a younger woman is single, she’s often treated as a groupie and a follower, and not a serious birder in her own right.
For example, the new film A Birder’s Guide to Everything is about three young birders who take off birding for the weekend… and a girl who goes along for the ride. As Next Magazine put it, “the group sets out for Connecticut with Ellen, a fetching photography lover from school, in tow,” while Variety said, “Pretty young shutterbug Ellen tags along to record their finds.”
Donna Dittmann said that when she was 19 or 20, a top ABA-area lister told her that she had a large California list only because she “hung with the big boys,” an accusation that never would have been leveled at a young man with her skills and experience.
Sheridan Coffey said, “If we are together, most people will talk to my partner first, asking him questions and ignoring me.” She went on to say, “I am sometimes treated like his secretary, getting emails asking me to ask him if he will lead a group, or go to a festival, while not inviting me.”
Catherine Hamilton, in a blog entry in 2011, wrote that she was called a harlot at an AOU meeting just for having the audacity to date another birder. “I stand here, with a small army of presumed Hester Prynnes behind me, wearing their binoculars in lieu of a letter, and I call you out, in the names of sexism, chauvinism, and tawdry pettiness. You know who you are. You know it is not just about one comment, one reputation. Is there really any question why there are so few young and youngish women in the birding world?”
Women are often afraid to bird in some areas, but strong field skills are developed in part by birding in a variety of places. Debi Shearwater brought up the fact that women venturing into secluded areas do face real threats. Phoebe Snetsinger was gang-raped in Papua New Guinea, and many excellent birding spots have a reputation for being unsafe. These fears can keep women from birding alone, and bolster the stereotype that women view birding primarily as a social activity.
Women are less likely to assert themselves in the field, more likely to admit mistakes, more likely to take their cues from other birders, more likely to use a querying tone when “calling” a bird, and more likely to discuss birds after they have been identified, all of which may be interpreted as evidence of poor birding effort and weak field skills. Women are less likely to report suspected rarities and are more likely to qualify their sightings, probably for fear of being publicly eviscerated by other birders, but bird reports that don’t sound confident are unlikely to be accepted.
One of the women that I spoke with even qualified her own excellent birding skills, weakly stating, “I feel like I know my stuff.” As Susan Myers observed, “We are taught right from the start to qualify everything.” Julie Zickefoose said, “I think that as women we are trained from an early age to always defer to men. I'm trying to turn that ship around in my own mind.” Lynn Barber said, “I think many new women birders are hesitant to ask questions, especially of males, and may have difficulty in getting a mentor.”
Lack of mentorship is a serious problem that holds female birders back. Birding with elite birders is how most people develop elite skills themselves, and men may simply have access to a larger pool of potential mentors. Mentors also introduce people to birding culture, teach field etiquette, and prevent new birders from making blunders that undermine their credibility. Women are major community builders and organizers in the birding world, but as far as field experience goes, Jennifer Rycenga said, “Women don't get a lot of mentoring, but give a lot of it.”
“I enjoy helping others learn,” Julie Zickefoose said. “In fact, I'd rather go birding with a newcomer, because it's fun to be able to impart information and watch someone grow in confidence and ability.”
“Mentorship is an area where I think women have an edge,” Sheri Williamson said. “We just need to connect more young female birders with female mentors. Giving special encouragement to young women in birding can only help birding, birds, and society at large.”
If there were more women in mentorship roles in the birding community, women’s confidence in their own field skills would be improved and there would be more women inspired to ascend to the upper ranks. As it stands, however, most of the strong mentors in the birding community are men, and there are social factors that keep men and women apart, especially men and women of differing ages and relationship status. Some men who would otherwise be mentors can thoughtlessly destroy the confidence of less skilled birders.
“Being a phenomenal birder doesn’t give you the right to be a complete asshole,” Catherine Hamilton said.
The age structure of the birding community may also partially explain the absence of high-profile women. Older women are often dismissed as “kitchen window” birders. Shawneen Finnegan said that while becoming a top-notch birder is far easier when one begins watching birds at a young age, many women begin birding later in life. Jen Brumfield observed that men were the default leaders in previous generations, and Jennifer Rycenga pointed out that girls have historically been discouraged from cultivating interests in a single-minded manner, pursuing the sciences, and playing outside.
Will a change in generational attitudes naturally result in more women gaining leadership roles in the community? Another hobby that is nerdy, intense, and male-dominated—but young—is video gaming, and gamers have had a great deal of productive discussion recently about how some men not only insist that women demonstrate extensive gaming credentials before they’re grudgingly accepted as fellow gamers, but also see some women as “imposters” who are only feigning interest in gaming. Within the last few weeks, I observed an exchange on Facebook where several young male leaders in the birding community made harassing comments in response to a picture of a young woman wearing binoculars, indicating that even though more overt forms of sexism may vanish, there are still ongoing subtle forms that need to be addressed.
“I doubt any of us are totally innocent, having grown up in a culture where women are still struggling to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts in virtually all aspects of life,” Sheri Williamson said.
Birding can be a fraternity in the best or the worst sense of the word. One woman I spoke with seemed to accept as the natural order of things that there’s a “pecking order” in birding that men suffer under too, but most of the women I talked to maintained that women birders get the worst of it. There is a lot of cliquishness in birding, and while men who get into birding are often quickly accepted into the group, many women are treated as outsiders even after years of birding.
There may be excellent women birders out there who have become so frustrated with the hazing and casual sexism that they have rejected the birding community entirely, and there may be many women who are overlooked in a birding culture that considers the size of one’s list as an important measure of one’s worth.
“Some of the top listers are not necessarily the most skilled birders in the state,” Jen Brumfield said. Shawneen Finnegan concurred, saying, “A big list doesn't equal a high level of birding expertise.”
While several women that I spoke with alleged that women just aren’t as motivated as men are to make a name for themselves in the birding world, this comes uncomfortably close to the specious argument that there are few women CEOs and corporate managers because women just aren’t interested in corporate advancement. That said, men and women may well seek different things from birding, although whether those differences are innate or a product of culture is impossible to determine.
Gender Patterns in Bird-related Recreation in the USA and UK qualified it thus: “…Our results suggest that males are more likely to be achievement-oriented in their motivation, seeking to meet some standard of performance, whereas females might be more likely to be appreciation-motivated, participating to reduce stress or gain a sense of connection with nature.”
“I probably have a pretty huge life list, because I seek new birds avidly wherever I go, and I go to a lot of cool places,” Julie Zickefoose said. “But what lights my fire is having a good close encounter with a bird—any bird—that teaches me something about how it lives, thinks, reproduces, feeds.”
“I think it's the nature of women to have a more holistic approach to things,” Susan Myers said. “There is nothing less like hunting than keeping a list. A lot of these hardcore listers have no interest in the behavior of the birds. They want to see it, tick it and get the hell out of there. It's the women who behave more like hunters. They want to understand the birds, know the behavior, know the environment.”
Ultimately, women in the birding world need to have more confidence in themselves.
“We should learn to trust ourselves and not always go running off to find an ‘expert’ to confirm what we probably already have figured out for ourselves,” Julie Zickefoose concluded. “If female birders frustrate me, it's because so many of them never allow themselves to arrive.”
(Special thanks go to Lynn Barber, Jen Brumfield, Sheridan Coffey, Donna Dittmann, Shawneen Finnegan, Catherine Hamilton, Laura Kammermeier, Susan Myers, Jennifer Rycenga, Debi Love Shearwater, Sharon Stiteler, Sheri Williamson, and Julie Zickefoose. I had additional discussions with Jennifer Schramm Cutillo, Liz Deluna Gordon, Noah Gaines, Jeff Gordon, Clay Kempf, and Clayton Tschudy. Some numbers and details were provided by Iain Campbell, Victor Emanuel, Marci Madsen Fuller, Kenn Kaufman, and Kim Kaufman. Finally, Dave Irons, Dave Moseley, and Rick Wright provided feedback on various iterations of this piece.)