The Real Mama Grizzly Blog: Empowering other mama grizzlies

At a recent conservation conference, I was talking with a few women who noticed that only eight of the conference’s fifty speakers were women, despite an equal number of attendees from both genders. 

These numbers didn’t seem right, especially knowing how many women have held—and continue to hold--critical roles in the conservation movement. And so out of this conversation, a diverse, multigenerational group of seven women set about creating the Women and Wilderness Conference, a national leadership training designed to inspire the leadership confidence of female conservationists.  The idea is to provide a new pool of talented women to strengthen the conservation movement with their leadership now and into the future.

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This past December 2010, the first Women and Wilderness Conference was held in Santa Fe, N.M.  Fifty established and emerging women leaders from conservation organizations from around the country gathered for four days of networking and training.  The curriculum was designed to build upon the McKinsey Leadership Project’s Centered Leadership Model by using each of the five leadership dimensions of meaning, managing energy, positive framing, connecting, and engaging as a workshop focus.

One topic of discussion during the Conference was that women make up more than half of the U.S. population, yet only occupy between 16 percent and 20 percent of the leadership positions across major sectors of society, according to Linda Tarr-Whelan.  A copy of her book, Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World, was given to all of the Conference attendees. Tarr-Whelan builds the case that women stepping into leadership positions makes life better for themselves, their organizations, and global society.  She proves when female representation at the top reaches 30 percent, real change starts to happen.  The good news is that a few more mama grizzlies in leadership positions will allow the conservation community to reach this tipping point.

I had never attended a women-only training. So as I was planning the Women and Wilderness Conference, I decided to go to a day-long workshop called Poised for Leadership offered by Women’s Leadership Coaching, which focused on understanding power dynamics, the importance of networking and relationships, and building your influence.  The impact this training had on my growth and development was such a powerful source of self-confidence that I knew we were on to something special, and our mama grizzlies and the lands we protect deserve nothing less.  So we invited the workshop leader to present at our conference.

My experiences with women-only education have echoed what a number of researchers describe as one of the benefits: finding a deep sense of understanding by realizing that my experiences are common among women as well as recognizing the strengths specific to women’s leadership styles including an emphasis on listening, collaboration, and consensus building.  As Tarr-Whelan describes, women leaders also tend to give attention to policies that integrate work and family life resulting in effective and flexible workplaces that yield results for employees, employers, and communities, not just women.

At the Women and Wilderness Conference: Gerry Jennings, Sara Lundstrom, Susan Whitmore, Lindsay Woods, Holly Baker, Michelle Haefle, and Susie Kincaid (from left to right). Courtesy Gerry Jennings.During the Women and Wilderness Conference, a mama grizzly sitting next to me had a remarkably similar career path as my own, including all of the highlights and lowlights along the way.  In sharing our stories, ideas, and plans for the future, we both felt a renewed confidence in our ability to make a significant difference in the conservation community.  Many other participants noted similar discussions with women of all ages and levels of experience from across the United States.  Some commented on how the conference has inspired them to make positive changes in their lives and organizations. Others highlighted the new professional skills they gained that provided them with innovative tools for their land protection campaigns, and still more commented on their renewed motivation and commitment to wildland advocacy work. 

And best of all, we collectively decided that we want more information, more shared resources and ideas, and more fun, wild women to learn with; so we are in the process of organizing a women’s network for the professional mama grizzlies protecting our wild landscapes to ensure that we are strengthening the ties between the established and emerging leaders of the movement as well as creating an environment of continual peer-to-peer learning.   

The Women and Wilderness Conference has started a dialogue among women conservationists who now have a community of friends and colleagues to draw upon for sharing resources, inspiration, and creating solutions together to take advantage of opportunities and overcome the challenges of protecting our wildest lands, and the real mama grizzlies who call them home.

Women and Wilderness is a part of The Wilderness Society’s Wild Forever Future Campaign. Learn more at

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Photo: At the Women and Wilderness Conference: Gerry Jennings, Sara Lundstrom, Susan Whitmore, Lindsay Woods, Holly Baker, Michelle Haefle, and Susie Kincaid (from left to right). Courtesy Gerry Jennings.