Nicola was born in Swansea, South Wales in April 1972 and spent her teens traveling between boarding school in England and Indonesia where her parents were based. She was brought up in the Church of England, but her parents were basically agnostic. Nicola now describes herself as an atheist with Christian values. “I really enjoyed religious studies at school and value what it taught me. I believe in the codes of Christianity but I don’t believe in God.”
Nicola’s mother was a geologist before having children, giving this up when she was pregnant with Nicola. She then started teaching after some years of being a full time mum. Her father worked for BP for many years as an engineer. Nicola describes her father as being very interested in wildlife, and her mother as progressive in her thinking and very concerned about the environment.
Nicola loved geography at school, and was troubled by her study of the human impacts on natural systems at University. She was very influenced by Rachel Carsons’ Silent Spring which was on her reading list in preparation for her degree at Oxford and which shaped the way she approached her tertiary studies and her future work.
Nicola left the UK in 1994, and moved to Australia with her then boyfriend, now husband Chris, who had employment here. Nicola was keen to use her MSc in Conservation but because of difficulties in getting work visas, she spent her first two years in Australia as an office temp. However, she volunteered in her spare time for The Wilderness Society (TWS) and the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers and in 1996 she obtained paid work with The Wilderness Society as Office Manager and Volunteer Manager.
I asked Nicola how she found the experience of working within TWS, which is well recognised as a consensus based organisation with a very flat structure. (I interviewed Nicola at the end of her maternity leave for her gorgeous baby Rosie, and you can hear Rosie in the background of the audio extracts in this profile.)
I started by asking her about why she chose The Wilderness Society.
In 1998 Nicola moved to the Humane Society International (HSI) as a biodiversity campaigner. Founded in 1991, Humane Society International (HSI) has offices in Australia, the US, Canada, Europe and Central America to help carry out and support field activities and programs in over 35 countries. HSI Australia works as a major non-government force in Australia and the region for wildlife conservation and animal protection (from HSI website http://www.hsi.org.au)
This job meant that Nicola moved from administration and financial management into campaigning and advocacy. Michael Kennedy and Verna Simpson set up and run Humane Society International in Australia and the decision making structures were very different from those Nicola had experienced in TWS. At TWS all the staff had a say and responsibility in managing the organisation whereas at HSI, management of the organisation is undertaken by the two Directors. Nicola says this provided her with less responsibility for the machinery of the organisation, and more time and freedom to get on with campaigning.
Nicola’s campaigns since 1998 have focused on marine and terrestrial biodiversity protection. In the marine environment she campaigns for protection for albatross, whales and other marine mammals, sharks and other threatened fish species. In the terrestrial sphere she works on threats such as climate change, vegetation clearance and logging. Her work often has a legal focus. Nicola has led several court cases against the federal Environment Minister. She has worked at an Australian level and internationally. Before having children, Nicola would spend several weeks overseas at treaty meetings, 4 or 5 times a year. Nicola learned her campaigning skills on the job.
Nicola describes Michael as a sophisticated campaigner, and great boss, throwing her in at the deep end, but being supportive of her work, and having faith in her as a campaigner.
Nicola’s role today is Senior Program Manager. Before her first maternity leave in 2006, she had responsibility for other staff. After returning to work, Nicola went part time with the support of HSI, and her management and supervisory tasks were undertaken by others.
Having their two children were well thought through decisions for Nicola and Chris. Nicola says that her generation has been taught that you can have it all, but that her experience is that you can have it all, but its not easy.
Mothers often say ‘you can have it all but not at the same time’, but that presupposes that you have the financial freedom to stagger work and motherhood. For many of us, especially in expensive places like Sydney, combining the two is a matter of financial necessity.
You can combine work and motherhood successfully, and I think the law is on your side – bosses are now required to give you more latitude to be a mother. You can’t be discriminated against in theory, but it is tiring for you in terms of the demands on your time.
Nicola commented that with 2 pre-school children to support, the lower wages she can get in the environment movement as opposed to what she might get in the corporate or government sectors become more of an issue. She commented that environment is possibly one of the more lowly paid of the NGO sectors and that there is not much take home pay once you have paid for childcare for two children.
I don’t think there’s any institutional barriers to women becoming leaders in the environment movement. I don’t think there’s discrimination from within the environmental organisations. It’s more that the logistics remain difficult.
For instance, Nicola says she still manages one or two overseas trips a year for HSI but she can no longer take off at the drop of a hat. With no family support in Australia she says she has to arrange for her husband to take over as primary carer and pay for extra childcare. Nicola also recalls missing her son’s first steps when he was 13 months and she was at the UN climate negotiations in Bali in 2007. She is now scheduled to be in Bali again in October, this time for a Southern Bluefin Tuna meeting, when her daughter will be 14 months. She is worried it will be just her luck to miss the first steps again !
Nicola had 8 years working with HSI before having children, and 5 years after children. I asked her how she’s handled the different experiences, starting with the changes to her managerial responsibilities as a part time worker (again you can hear Nicola juggling doing her interview with feeding Rosie)
I asked Nicola whether she had experienced that feeling of almost complete immersion in environmental issues that some women leaders have described to me. Nicola responded that at HSI, this sort of approach is not encouraged, and that staff are encouraged to work reasonable hours, and take time off to enjoy their home lives. Having said that, prior to having to do the day care pick up and evenings to spend with children, she confessed to being something of a workaholic and ignoring her boss’s advice to go home. Plus, as a media spokesperson on high profile issues such as whaling she does have to be ‘on call’ 24/7 to do interviews.
She describes her commitment to the environment as a conviction – “something I feel compelled to do, to do to the best of my ability, but over the years l have learned to switch off after a hard days work so it doesn’t spoil my time at home”.
It helps that Chris isn’t an environmental activist. He’s proud of what I do and very supportive, but he’s not that involved himself, and when he does want to debate environmental issues at home, or out, I don’t want to – that’s what I do at work, or in the media and I like to have a rest from it in my private life.
While Nicola says that she would “like to win some campaigns”, her international focus means that her work on, say, protecting the albatross from long line fishing, is never actually concluded. While the albatross might be protected in Australia for example, the focus then moves to other parts of the world where they are under threat. Achievements are mostly incremental, constantly impacted by shifting political priorities and other factors.
Nicola sees a number of potential paths for her future – continuing as an advocate in the environment or social justice movements or possibly moving into politics.
Nicola sees the differences between women and men in leadership roles in the environment movement as being more personality based, rather than gender based. I asked her about what might be the particular characteristics of leadership in the environment movement and we discussed the importance of negotiation skills to the sorts of environmental campaigns that Nicola works on. Her view is that an environmental leader needs to be an expert in negotiating within the movement as well as with the government or the private sector. At the same time, environmental movement leaders need to also be able to advocate both within and outside the movement, and to have the ability to know when to use advocacy and when to use negotiation.
Nicola’s experiences – both in an international environment organisation like HSI and as a working mother with very young children – bring up different issues for leadership. I was particularly grateful for Nicola’s honest descriptions of the sort of negotiations that women leaders need to undertake at home, in order to get them out the door and working on behalf of the environment.
Comments very welcome on the issues raised in this profile.