“I wish these things wouldn’t happen to anyone,” says Akanksha Sood Singh, a wildlife film-maker based in Delhi. “But if it has happened, this is a safe space for women to come and to share their experiences.”
The safe space Sood Singh is referring to is the Instagram account Women of the Wild – India, which showcases “the untold stories of women working for science and nature”. The platform gives them a chance to promote their expertise, but also somewhere to share their experiences of working in what are often male-dominated fields where sexual harassment can often feature.
Sood Singh, like most other professionals, attended several online programmes during the pandemic. “In many of the webinars I attended, there were no women on the panel,” she says. “If there were one or two women, they were mostly moderators.”
Around the same time, Sood Singh, who is part of an advisory group at Jackson Wild (previously known as the Jackson Hole wildlife film festival), was planning a film-making workshop for early and mid-career female Stem professionals, in partnership with the organisation. She had an extremely difficult time finding women to take part in the workshop. “I spent 10 days trying. I just lost it,” she says. “This couldn’t be happening in the 21st century.”
Angry and frustrated at the lack of female representation in various forums, Sood Singh launched the Women of the Wild – India account in May last year, followed by accounts for Pakistan and Malaysia. “It’s not at all easy for women in Pakistan,” says Sood Singh. “You have to have very open-minded parents to allow you to study science.”
Before launching the platform in India, Sood Singh emailed the 20 to 30 women that she knew working in these areas and asked them to respond to four simple questions about why they had chosen their careers, what challenges they faced when starting out, what was the one event that strengthened their resolve to continue, and what would their message be for anyone reading the post.
Environment reporter Aditi Rajagopal was the first to be featured on the Women of the Wild – India account. “When Akanksha spoke to me about her idea, I loved it! By being the first to be featured, I hoped it would make other women comfortable to put their names and faces out there,” she says. Since then, more than 400 scientists, researchers, film-makers, journalists, photographers, artists, animal rescuers and others in a wide range of professions have been profiled on the account.
They include an environmental lawyer, a youth climate leader, a member of a village forest protection squad, the founder of a plastic upcycling service and the leader of India’s largest youth movement to conserve water. Rajagopal says: “It’s heartwarming to see so many women doing incredibly important work in fields and positions I didn’t even know existed.”
Sood Singh says: “I see in the comments and DMs [direct messages] how one woman’s journey becomes a plan for another to work through her challenges.”
Followers of the account can review the institutions they work for anonymously if they prefer. A post inviting reviews of the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) received more than 100 comments, many of which alleged experiences of various forms of harassment, lack of advancement opportunities and a toxic work environment.
A few days after the CWS review, Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist at the organisation, shared a post on the CWS Instagram account titled Working towards a safer and inclusive work environment at CWS. Karanth, who took up her role in November 2018, wrote: “This is a wake-up call for me, CWS and many others”, adding that the organisation would “address all legitimate issues raised by those who work with us”.
A review of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) also received nearly 100 comments, with accounts of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Bittu Sahgal, the BNHS president, responded directly to the comments, acknowledging: “It’s a systemic change that we need. It will happen.” Sahgal set out steps being taken at the BNHS to address complaints, including internal one-on-one conversations.
To date, more than 20 organisations have been reviewed on Women of the Wild – India and Sood Singh is hopeful that women coming into these organisations will experience a better environment.
“In the feedback that I receive, I see that a sense of ownership has set in with the women who follow the account,” she says. “They take this to be a very safe space. They consider it ‘their’ space.”
Women of the Wild is constantly evolving and Sood Singh hopes to set up a mentorship programme. “We still have a lot to figure out. The conversations have just started. I want to make these conversations mainstream.”
In the meantime, she says: “No one can say that they couldn’t find a woman to be on a panel of experts.”