Siân Mercer: changing perceptions


There's arguably never been a better time to be a young woman in the environmental sector. As a 16-year-old, I've been lucky enough to be involved in a wide variety of conservation and birding opportunities. Not only have I been able to interact with a number of inspirational role models, but also connect on a local level with bird groups and on social media.

However, in light of recent events, conversation about women in birding has become more important than ever, with topics such as safety and accessibility being particularly crucial areas of discussion. In my opinion, the perception of birding and birders is another interesting issue within the community, as well as the general public's preconceived idea of what a birder is.

To many women, birding can seem like a male-dominated field, and the portrayal of the hobby in mainstream media often shows an inaccurate level of diversity that can be found in the field. Having spoken to many female friends, the depiction of birding they see is often off-putting and they raised concerns about not fitting in. This may be why many women my age are reluctant to enter the field, meaning they're missing out on the positive benefits wildlife watching can have.

Changing people's perceptions of birding is vital if we are to show that it is a safe and accessible pastime for everyone (Marc Guyt / www.agami.nl).


Wrong assumptions

Another issue is that many birders (perhaps subconsciously) judge people based on their appearance and equipment, often assuming the older or male counterpart is the 'serious' birder. Although often well-intentioned, this can sometimes feel slightly patronising and disheartening. I usually go out with my parents who began birding through my love for the natural world. On many occasions, I have felt dismissed by those who focus primarily on my dad, rather than me or my mum, for what seems like no other reason except gender.

While this may not be overtly due to sexism, there could be an unconscious bias this has also been brought up by fellow female birders. It creates another barrier to making birding more attractive to women, as our opinions and knowledge are being devalued. 
In order to challenge this and create a safer environment for more women to get into birding, it is vital for both women and men to be involved in the conversation. It's important to give people who have previously been silenced a voice, with a focus on learning from the experience and advice of others.

Providing young women with a platform will continue to add to the ever-growing diversity of talented role models and presenters in the nature community. This may in turn help to change the perspective for the everyday viewer and hopefully bring more people into the fascinating world of ornithology, especially at a time when caring about our planet is finally getting the recognition it needs.

I've seen a change of attitudes, with the large majority of birders being massively supportive and helpful both online and in real life. The aim should always be to encourage people to enjoy the natural world and protect what we are passionate about, regardless of gender, race or background. Hopefully, the perception of birding will change so that everyone can share the beauty of birds.

Written by: Siân Mercer

Siân Mercer is a wildlife enthusiast, photographer and birder, as well as a BTO Youth Representative for Shropshire. Follow her on Twitter: @sianmercer