Shona Watt: Environmental Scientist

By Sara DeLoach (PWRT ’17)

Of all the reasons Shona Watt lists as explanation for her initial interest in environmental science, none seem to hinge on her gender. Spending time outdoors, interest in nature, plants, animals–none of these are exclusive to either girls or boys. It is confounding, then, to consider the rest of Shona’s education and work in the field, considerably outnumbered by males. Taught mostly by male professors and having very few female idols in science to look up to, she is able to retrospectively recognize, “I didn’t see myself in or look up to a lot of famous environmentalists or my profs,” the reason being, she couldn’t identify with them. Though she is quick to note that this gap certainly would have been felt more sharply had she come from a more marginalized community, the baseline remains– we are motivated by the idea that something is possible for us. If we don’t see anyone like ourselves accomplishing something, we’re far less likely to believe it is possible to accomplish this ourselves. We all have an essential need for representation.

Now settled into her position as a science professor, Shona makes an effort to encourage students who are generally less comfortable taking up space in the conversation (usually the girls, as most classes are male heavy) while respecting their boundaries and not putting them on the spot. This balance is navigated through discussion at the start of each semester, with topics like how the class would like to interact, allowing room for others to contribute, and challenging oneself to engage. This effort is impactful, as Shona herself can quickly identify a female professor at McGill who provides the same sort of encouragement, Elena Bennett. An ally to her female students, she makes sure they are aware when treated unfairly due to their gender, often encouraging them to reject jobs like getting coffee, taking the notes (jobs that are still typically thrown at women in the lab). The awareness itself is a positive step, as Shona admits that these are injustices she would not have had the wherewithal to question as an undergrad.

Engrained, socially constructed gender roles seep into the workplace in subtle ways. In her role as project manager for sustainability projects in Montreal, Shona struggles to maintain a natural spirit of collaboration without allowing herself to be overshadowed by a more direct counterpart. She describes the continuing education, saying, “It sometimes doesn’t even occur to me that I can speak directly. Either to a student or a supervisor or someone on the street, I can be direct and it’s not going to be bitchy or bossy or things like that, I can just speak with authority and a certainness. That’s something I definitely had to learn in the workplace because I didn’t really see that many models of how that could be done. I heard more about women being naggy or things like that.”

Shona’s own collaborative tendencies echo those that she observes in her classes, where she sees patterns of men “typically encouraged to be louder, have more confidence, not question themselves,” in contrast to women, who focus on using inclusive words and “getting people onboard,” which are certainly positive, valuable traits, if recognized through all the racket. She encourages her students to push beyond these implied roles they’ve picked up during their previous years in the classroom, just as she does in the workplace.

Turning focus to her work in ecology itself (impassioned by an early internship at a Native American survival school) the historical divide in power between genders can still be felt. The history of conservation (in western societies, at least) has been very male dominated– “White men of privilege using power and money for hunting and dominating the land” with a shift toward caring for the land (“stewarding instead of managing”) only adopted in the last few decades.

In class, Shona implores students to not focus solely on the negatives of our current environmental state, explaining, “If you do, it can make it so people don’t really feel empowered,” but rather to focus on engaging toward positive solutions. Even depressing realities that can dampen spirits, she counters by discussing groups that are actively working toward a solution. She urges that we have to connect in an emotional way to the land and recognize the power this holds. This will help us to feel a sense of place (knowing where your food comes from and where it’s going). Without this, it is easy to be careless with our natural resources, without seeing the effects. “Female” traits (really, traits that are socially constructed and erroneously coded as feminine/naturally present in women), “stereotypically more nurturing instead of domineering” show their usefulness here– closer to the type of relationship we hope to develop with the land, caring for it rather than demanding of it.

The irony seems to be that while “masculine” traits are generally thought of as take-charge and effective, in reality, “feminine” traits hold hidden value, particularly in the world of environmental science. These are the traits that would further progress in the way we interact with the earth. Males have these capabilities as well, of course, but aren’t typically encouraged to pursue them. This may, at least in some part, explain a historical aversion to nurturing the earth that we expect so much from.

The developing recognition for these invaluable abilities is echoed in the scientific world, which Shona describes as now experiencing “a push toward social justice, to really be inclusive of people that didn’t have a voice,” specifically citing indigenous women such as Crystal Lameman and Melina Laboucan-Massimo coming to prominence with their messages that may have fallen on deaf ears only a decade ago. With these women at the helm, injustices in the way indigenous lands have been treated are coming to light, the first step to wrongs being set right. Had these women not the voice to be heard, these issues would still be buried. Now a much brighter time for women in the field, if there are any young girls looking for idols, surely these women are candidates. Shona included.