March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrating the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future. In honour of IWD 2021’s theme of ‘Women in Leadership’, we caught up with AWC’s National Science Manager, Dr Liana Joseph, to learn more about her leadership role, career progression and experience as a woman in conservation science.
With more than 20 years’ experience in monitoring, research and management of biodiversity, Dr Liana Joseph’s resume makes for an impressive read.
With a career spanning several continents, a leadership role at a national conservation organisation, and over 30 published studies under her belt – including a PhD which has been utilised by several governments around the world – this mother of two from Northern NSW is a shining example of what is possible for women in this field.
Today, as AWC’s National Science Manager, Liana helps to deliver and provides scientific leadership on large-scale monitoring and conservation research programs, land management strategies, and a complicated program of threatened wildlife reintroductions.
Getting to this point has been quite the adventure, and, at times, quite the challenge.
“I didn’t even know this was an option”
Liana began her career with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Tropical Biology at James Cook University, later followed by a PhD in Conservation Biology from the University of Queensland.
Several post-doctoral fellowships followed, taking her to India and eventually to New York, where she remained for several years as a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York. However, a deep hankering for the Aussie bush, and the birth of her first child, eventually resulted in a return Down Under.
“In New York I was studying applied conservation problems with real-world implications, but I still had an urge to work with our native species and be back in the bush.”
Indeed, like most ecologists, Liana’s passion for wildlife conservation exceeds pure academia. Naturally, she has an impressive array of challenging fieldwork under her belt – including two highly-formative years leading biological surveys in the remote mountains of Tanzania and Uganda.
“Prior to my time in Africa, I didn’t even know this was an option. But then I saw I could have a career in conservation, and I suddenly knew what I wanted to do.”
Women in leadership
Liana’s professional experience includes leading the Threatened Species Partnership’s team within the Threatened Species Unit of the Queensland Government. To allow for childcare, the position was 80% FTE (full time equivalent), which gave Liana the opportunity to nurture her leadership skills:
“I managed eight staff and chaired four Recovery Teams. I learnt that I loved being a manager. Analysing data and producing reports can be lonely, so I really came to appreciate the people element. It’s now my favourite part: interacting with passionate people to make a positive impact on the ground.”
It was while working for the Queensland Government that Liana first came to manage iconic threatened mammals like the Greater Bilby and Bridled Nailtail Wallaby, nicely setting the tone for what was to come.
A woman on a mission
AWC protect some of Australia’s largest surviving populations of native threatened wildlife, managed across a national network of 31 sanctuaries or partnership projects, with science at the heart of all decisions. Liana helps facilitate and drive this scientific mission, having successfully climbed the ranks over the last five and a half years to become AWC’s National Science Manager.
“AWC’s mission just made sense to me and aligned with my own… it’s all about using science to actively protect our native species and their habitat.
I currently work with AWC’s Chief Science Officer and the National Science Team to deliver on our major science programs, but prior to that I was a Senior Ecologist and worked on developing a programme for measuring and reporting on the health of the AWC sanctuaries.
My favourite part about the job is the difference we make on the ground for wildlife and for the bush. I especially love being part of threatened species reintroductions. The preparations, paperwork and reporting for what we do isn’t easy, but it’s a team effort and I’m so happy to be part of that.
Recent highlights for me have been the return of Numbats, one of the world’s most endangered animals, to Mallee Cliffs National Park in NSW and the return of the Bridled Nailtail Wallaby to the Pilliga. It’s very rewarding when it all comes together. I’m proud of the work we do.”
During her first year at AWC, as Senior Ecologist, Liana took time out to have her second child. In fact, AWC hired her when she was over seven months pregnant, accepting that six weeks of work would be followed by 12 months of maternity leave. This support was invaluable to Liana and her family:
“Juggling childcare can be a challenge, and AWC makes it easier for women with children to work. There is never any pressure to come back fulltime, and their flexibility allows us to slowly come back at the rate that we can. Being able to work from home is also wonderful, I just wouldn’t have had the time to commute and do this, otherwise.”
Liana and her partner (also working in the conservation sector) now manage their workload around their children, which hasn’t been easy during the COVID pandemic. According to Liana, she couldn’t have managed to work in a management role without such a supportive partner. In Australia, we have a long way to go as the bulk of childcare – and the detrimental impact it can have on one’s career – still disproportionately affects more women:
“AWC is amazing, but there are still issues in the field. What holds women back is that, statistically, women still do most of the domestic duties and take off more time to look after children, which doesn’t allow us to participate fully. As Annabel Crabb points out in her Quarterly Essay, Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, men need access to equal parenting opportunities, and rights to improved paternity leave.”
Despite the wider societal challenges, Liana notes that many organisations are increasingly working hard to set new standards in gender equality, especially in management. Uniquely, perhaps, for a scientific organisation, AWC’s science programme has a 50/50 gender split among senior managers.
Advice for future female conservationists
“Cultivating your curiosity is so important. Take the time to find opportunities in what you love.
Immersing myself in different cultures and ecosystems really opened my eyes and set me on my path. I followed what interested me – I was just exploring, and then Africa propelled me into this career.”
It’s important that we keep lifting other women up, too. To have each other’s backs and keep working as part of a team. If we create an environment where everyone can achieve their best and where we celebrate each other, then together we can rise above any challenges.”