Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations formally proclaimed March 8 International Women’s Day in an effort to promote women’s rights and foster world peace. Since its founding in 1977 as a designated holiday, IWD employs annual themes that mirror current issues impacting women across the globe. As 2022 unfolds amid a swirl of controversy surrounding proposed legislation further limiting the rights of women and inhibiting progressive action on climate change and other environmental concerns, IWD counterpunches with this year’s official theme, “Gender equality for a sustainable tomorrow.”
As the world recognizes the contributions of women and girls in promoting climate change adaptation, mitigation and solutions to create a more sustainable tomorrow, we asked the following women integral to Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) — PWF Executive Director Kristie Wrigglesworth, PWF Chief Biologist Stephanie Stack, PWF Ecuador Programs Director Dr. Cristina Castro, PWF Board of Directors Chair MaryKate “MK” Rosack and PWF Board of Directors Vice Chair Laura Chynoweth — to share their individual journeys in advancing PWF’s mission to protect the ocean through science and advocacy and inspire environmental stewardship.
You are all quite successful in your chosen careers. Can you comment on challenges you faced, if any, as a woman in your individual fields and how you overcame them?
Kristie Wrigglesworth (KW): In my career leading up to being a lawyer and executive, I experienced predation, harassment and prejudice being a female and small in stature. Fortunately, my father taught me from a young age that if I am driven and persistent, I can do anything in life, no matter my age, sex, size, physical appearance or class. I’ve also found that being well-prepared and thorough in my work has helped me overcome stereotypes and sexism because people will take you seriously if you are thinking a step ahead. I still find myself in meetings once in a while where nothing I say is taken seriously until it is said by a male in the same meeting, but it is getting better. I think we tend to sell ourselves short and I’ve learned from women I admire not to underestimate myself.
Stephanie Stack (SS): The statistics about women in science are jarring. Female scientists tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers and often leave the field due to sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying. I am no exception to these issues and have faced sexual harassment from my professors and being told that I wasn’t worth investing in because I would have babies and stay at home someday. I persisted through these challenges because I had a strong sense of self and purpose. I don’t think I would have succeeded without a strong support system; my family, my partner, and my first mentor, Dr Catherine Hood. I feel incredibly privileged to be in the position I am, directing an international research program, and working for a company that values my contributions and treats me with dignity and respect. I am also proud to be a working mother and set an example for my daughter that you don’t have to sacrifice your passion and career to have a family.
Cristina Castro (CC): I am a sensitive woman, but also strong at the same time. Even if I fall, I always get up. I have simple rules in my life: I never get carried away by what people say, I always think that everything has a solution and I adapt to everything. Thinking that way has made me overcome all the challenges in my life.
My first challenge was to make it on my own with two daughters. I had no job, was still studying and had no help from anyone. I had many days of hunger and loneliness, but also many days full of light. Everyone told me that a woman with children could not get ahead. Now my two daughters are studying at the university with a different future than mine. They have the freedom to choose their life, religion, principles, and they don’t have to get married young. They are preparing themselves to get ahead.
The second challenge has been my profession. I had to face a world full of machismo, and it is still a challenge. When we started whale research, I was only 23 years old in a place where there were no professional women. To make my way, gain respect and, above all, be recognized for my efforts has been very hard. I was harassed for being a woman, persecuted for being intelligent and doing things well, misunderstood for being an entrepreneur and doing what no one else was doing. Many times, I felt fear as I am prey to envy and bad intentions, but none of that has made or diverted me from my goals. I always say it is impossible for anyone to change my objectives.
MaryKate “MK” Rosack (MKR): I have been lucky to have many strong female leaders throughout my career, which has made navigating personal and professional challenges easier. One challenge we have had on the Pacific Whale Foundation Board is ensuring that as we grow as an organization, that our Board represents the community that we serve. While 72% of nonprofit executive directors are female, only 48% of nonprofit board directors are female, and only 42% of nonprofit board chairs are female. When I joined, we had only one female director, and now our Board is 50/50 male female – higher than the national average. I’m inspired that for the first time in PWF history, we have female leadership in the Board Chair, Board Vice Chair, and Executive Director positions. We have increased our representation of women on the Board over the past five years, and I hope that together we can create a Board that not only helps with the long-term sustainability of the organization, but better represents the diverse community that we serve.
Laura Chynoweth (LC): I have owned and operated my own fundraising consulting firm working with nonprofits since 2014. Nonprofit development is a female-dominated field, and I have had some amazing female leaders who mentored me. However, when it comes to entrepreneurship, I still get folks who say things to me like “that’s a nice little hobby” when referring to my business–something I’ve never heard anyone say to a successful male entrepreneur. I have worked hard to force myself to speak up and calmly correct folks when this happens. I know this is important not only for me but also for other women entrepreneurs out there.
As you are all intimately associated with Pacific Whale Foundation and its mission to protect the ocean through science and advocacy and inspire environmental stewardship, please describe what inspired your involvement and what continues to inspire you today?
KW: I’ve always felt a deep connection to animals since I was born, I’m constantly drawn to them. I believe that biodiversity is the most incredible and beautiful gift that we have been given as humans. I feel a fierce need and personal obligation to protect animals and their natural habitat, especially species that we are causing to go extinct. We can learn so much from the animal kingdom and especially from whales and dolphins who keep our most valuable resource on the planet healthy and still make time to play and sing.
I was inspired to support and work for marine research, conservation and education because of my love for animals and the ocean. This inspiration continues because of the founder of PWF, Greg Kaufman, and my amazing colleagues at Pacific Whale Foundation and PacWhale Eco-Adventures. Greg taught me that anything is possible and there is incredible power in each one of us. As a global community of ocean advocates, we can save and protect marine mammals for future generations to enjoy and learn from, including my own daughter.
SS: Before I joined Pacific Whale Foundation, I had been working for the Canadian federal government. The science we were doing was not making a difference towards conservation goals, and I became dissatisfied with that position. A family member introduced me to an opportunity to work abroad to help South African communities maintain healthy ecosystems, in a position funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (now called the Department of Foreign Affairs). This position is what solidified my desire to work for an NGO because I liked the real-world impact of our actions and being able to address important management issues for the community. When the grant money for that position ended, I looked for something similar and my job search coincided with a reboot of the research program at Pacific Whale Foundation — so it seemed meant to be! What continues to inspire me today is the passion and commitment of the entire Pacific Whale Foundation team, and knowing I am making the world a better place for my daughter.
CC: I think I am a very blessed woman; I don’t know what I have done in my life to be happy and to be part of the PWF. We are united by the same passion, the same dedication to what we do, the same love for the sea and all the beings that inhabit it. I was lucky to meet excellent human beings such as Greg Kaufman, Paul Forestall and others. Greg influenced my life. Although we belong to two very different worlds, we understood each other very well. Sometimes when we talked, he initiated and I finished the idea, because we knew exactly what was going on or how we wanted to do things. Once he told me that he didn’t care how good a scientist you were, it was more important what kind of humanity you had — those are the who people made changes in their community and the environment. That phrase has always inspired me. I try not to be just a scientist but make changes and help in my community, because I know it helps those who cannot speak our language but are part of our world.
MKR: Growing up in Florida by the ocean, I have always been fascinated by marine mammals – especially cetaceans. We need to protect our oceans so that they will be there for future generations to enjoy – and that’s what inspired my involvement with Pacific Whale Foundation – an organization dedicated to protecting our oceans. I continue to be inspired every day working with Pacific Whale Foundation. In my four years on the PWF Board, I am so proud of how much the organization has grown and the international impact of our work.
LC: I earned my MA from UH Hawaii at Manoa. During that time, I was lucky enough to visit Maui and take a few snorkeling and whale-watch tours with PacWhale Eco-Adventures [the social enterprise wholly owned by Pacific Whale Foundation that helps fund the organization’s ocean conservation efforts]. Now that I have grown my expertise in nonprofit fundraising, I feel a responsibility to use my skills to give back to the organization and the islands that have given me so much. I am continually inspired by the innovations that the PWF staff implement in research, conservation and education.
In 2022, PWF is focusing much of its REC (Research, Education and Conservation programs) on three of the five major threats facing cetaceans and marine life worldwide: Tourism pressure, fisheries interaction and marine debris. Can you explain steps or actions taken in your personal life that reflect your commitment to mitigating these threats (i.e., switching to laundry strips instead of plastic jugs, purchasing/selecting only sustainably harvested seafood)?
KW: Tourism pressure — I’m very selective in what tourist activities I support and recommend. I’ve improved my methods and decision-making when traveling greatly over the last fifteen years. I seek out tourism businesses that have proven sustainable operations and give back to the planet by supporting conservation efforts. Pacific Whale Foundation and PacWhale Eco-Adventures are trailblazers in creating sustainable ecotourism and driving the industry to support marine research, conservation and education.
Fisheries interaction — I stopped eating seafood three years ago after our third World Whale Film Festival because I had seen so many documentaries about how the fishing industry is devastating our ocean wildlife. Tuna fish and seafood use to be my favorite type of protein, now I do not eat it unless I know for sure it was sustainably caught. If a majority of consumers would commit to buying only sustainably caught seafood, demand would shift, and we could easily solve the fisheries issue.
Marine debris — I never purchase bottled water and use my reusable water bottle instead. I do not use plastic utensils and use my reusable utensils and straw instead. I use reusable cloth towels at my home instead of paper towels. I also adopted Kaanapali Beach with my daughter, which we clean together every month. It’s impossible for me to walk on a beach without cleaning it, as I know that those forgotten or tossed items will soon be marine debris that kills our beautiful whales, dolphins and turtles, turning into chemicals that we eat as it moves up the food chain. I also support other nonprofits committed to removing marine debris from our oceans, such as 4 Ocean and Ocean Sole.
PWF created the Marine Debris Monitoring and Adopt A Beach Programs to collect data and to make the public aware of the amount and type of trash that ends up on our coastlines. After you have picked up a plastic bottle cap from the beach for the hundredth time, you start to rethink buying plastic bottles. The more you can make yourself aware of the problem, the more your habits and behaviors will change for the good of the planet.
SS: Our individual impact is minimal compared to the impact we can have collectively. Policy changes will dwarf any changes to our individual footprint so the best thing that we, as individuals, can do is organize and work as a community. VOTE in every election for people who prioritize climate change and the environment. LOBBY and tell elected officials what issues matter to you. I highly recommend joining the Citizen’s Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org) to become part of this growing movement. TALK about these issues with others, share what you have learned, and volunteer your time or donate to environmental NGOs.
CC: It has been difficult, because you struggle with a culture of consumerism and habits against the environment. I have personally implemented changes with the people I work with. For example, on the boats, we carry cups and reuse them every day. It sounds easy, but it was very difficult to implement because the boat team refused to make them. The glasses were lost, the glasses broke or simply smelled bad, and they stopped using them. We had to buy several times and explain its functions until we got it — it’s something so small but so difficult at the same time. We bought water in large jerry can and asked tourists to bring flasks to refill and avoid plastic bottles. We implemented filter water in the hotels so that all tourists can easily refill their water containers and stop buying plastic bottles. We share our principles of giving priority to community products (banana cake, ceviche, chifles), and thus support the internal economy of Puerto Lopez. In Puerto Lopez, there is no sewage system. We reuse the water in the gardens and created a septic tank that uses the black and grey water from the house in the garden. We still have a long way to go; even though it sounds simple, it has been difficult to get started.
MKR: In my personal life, I do all I can to make a difference towards the major threats facing cetaceans and marine life such as fisheries interaction and marine debris. I stopped eating meat about 15 years ago. As a pescatarian (vegetarian plus fish), I’ve been working on reducing the amount of seafood I eat and selecting sustainably harvested seafood. I carry my PWF reusable bottle with me to reduce single-use plastics, decline straws at restaurants (and carry a reusable one) and I am an avid recycler. I also spend my free time volunteering on two nonprofit Boards as a sign of my commitment to protecting our oceans.
LC: I use only reef safe sunscreen, and while I am a vegetarian, my husband only buys sustainably harvested seafood. We also do not use straws or single-use plastic bags, and we always look for products in non-plastic containers.
What tips, suggestions and/or words of inspiration do you have for young women or women looking to reinvent themselves who are interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?
KW: If you have the passion, and the mission speaks to your heart, don’t wait, commit! Take the plunge as soon as possible, follow your bliss, whatever it is, and you will achieve things you could never dream of. The environmental protection area needs leaders now. We need an army of people with diverse skillsets to address the complex and serious global problems we are facing, including marine debris, changing the fishing industry, and fighting climate change.
SS: My advice is to surround yourself with excellence and choose your network of collaborators carefully. When you are starting out, finding a network of allies is one of the best things you can do – but then remember to return the favor by mentoring others once you become established. Get used to failures and setbacks, as they are part of any research career, and don’t be afraid to take some risks. If you want to be a successful researcher, having advanced analytical skills will help you stand apart from others.
Regardless of your age or gender, we all have an important role to play in supporting women in leadership positions; nominate women for awards, make sure committees have gender balance, advocate for family-friendly policies in your workplace, call out people who interrupt or dismiss women, and provide institutional support for women in leadership positions so they stay there!
CC: For me life was not easy, and I am not ashamed to say it. But that creates two types of people; either we are victims and live with regrets or we are unstoppable fighters. Biology is a field in which you can see with your eyes what no one else can see, you can feel what no one else can feel and you can dream unlimitedly. We don’t have to stop because we are women, because we are alone, because we don’t have support or simply because we dream of something different. If there is something we can do to improve this world, we just do it.
MKR: My advice is to always follow your passions and be open to creative ways to achieve that. I have been passionate about protecting our oceans and whales my entire life, but my career has been in corporate marketing and higher education fundraising. A few years ago, I was interested in making a bigger impact and began volunteering with several nonprofit Boards. When I was looking to reinvent myself, I stepped back to explore the intersection of my unique skillset and the difference I want to make in the world – this resulted in me discovering the Board opportunity with Pacific Whale Foundation. When I stepped up to join the PWF Board, it gave me an outlet to follow my passions in a creative way while using my unique marketing, strategy, and fundraising background. Be open to different avenues to achieve your career and personal goals and look for opportunities such as serving on a nonprofit Board that can develop you both personally and professionally. There is a perfect organization out there for you that would be so lucky to benefit from the unique strengths and skills you bring to the table.
I would also say don’t be afraid to reach out to those who have a career, role, or volunteer work that interests you. Strong servant leaders are always willing to take the time to talk to those younger in their career. I would not be with Pacific Whale Foundation today if I hadn’t reached out to a contact of a contact in my network to learn more about opportunities – and I am so grateful that someone took the time to meet with me and listen.
LC: It’s not a question of if you can do it; you can. Surround yourself with resources and people who will help you succeed. (It may surprise you who those supportive folks end up being.) Don’t let what you think you “should” be doing deter you from what you want to do. Other people are never going to tell you it’s the right time to start your business; there is no perfect time.