Interview by Rachel Goldstein

Sarah Boyle (she/her) is a project manager for the Protected Areas Establishment Branch of Parks Canada, which deals with establishing terrestrial and marine conservation areas. Boyle is currently working on the proposed national park reserve in the South Okanagan – Similkameen region of British Columbia, the unceded traditional territory of the Syilx Nation. She has been working in this position for the past two and a half years.  Rachel reached Sarah at her home in Revelstoke, British Columbia to talk about her experience living and working in parks. 

What was your professional career path?

I did an undergraduate degree in ecology at the University of Calgary, and then switched in my third year to Royal Roads University to finish off an environmental science degree. After that, I volunteered at the Nature Conservancy in Southwest Florida. When I finally came back to Canada, I got a temporary job with an oil and gas company doing data entry for geological and geophysical sciences. I was hired within the Environmental Health and Safety department of the same company as a junior environmental advisor and then as an environmental compliance auditor. I was really active in restoration projects and getting money from companies to restore their footprint on the land, particularly in caribou country.  

In 2005, I got a position as resource conservation manager in Churchill, Manitoba. At the time, managers only came up through the warden system and they were typically male. I was a 27-year-old female from outside the organization, and it caused a bit of a stir. There was a demand that I get sent to warden training but by the time that that all came to light, I was pregnant, so I couldn’t go through the warden training. I took two and a half years off once I had my child and moved to the interior of BC with my partner and pursued my Master of Science in wildlife disease through Royal Roads University. In Parks Canada you can take a timeout when you have a child, and they keep a spot for you as long as you come back within five years of taking the leave. Once I finished my master’s degree, an ecologist position came up in Mount Revelstoke in Glacier National Park, so I moved to Revelstoke in 2009. 

I have had lots of people ask about my career trajectory and I encourage people to work in the industry. I think it’s really important that biologists and ecologically minded people do work within an industry like oil and gas to ensure that there’s application of really good environmental policy procedure and regulations. Somebody has to be there to make sure that industries are being accountable to that. When you’re starting out in conservation, it’s really hard to find work. You’ve got to take those jobs in the north and you have to be willing to travel. I was willing to do both of those things, so it got me a lot of opportunities. 

What motivates you in your work?

I don’t have a career plan and I don’t do five-year planning. I’ve had a few rules in my life when it comes to my career, and they’re pretty basic. I want to have 70% job satisfaction, be able to use my own body power to either walk or bike to work, and be able to travel and see Canada. I’ve always taken jobs that allowed me to do that.  

I’m motivated by conservation. I’d like to try to leave this world a better place than when I found it and I want to be effective in my role. Some of my career trajectory changes have come when I feel like I may not be as effective in my role and someone else might be better at this point in time, so I try to make space and move on to something else where I can focus my energy. I’m very much other species minded and other systems minded. I always have been, even as a young child, and so I’m really motivated by a lot of the horrible news that we see and what I have seen on the ground and I just want to try to make a difference and do something about it. 

“My brother worked as a hunting and fishing guide in Northern Ontario, and we went up to visit. It was there that I was introduced to sport hunting and fishing, and I didn't like it. I thought to myself, there must be other ways to enjoy being in nature without just destroying it.”

What are your professional goals? 

I want to be useful. I want to see results. I want to enjoy my work, and I want to have balance. Those are my professional development goals.  

Being in oil and gas, a lot of people had either salary expectations or managerial/raising the ladder expectations and I’ve never really had that. I don’t really push the river; I like to flow with the river (if you’ve ever read Siddhartha). Since I started with Parks Canada about 15 years ago, I’ve flipped between ecosystem scientist, resource conservation manager, and project manager. They’ve all been about the same level and I’ve been quite happy with that especially having a young family. I see a lot of colleagues who are younger and have a young family and they’re balancing senior level roles. I’ve found out the hard way that work-life balance when you have small children is very difficult. I’m quite young and I’ve got lots of time if I want to go up to more senior levels to do that when my kids are more independent. 

When I had my son, I was talking about taking a couple years off and people said, “that’s career suicide”. But we live a long life, we work a long career. It’s okay to take a break with your young family. I wish there was more messaging like that to women or men to say when you have a young family, they’re not young for long. You’ve got all this time on the back end of your life unless you start your career really late, so there will be time for that. We don’t need to rush everything all the time.

What is it like being a woman in a historically male dominated field?

I started quite young in oil and gas which was largely male dominated. Most of the females who were in oil and gas were in the administrative capacity, so it was quite novel for a woman to be in a role that wasn’t administrative.  

I had a senior mentor who was the lead of the environmental compliance audit program. She was a great mentor, but unfortunately, she got the reputation in the agency of being an “enviro-bitch” for really coming down hard on people. It wasn’t taken very well, and she ended up getting fired for it. Then I inherited her position and role.  

I had to figure out how to get respect without being perceived as being aggressive. I had to really learn the art of diplomacy and developing mutual respect, and listening in order to gain trust.  

When I moved to Parks Canada, I found that it can be an old boys’ club, particularly in the mountain parks. But there were some significant changes happening within the agency when I came, and I think Parks Canada is quite advanced in terms of equality in the workplace. I’ve never seen myself lose any positions because I’m a woman.  

I’ve never been a man in the workplace, so I don’t know, but maybe I’ve had to work harder or try to be on top of things more. That’s my nature anyway so I don’t know any different, but I know I’ve always worked hard, and I’ve never been able to coast, but I don’t want to either. 

I can’t speak to any issues that have come up as barriers to me in the workplace because of being a woman but I have had to work extraordinarily hard. When I left my oil and gas position, they had to hire two and a half different people to take on the roles that I was doing. It’s only recently into my year 15 that I’ve really put my foot down in terms of not working overtime on a consistent basis. 

How do you think being a woman has affected your professional journey?

Being in my 40s now, I’ve got a little bit more experience behind me. But if women or men decide that they want to have children, there’s a lot of anxiety. Do you lose options? Do you just disappear off the radar? With both of my children, I was back to work quite quickly. I wish I’d taken some more time. Parks is getting better at accommodating families that have young children. When you’re having kids, there’s a lot of anxiety that comes with work and work life balance, and there should be more recognition of what the long game is, which is potentially a long career with lots of different points for re-inserting yourself once you’re in a good place to do so. 

I would never have done a master’s while raising my first child, now that I know what it was like. I wanted to stay at home, but I also felt a lot of pressure to make those years count and a master’s was a good idea at the time. I’m glad that I did it, but I do wish that I’d just focused on my kid. There are some weird issues in terms of how people without kids look at stay at home parents. We all have to work harder at becoming better people and concertedly putting those types of behaviours down internally.  

Are there gender specific barriers that women working in parks face?  

I’ve seen a large change in parks since I started, in terms of women being seen as capable. I don’t see as much diversity as I’d like to, in the mountain parks in particular. I think that some of it is the nature of where they pull candidates from. I do feel like the mountain parks are a bit more insular than other places in Canada.  

I identify more on the introvert side of the scale and I’ve always felt that Parks Canada in terms of our hiring processes has bias for extroverts. I do think there’s a lot of places for introverted people, especially women and BIPOC in conservation. In our culture in North America, which is focused on self-promotion, there is an exceptional place for people who don’t feel that need to self-promote. I think sometimes we’re made to feel like we’re outsiders, but we have lots to offer. It’s a larger issue with recruitment of Indigenous people within parks, and potentially other ethnicities, because not all cultures are focused on bravado and self-promotion. There’s a lot more humility, particularly in Indigenous cultures. I do think parks hiring practices have to be a bit more considerate of that. 

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Are there barriers to female park goers using facilities?

I think it would be great for parks and protected areas to have programs like how to hike as a woman, how to trip plan, that sort of thing. The British Columbia Wildlife Federation has whole programs dedicated to women learning how to hunt, fish, angle, and compass. Parks and protected areas could follow suit and do something to help empower women to feel safe, and that they’re capable in terms of going into some of these areas on their own. Having a hiking group for women who have small children could also be really great. Programs like that could work towards dispelling some fears of what it’s like to be in the wilderness.  

I think accessing the gear is also an issue and it can be really expensive to get good gear. It would be wonderful if some projects in parks and protected areas had a facility where you could rent equipment. 

Have you seen anything changed for women during your career in conservation?

I see tons of super smart, savvy women scientists both in academia and in conservation and so many powerful First Nations women advancing two-eyed seeing and Indigenous Ways of Knowing. Parks has always been a fairly equal opportunity employer. I think I’ve always worked in a 50/50 split in terms of male and female. But I’ve also seen a difference as the old guard gets older. The biggest change is the nature of young people coming up and the level of sensitivity and awareness people have now. We’re getting a lot of young scientists and people who are really “woke”. That’s really positive and there’s been really great diversity as well. 

Do you have any advice for women wanting to get involved in conservation and advice on how to be successful in leadership positions?

I think you have to just get out there and try. You don’t have to be perfect at things, you don’t have to know everything. As a young female I really thought I had to know everything, so I tried extra hard to try to be versed and well researched. Part of learning is getting that on-the-land experience. No one expects you to be an expert, especially when you’re starting out.  

In terms of leadership, I’ve kind of always taken issue with the coinage of leadership. I think there’s sometimes an interesting perception of what a leader is in parks, and it tends to still be a little bit old school. There’s still a lot of ego caught up in some of the leadership. Some of those leaders could use some readjustment in terms of what their ideas of leadership are, and particularly in terms of active listening instead of always being the one to come up with the ideas or make executive decisions. Sometimes I see leadership presenting the work of their staff as their own. It’s important to make sure credit is given where credit is due, and we let go of some old 1950’s ‘Madman’ style of managing leadership. I think Parks Canada is actively trying to do that with performance management, but it still exists. 

We can’t all be leaders, some of us have to be really strong followers. I think when everybody wants to be a leader, it doesn’t foster collaboration, it fosters competition. I’ve seen more of my role as being a strong follower than as a leader. A lot of my career has been anticipating what my leadership needs so that I can support them, so that we can all support conservation together. 

What are your next steps?

I will be with the South Okanagan file until at least 2022. The park is in negotiations right now, which itself can be a very long process in terms of rights and title and Indigenous governance. In a region like the Okanagan where there’s no treaty, there’s not a lot of trust or respect for government. You’re really developing those relationships from the ground up. If this park does go through and get the support of the local First Nations and we’re able to work through impacted stakeholders’ concerns, I would love to be there to help with the establishment of that new park. 

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