Interview with Kristine Zeigler: Climate Leadership — Gender Balance Matters

To cap our month of featuring women leaders, we interviewed Kristine Zeigler, CEO of the new organization Planet Women. This is the second article featuring Kristine, previously we published, “It’s Time To Put Women in Charge Of Saving The Planet.

Lisa Cloete (LC): Kristine, thank you for joining us.  Your mission is to ‘combine the best elements of conservation with a radical new approach to leadership and work culture to build a stronger and more inclusive environmental movement, through investing in women-focused, women-led solutions’. Based on this:

1. Why women?

Kristine Zeigler (KZ): That’s a great question. What we noticed in our research while we were preparing a concept for a potential new organization (this is before we even knew we wanted to launch Planet Women) was that in the United States the leadership of our environmental movement, and especially at the bigger NGOs, was predominantly male. We looked at the environment from a pretty wide lens of NGOs, including government agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and different state agencies and we started looking at the funders who fund environmental projects and across the board the statistics are really stark that at least 75% of all those organizations are run by men. Meaning that women are really not part of the of the top management running these organizations. A lot of women are moving into the c-suite and are really gaining some decision-making authority and some control over resources within organizations, but they are still not running them.

So this got us to wondering. The results that we are seeing on the Paris Climate Accord around freshwater or pollution, in climate change, biodiversity and/or soil health are not great. And by all indications we are not meeting any targets set by any inter-governmental bodies. Yet, due to us not being balanced in leadership, women are not sharing in the responsibility of creating and driving better solutions.

We think that women are, in this moment in humanity’s history, a key part of the solution. We need women’s voices. So, we are focusing on them as a marginalized community. Women of color in particular are not in enough decision-making roles, in the US especially. White women (like me) are rising in the ranks and do have the ability to eventually become CEOs (and we do have a woman CEO on our board), but by and large, we are kind of leaving out half of the human population in figuring out solutions to the issues we face.  Having balanced teams would make for better solutions. And that balance needs to include gender, race, class, sexuality—a full spectrum of diverse perspectives.

Research in the corporate sector shows that when you have balanced teams—teams that are gender, generational and race-balanced—that they make better decisions and they make more money. Now, we are not trying to make more money at Planet Women, but we know that that kind of research is a powerful motivator for the for-profit sector to change. In countries like Norway or states like California, there are laws that you have to have more women on boards.

So this is the ‘why women?’ It’s not that women are super heroes or that they are better than men or that they have something that men don’t. There are plenty of men that have feminine qualities and there are plenty of women who have masculine qualities too. But the blend of them together—bringing together a diversity of perspectives and experiences—produces better environmental outcomes that benefit everyone.

When you are breathing toxic air every day, like we are in California right now with the wildfires, it reminds you that the stakes are so high. Wouldn’t it be really nice to have a future where anyone could go outside and enjoy the air in their community? This is achievable in the coming decades through balanced leadership.

2. Why do you think women have been historically so marginalized in the conservation arena?

KZ: Conservation, at least in the US, has largely been about land acquisition and land protection. (I’m being really generic because it’s no longer defined by that anymore.) And the history of land acquisitions and land buying and selling has been dominated by men. Not because women don’t like to do land- and real estate-related deals, but because those institutions and those systems had men running them for centuries—and women were not given equal access. In many countries, women still do not have equal rights to own or inherit land.

Many systems and institutions, like land ownership and finance, have been predominantly male-led–particularly by white men here in the United States. Whether they consciously intend it or not, white men (and white women) benefit from these systems. That can be a blinder for those in power, so they do not see that that marginalization isn’t healthy for the entire system.

I don’t think anyone in the conservation movement set out to marginalize women. But now we are finally starting to see that there is an imbalance in leadership and decision-making that doesn’t feel right and that the results for our environment and our society aren’t as good as we need them to be.

I think it’s systemic oppression and patriarchy for the most part that have been the problem, but there is a recognition of that now. So I am hopeful that now that we can name it and that now that we can feel uncomfortable about it, that we can talk about it and get trained on how to be anti-racist, anti-oppression and be more feminist and against sexism. I think we stand a chance because even as recently as 5 years ago we weren’t having these conversations so openly.

3. If empowering women will bring about better solutions for conservation to ensure resilience for communities and nature, how can N4J help?

KZ: Well you already do! First of all one of the most valuable assets any of us can have is connection. We are seeing during COVID that the only thing getting us through is connection. Whether its over zoom, or a phone call or a text message or even a hand-written letter. Connection is energy and that energy and support and allyship gives you more confidence, more resources, more motivation and more ability to stay focused and to keep addressing that issue that makes you angry and gives you a reason to get up in the morning and gives you a sense of ‘we need to right this wrong.’

And there are days when there simply is not enough energy because we are all tired and we have to stop working on something to take care of our bodies and souls. Having to be able to respond to all the incoming emails and all the requests that the world still wants from you takes energy too.

So having an ally like N4J that is in lockstep with us on building a world that is more socially just, that benefits us all through a healthy ecosystem…just knowing you’re there is already enough. It really goes a long way and it may not seem like much, but the connection and the willingness to just say “We’re here.” “What do you need?” “Where can we be helpful?” is huge!

If we can give each other financial resources, we should do that and if we can elevate each other we should do that. It’s as simple sometimes as just reaching out and helping each other navigate our journey. I feel you have already helped us so much and been so amazing.

LC: Thank you! We are so grateful for the work you do as well at Planet Women, Kristine. We are stronger knowing that there are organizations such as yours that do the work you do to ensure a better world for all.


  • Lisa Cloete

    As the Creative Advisor and Lead Storyteller, Lisa comes to Nature for Justice passionate about restoring and protecting our natural world and with a wide range of experience in the creative world of storytelling. She has worked in the art industry, publishing, education and literary fields. She has also worked in Communications for an ocean-based NGO and run’s her own small social media campaign for beach clean ups in her city in South Africa.

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