Conservation Spotlight Diversity in Science Environment

Why Are Environmental Fields Among the Least Diverse?

By Kathleen Apakupakul

So many of us care about the environment and conserving biological diversity that we make it our life’s work. However, the vast majority of those entrenched in the environmental movement are white. There is a greater percentage of ethnic minorities employed in the general science and engineering workforce than there are in the environmental sector. Why is it then, that there are so few minorities working in green jobs, and what can account for this lack of diversity?

Why is this important?

There have been many calls to include diverse perspectives to resolve complex issues such as biodiversity and natural resource conservation, particularly in light of the common pool of ecosystem services and different kinds of value they provide. Complex problems require innovative solutions and openness to new ideas, and that includes the insight that particular groups, especially those most familiar with the environments in which they live, can bring to the table. As a result, an increase in diversity improves decision making and can also help organizations build membership. Conservation affects everyone’s quality of life, and we need to make sure that everyone has a voice.

First, let’s acknowledge that significant strides have been made in improving gender equity in the environmental field, which is an improvement, although more work remains to be done. However, the gains have mostly gone to white women. The current state of racial diversity lags far behind gender diversity.¹ There is a common misconception that People of Color (POC) are not interested in environmental issues. However, a 2018 study found that both whites and non-whites underestimated the environmental concerns held by minorities, and despite being perceived as the least environmentally concerned, all minority groups surveyed reported higher environmental concern than white people surveyed.²

According to a 2018 study from the EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment, POC are more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air, where they are exposed to more particulate matter than whites. The same report showed that the rates of heart disease and asthma in children living in these areas are double those of white children.³ A report by the Interdisciplinary Clinic at the Washington University School of Law corroborates this scenario,⁴ demonstrating that black people in St. Louis are more exposed to environmental risks including air pollution, lead poisoning, living in neighborhoods that receive the most illegally dumped trash, and are more limited in healthy food options than white St. Louisans.⁵ It’s clear to see why minorities would report higher concern for environmental issues. Given that this is the case, why don’t we see more POC in green jobs?

Despite increasing diversity in the United States, the racial composition in environmental institutions has remained low at 12% to 16%, in what has been described as a “green ceiling”.¹ For example, while African Americans compose 13% of the US population, they made up only 2.8% of the nation’s total environmental science degree recipients in 2016, making environmental science among the least diverse fields of study.⁶ A seminal report on the State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, published in 2014 by Dr. Dorceta Taylor of the University of Michigan and the nonprofit group Green 2.0, looked into these issues and addressed a number of barriers:¹

Why do POC not enter environmental fields?

  • Cost. College and graduate school are expensive, so if there are few available environmental fellowships, the education required becomes cost-prohibitive.

  • Lack of opportunity. Many minorities don’t view environmental science as a field in which they can find a job and therefore are deterred from making the investment in education and training. Some who have gone through environmental internships reported feeling unprepared to find jobs post-internship, or reported lacking the skills needed to find a job in the competitive field of conservation.

  • Lack of relevance to communities of color. POC are most directly impacted by environmental hazards and crises but are not the ones in environmental fields making decisions that might mitigate these issues. Many issues that do impact POC have been categorized as environmental justice issues but have not been incorporated within mainstream environmentalism itself. In addition, large mainstream environmental groups historically have overlooked predominantly minority neighborhoods and instead have spent time advocating for outdoor recreation programs and policies that do not address the needs of minority communities.

  • Poorly executed recruitment. Environmental jobs continue to be advertised and new employees recruited in ways that facilitate the replication of the current workforce and introduce unconscious biases. In addition, while environmental organizations claim that the biggest barriers to hiring minorities are few job openings and lack of minority applicants, they do not use the internship pathway effectively to find minority workers. Environmental organizations are not adequately reaching out to groups representing POC communities even though POC support environmental protection at a higher rate than whites.

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Photo: Bmantha (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why do environmental fields have a hard time retaining POC?

  • POC may find it difficult to stay in the field due to unconscious bias as well as subtle and overt instances of racism. Some interns have reported difficulty with microaggressions and discrimination in their internships, whether it be from the local community, co-workers, clients, or supervisors.

  • Loneliness and/or isolation. Feelings of alienation can be acute, particularly for minority student interns, in a working environment where no one looks like them or has a similar background. This is made worse if fellow colleagues don’t know or are not helpful when there are instances of racism. In addition, tokenism has placed the heavy burden and expectation on minority employees to be the sole representative of their ethnic group to their colleagues.

  • Efforts to attract and retain talented POC have been lackluster across the environmental movement. Even when efforts have been made to recruit POC, the workplace culture does not adjust to ensure that POC thrive in their jobs but instead stop trying once some quota of diversity is reached.

  • Lack of support from coworkers and supervisors. This includes lack of opportunities to practice and learn new skills and to do a variety of tasks on site.

Working Toward Long-Term Diversity and Inclusion

Earlier this year, many organizations released statements in support of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Some, such as the St. Louis local chapter of the Sierra Club, have been galvanized to reevaluate their work culture and have made an earnest attempt to address systemic racism, increase diversity and inclusion initiatives, and foment change within their organizations, in a region where environmental groups employ few POC even though blacks and other minorities make up a quarter of the metro area’s population.⁷ While many environmental groups lack experience engaging with minority communities and consist of largely white staff, these institutions are beginning to realize the importance of listening to minority groups and their environmental concerns and to hire from within those communities.

The mission of the Greening Youth Foundation (GYF), a nonprofit based in Atlanta, is to engage under-represented youth and young adults while connecting them to the outdoors and careers in conservation. GYF offers internship programs in conservation, but to date only 11% of overall interns have found full-time employment in conservation after their internships ended. To find out why, GYF collaborated with students from Brigham Young University to distribute a survey asking previous interns about their GYF internship and current experience in conservation, or lack thereof. In their final report published in April 2020 called “The Green Stop Sign,” they indicated that underrepresentation in conservation was a consideration for interns, but they faced more technical challenges to finding employment.⁸

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Mapping the Makarda by Nick Thake, Australian Institute of Marine Science (CC BY 3.0 AU)

So what can organizations do?

Based on the results and recommendations from the reports and surveys published by Green 2.0 and GYF, there are some ways that organizations can work toward creating, maintaining, and promoting a more diverse green workforce. Regarding recruitment, much of which occurs at the undergraduate level, the following strategies were proposed:

  • Development of a mentorship program to combat loneliness and isolation in internship programs

  • Redirect recruitment from predominantly internal networking to reach POC, including job fairs to combat lack of job opportunities in conservation

  • Within organizations that match interns to programs, designate a staff member to ensure the success of the intern in the program

  • Distribution of an annual survey to POC intern alums to monitor patterns in recruitment and retention and provide feedback to inform future practices

  • Offer opportunities of scholarships, paid internships, fellowships, and travel to conferences to low income students

Not only do organizations need to hire more POC, they also need to make work cultures more inclusive. This requires recognition that POC bring a different perspective to the table, one that may differ from the status quo but provides valuable insight, nonetheless. Without a supportive environment, it will be difficult for these organizations to retain talented POC employees. For those few minorities who are the first of their group to join an environmental workforce made up mostly of whites, it can be intimidating to challenge the mainstream culture.⁷ Key to overcoming this barrier is to listen and be open to different perspectives of POC on staff. In addition, efforts to alleviate racism and unconscious biases should not fall on POC alone. Organizations should invest in resources to educate white staff to understand where their biases originate and where their ignorance may lie. The following factors⁹ were found to be important for the retention and promotion of POC in the environmental movement:

  • Having a top-level leader (CEO or president-level) and organization that practices Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Social Justice (DEIJ) values

  • Ensuring employee perceptions of fairness in Development, Evaluation, and Promotion (DEP) practices and increasing pay transparency

  • Including DEIJ in the strategic planning process and in the mission, vision, and values of the organization

  • Creating a diversity committee within the organization

  • Increasing employee development, ensuring equal access to all

  • Developing long-term DEIJ goals and developing metrics around DEIJ

  • Amplifying voices of those less well represented and ensuring all perspectives are heard

Some environmental organizations are making this happen right now.

While issues of DEIJ are on our radar these days, it’s a good idea to look towards those who have been working to make a difference. In addition to GYF and Green 2.0, examples of programs championing this cause and working toward a more inclusive conservation movement include:

  • The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, prepares undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds to be future leaders in conservation through intensive training over two summers of a paid internship.

  • The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) advances the careers of minorities in STEM and organizes a science conference that features science by minorities.

  • The Tennessee Aquarium provides an 11 week paid diversity fellowship to minority students with the goal of empowering conservation-minded students to develop solutions to complex conservation challenges and gain valuable hands-on work experience.

A main finding of one Green 2.0 report was that good leadership for diversity and inclusion was found to be good leadership for everyone.⁹ An important thing to remember is to keep the conversation going, to ensure the success and promotion of POC in the environmental movement, and with a greater range of minds and voices and more people pulling together, we will be working toward a greener world for all.


1 Taylor, D.E. 2014. The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. Green 2.0

2 Pearson, A.R., Schuldt, J.P., Romero-Canvas, R., Ballew, M.T., and D. Larson-Konar. 2018. Diverse segments of the US public underestimate the environmental concerns of minority and low-income Americans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(49): 12429–12434. doi:

3 Mikati, I., Benson, A.F., Luben, T.J., Sacks, J.D., and J. Richmond-Bryant. 2018. Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status. American Journal of Public Health 108(4) 480–485. doi:

4 Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, Washington University School of Law. 2019. Environmental Racism in St. Louis

5 Chen, E. 13 Aug 2020. “Environmental Groups Say They Support Black People But Struggle To Advocate For Them”. St. Louis Public Radio

6 Ruf, J. 16 Feb 2020. “Why Environmental Studies is Among the Least Diverse Fields in STEM”. Diverse Issues in Higher Education

7 Chen, E. 14 Aug 2020. “Activists Of Color in St. Louis Find It Hard To Fit Into The Environmental Movement.” St. Louis Public Radio

8 Greening Youth Foundation. April 2020. The Green Stop Sign: Diversity and Inclusion Survey Results.

9 Johnson, S. 2019. Leaking Talent: How People of Color are Pushed Out of Environmental Organizations. Green 2.0

Additional Readings

Foster, M., Blair, M.E., Bennett, C., Bynum, N., and E.J. Sterling. Increasing the Diversity of U.S. Conservation Science Professionals via the Society for Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology 28(1): 288–291.

Smith, N.S., Côte, I.M., Martinez-Estevez, L., Hind-Ozan, E.J., Quiros, A.L., Johnson, N., Green, S.J., Cornick, L., Shiffman, D., Malpica-Cruz, L., Gleason Besch, A., and N. Shiel-Rolle. 2017. Diversity and Inclusion in Conservation: A Proposal for a Marine Diversity Network. Frontiers in Marine Science 4: 234. doi:

Tallis, H. and J. Lubchenco. 2014. Working together: A call for inclusive conservation. Nature 515: 27–28. doi:10.1038/515027a

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Cover photo: “Discovery Park” by Seattle Parks & Recreation (CC BY 2.0)