International Women’s Day: ‘We have to walk the talk’

With over three decades of experience in conservation and sustainable development, Dr. Grethel Aguilar was appointed as Director General of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in October 2023. She has long been engaged in the championing of gender equality in conservation. In the light of International Women’s Day, IUCN NL spoke with Dr. Aguilar about her ingrained passion for gender equality and IUCN’s progress and ambitions in investing in the inclusion and leadership of women in all their diversity. ‘We have to walk the talk.’

Header photo: Dr. Grethel Aguilar (c) IUCN

Grethel Aguilar does not see her continued drive for equality across the globe as something she has chosen: ‘It’s not just something that I do, it’s part of who I am, especially as a woman. I’ve always thought that the diversity of people that exist in the world is what makes us beautiful as a civilisation. If we do not respect those differences, we will never be able to reach our targets, for conservation but also for human well-being.’ 

Representing women

This value is what drove Aguilar to study law. ‘My first job was with Indigenous peoples, in a part of Costa Rica called Talamanca. I had just graduated and thought I was going to help them to defend their rights. But instead, they gave me much more than I could have ever given them. They showed me the need to live as one with nature, in ways that I had never even imagined.’

‘As much as we want to believe that we are progressing, we are definitely not yet where we need to be in terms of equality.’

Grethel Aguilar, Director General IUCN

Throughout her career, Aguilar has seen the diverse challenges that women all around the world have to confront. ‘As much as we want to believe that we are progressing, we are definitely not yet where we need to be in terms of equality. But instead of making me sad, it actually gives me a lot of motivation to keep pushing and supporting other women, especially from the position that I am now in. I have the responsibility to do things well so that other women on this planet feel proud and see the possibilities for them. I also must ensure, with my actions, that women get a seat at the table and that their voices are heard.’

About Dr. Grethel Aguilar

Dr. Grethel Aguilar, born in Costa Rica, assumed office as Director General of IUCN in October 2023. Aguilar has over thirty years of experience in conservation and sustainable development, having worked extensively on developing and applying environmental law and policy in collaboration with governments and civil society. In particular, she is deeply passionate about the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities and has pushed for the inclusion of their knowledge and experience in mainstream conservation policy.

Through her work in field projects, Aguilar has helped communities access clean water, advocated environmental justice, assisted Indigenous peoples in obtaining rights to their natural resources, and championed gender equality in environmental governance.

Advancing gender equality in conservation

Although the advancement of gender equality has now moved to the core of the conservation and environmental agenda, this has not always been the case. IUCN’s commitment to gender equality started at least 20 years ago, in 2004, when IUCN’s members approved a resolution establishing gender equity as a mandate in the strategic activities and themes of IUCN. This was followed in 2018 by IUCN’s gender equality and women’s empowerment policy. ‘Since then, we have taken actions towards making gender equality an integral part of the IUCN Programme and how we work around the globe,’ Aguilar explains. ‘But it’s not just about the number of women that work for your organisation, it’s about what positions they hold and whether their contributions are empowered and recognised.’

This is why Aguilar sees her appointment as Director General last October as a pivotal moment: ‘I am very proud to have been selected, I’m from Costa Rica, and the president of IUCN – Razan Al Mubarak – is from West Asia. We are both from very different parts of the world, and I’m sure that IUCN will progress a lot with the two of us. With 2 women in IUCN’s highest positions, this is a good moment in our history,’ Aguilar says.

Although she has seen improvements and changes over the course of her career, Aguilar underlines that we still have a long way to go: ‘We have won some claims and made some progress, but there is definitely a lot to do still.’ She points out the prediction from the World Economic Forum that states that the global gender gap is expected to close as late as 2154 [1]Source: ; the same trend is visible within the environmental sector. IUCN has analysed the number of women in leading environmental ministries for the past nine years, and though there has been progress, IUCN states it has been incremental and too slow [2]Source:

‘As women, we really need to help each other if we want to succeed. I have been very lucky to have had women supporting me throughout my life, I come from a family of strong women and have also had much support from other women in my professional life.’

Grethel Aguilar, Director General IUCN


Aguilar stresses the importance of women helping women. ‘You might call it sisterhood. We really need this if we want to succeed. I have been very lucky to have had women supporting me throughout my life, I come from a family of strong women and have also had much support from other women in my professional life.’ She recounts an example from when she was a law student: ‘I was working in addition to studying. When exams were coming up, female colleagues offered to take over some of my work so I could do well in my exams. That show of solidarity has stayed with me since.’

Gender-based violence and the environment

In its work around the globe, IUCN encountered that women and girls are the target of a lot of injustice and harassment in the context of natural resource management. After releasing a publication about this link between gender and the environment, IUCN established the Gender-Based Violence and Environment Linkages Centre in 2020. ‘I am very proud that we have this centre,’ Aguilar says. ‘It works to address multiple and perhaps overlapping forms of gender-based violence in the context of climate change and biodiversity loss. We aim to support women in improving their conditions, through knowledge products, training and technical support. And we also aim our efforts at boys and men.’

Invest in women

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘invest in women’, a goal that clearly resonates with Aguilar. ‘I actually have been pushing for this, we now have a special programme that supports female leaders who work for IUCN. It provides a system of mutual support for female heads of units and directors to help accelerate their performance and that of their teams. But we are also providing additional training to women in leadership positions.’

IUCN also has an internal group that works on policies and procedures for an inclusive workforce, as well as gender focal points in its country and regional offices. IUCN staff all around the world, as well as IUCN members and commission experts will soon have access to a course about why gender matters for environmental action.

Aguilar also mentions IUCN’s work to encourage participation of women and civil society leaders in international discussions. ‘At the UNFCCC COP28 last November, we supported six young women from the Global South to participate in the IUCN delegation. We worked with them throughout the conference, which was very valuable.’ Aguilar concludes: ‘We will continue to do these things, because we have to walk the talk.’

Frederique Holle
Expert Environmental Justice