Gender, critical mass, and natural resource co-management in the Yukon.

Author:Staples, Kiri
Position::Yukon Territory - Report

Abstract: Building on the research of White (2008) and Natcher (2013), who identified a paucity of female representation on co-management boards across the Canadian North, the research reported here set out to understand the implications of this gender imbalance for the experiences of women serving on natural resource co-management boards in the Yukon. Broadly speaking, resource co-management boards include a range of different institutional arrangements in which resource users and government come together to share management responsibilities (Yandle 2003). We explored whether critical mass--defined as a specific number or percentage of women necessary to make their participation within an institution effective--is considered by board members themselves to be a critical factor for the way women participate in co-management deliberations. Through semi-structured interviews with current and former board and staff members, our findings indicate that: 1) a majority of board members feel that the representation of women on co-management boards is necessary to the overall effectiveness of board decision making; and 2) women who served on boards with other female members experienced significantly fewer barriers to their participation than when they were the sole female representative. The intent of this article is to offer a practical application of critical mass theory and, more pragmatically, identify ways in which gender can be accounted for more effectively in co-management processes in Canada.


Since the 1970s, the co-management of natural resources has become ubiquitous across the Canadian North. As noted by Natcher (2013), a conservative estimate counts more than forty different co-management boards that now share management and regulatory responsibilities for fish, water, wildlife, and other renewable resources, as well as land use planning. These management regimes have brought resource users together with various levels of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal governments to engage in a more coordinated approach to natural resource management. While definitions abound, resource co-management has generally been defined as "a spectrum of institutional arrangements in which management responsibilities are shared between the users (who may or may not be

community-based) and government" (Yandle 2003, 180). In the Canadian North, many of the existing co-management institutions that have emerged stem from the settlement of comprehensive land claims agreements, which among other outcomes have provided Aboriginal peoples with an influential role in the management of their traditional territories.

Resource co-management has received considerable scholarly attention, particularly in identifying the factors that either facilitate or impede effective collaboration, including power, culture, and epistemological diversity (e.g., Castro and Nielsen 2001; Nadasdy 2003a; Nadasdy 2003b; Natcher, Davis, and Hickey 2005; White 2008). Yet, largely absent from these critiques has been any consideration of gender, with only a few exceptions (Kafarowski 2005, 2009; Natcher 2013). In 2013, an inventory of board memberships conducted by Natcher found that the majority (176/210) of co-management board members in the three northern territories were male. This study, together with data published by White (2008), demonstrates that women have been significantly underrepresented on northern co-management boards. While accounting for the numerical representation of women on co-management boards serves as a necessary starting point, these numbers alone tell us little about what gender imbalance actually means, if anything, to participatory experiences of female board members.

With this article we hope to answer these questions and, by doing so, draw greater attention to the gendered dimensions of resource co-management in Canada. This article focuses specifically on the experiences of co-management board members (past and present) in the Yukon. Among the three northern territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), the Yukon currently has the highest level of female representation (18%) (Natcher 2013). We explore whether critical mass--defined as a specific number or percentage of women necessary to make their participation within an institution effective (Agarwal 2010b)--is considered by board members themselves to be a critical factor for participation and decision making within co-management boards. Approached in this way, our intent is to offer a practical application of critical mass theory and, more pragmatically, identify ways in which gender can be accounted for more effectively in co-management processes in Canada.


An extensive body of research has demonstrated the importance of gender in the context of resource management institutions. Reed and Davidson (2011) propose that gender functions in conjunction with other social structures and processes to influence the type of knowledge, values, and concerns that are brought to the table in community-based natural resource management. These are based on the different roles, responsibilities, and experiences that men and women have within the community in relation to the natural environment (Mikkelsen 2005; Varghese and Reed 2012). For example, Reed and Varghese (2007) show that men are more likely to associate the environment with utilitarian values, whereas women convey stronger support for its intrinsic value. This does not imply that women's perspectives on the environment are homogenous; rather, that gender is one of many social structures that interact to influence the perspectives expressed within resource management.

In the context of resource management institutions that are based in or engage with communities, such as co-management boards, accounting for multiple interests is foundational to determining their effectiveness and institutional sustainability. These institutions require community members to both co-operate and act as a group in regard to a common-pool resource.1 Ensuring that a broad range of needs and values are included in their processes is central to that goal (Agarwal 2010a). However, the engagement of communities in natural resource management does not inherently address inequalities based on gender and other forms of social difference (Reed and Varghese 2007). More broadly, the gender composition of public bodies can influence how they function and the decisions they make. For example, research has linked the presence of women within government bodies to decreased corruption (Swamy et al. 2001), and their presence within natural resource management groups to improved collaboration, solidarity, and conflict resolution (Westermann, Ashby, and Pretty 2005).

A crucial component of the existing literature on gender representation and participation is the concept of critical mass. Much of the literature pertaining to critical mass can be found in business, education, and politics sources, with less application in environmental management research (Richardson et al. 2011). Regardless of the specific context, Kanter (1977) argued that anything below 15% female representation should be considered little more than tokenism, and a minimum of 30% female representation is needed for institutions to perform most effectively (Acharya 2006). While this specific percentage has been debated, the generally agreed upon threshold of women's representation for effective participation is around one-quarter to one-third (Richardson et al. 2011). In cases where this critical mass or threshold is not reached, women can, because of their minority representation, be subjected to marginalization and made to feel "invisible" in decision-making processes (Westermann et al. 2005). In cases where critical mass is reached or surpassed, more supportive institutional environments are created in which women can overcome potential reticence and speak out on issues and concerns in the presence of supportive female colleagues (Agarwal 2010, 99). Through the enhanced representation of women, it is argued, natural resource management is improved through collaboration, group solidarity, and a genuine willingness among members to resolve conflicts (Westermann et al. 2005, 1795). Broome (2011), however, urges some caution by suggesting that critical mass alone will not lead to greater equity, or more informed management outcomes, in cases where societal inequalities pervade. Rather, the numeric increases of traditionally underrepresented groups can result in heightened levels of discriminatory behaviour. Consequently, the relationship between critical mass and effective...

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