Animal activism is a boys’ club. Silicon Valley could change that

The vegan way.
The vegan way.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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For champions of animal rights, the last five years have been good ones.

The rise of plant-based milk has captured consumers’ imaginations, as have high-tech plant-based meats made by the likes of startups Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. There are more than 30 cell-cultured meat companies across the globe, a handful of them within striking distance of getting the first slaughter-free meat to market. And campaigns to push the egg industry into going cage-free found major victories in California, Massachusetts, as well as in major food corporations.

Nestled between those victories, though, is a lingering issue. Most of the people who take credit for these startups, advances, and victories have something in common: The vast majority of them are white men. Like many spheres of American culture, the animal rights movement is grappling with a gender imbalance.

The two leading US plant-based meat startup companies are run by white men. The majority of the rising cell-cultured meat startups are also run by men, as are most of the vegan venture capitalist groups that fund them. The leader of the preeminent organization that represents the interests of both, The Good Food Institute, is also a white man.

Studies have shown that the animal welfare movement is propelled in large part by vegan activists, and it has been estimated that some 79% are women. Yet often, the female activists that play an integral role in the biggest achievements of the movement have gone unrecognized. That’s been the case for decades, according to activists and academics who’ve studied animal rights activism, and early signs show the pattern is being perpetuated in Silicon Valley startups aligned with the mission.

Erica Meier, for one, leads a watchdog group called Animal Outlook, which gets the undercover, boots-on-the-ground activists into dairy farms, slaughterhouses, egg barns, and feedlots to collect images and video footage of how animals are treated. By leading investigations of factory farms, Meier’s teams gather the opposition research that can compel the public to vote for animal-friendly laws.

It isn’t hard to find stories that reference the men behind some of these efforts. But Meier’s name, along with many female voices in the movement, often remain conspicuously absent.

Now, though, as animal welfare groups recast their priorities in a post-#MeToo era, and as the public grows to accept new food technologies offering alternatives to animal protein, the animal rights movement has an opportunity to double-down and improve its internal culture.

Undervalued and unacknowledged

In research published by the journal Social Movement Studies in January 2019, researchers reviewed at least six studies that explored the subject of animal rights activist burnout. Within each of those studies were interviews with activists, including one who described being “treated kind of like a charming but benign presence,” who was often “spoken over” while male activists took credit for her ideas. Others interviewed described the work environment as “bro culture” built around language that “does not translate at all to women.”

To be sure, not all of these organizations are dominated by men. Ingrid Newkirk remains the president of PETA 40 years after she helped found it in 1980. Still, the broader culture of the movement remains a thorny thicket through which women have to navigate.

Christie Lagally, an aerospace engineer who left Boeing to start a plant-based chicken company, Rebellyous Foods, in 2017, can relate. She’s spent time volunteering at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and she co-founded The Humane Voters of Washington. “It’s the daily grind of going to a conference and saying what you believe is the truth about the industry and then having it credited to somebody else who restated it an hour later,” she says. “That’s happened to me.”

It can be exhausting, working within that environment. And over time, that dynamic has forced some women out, says Tracye McQuirter, a longtime vegan advocate based in Washington, DC. “I had a friend who worked with [an animal welfare organization] and who became a refugee…because of the sexism and racism there,” she says.

In some instances, these cases of sexism wind up leading to more serious allegations. In February 2018, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle resigned after an internal investigation identified three complaints of sexual harassment against him, as well as evidence that high-level female leaders had warned of his behavior but were ignored. Pacelle has denied any wrongdoing.

In the wake of the scandal, long-time HSUS activist Kitty Block was named president, the first woman to hold the position since the organization’s founding in 1954. Since the leadership change, women have come to make up the majority—at least 65%—of the top roles at HSUS. Thirteen out of 20 people listed among the organization’s leadership are women.

“A good leader is someone who empowers others and helps people be the best they can be,” Block says, highlighting the need to be inclusive.

Meier, Lagally, and Block all say they have seen some positive change in the last two years. More women have stepped into leadership roles, and not just at HSUS. But there’s still more work to be done to root out systemic bias.

The gold rush

While work is ongoing to correct gender imbalances within long-running non-profit advocacy organizations, a second front is emerging in Silicon Valley. The rise of plant-based and cell-cultured meat alternative startups has created a new way to tackle animal welfare issues—but it also presents the same sort of gendered challenges that exist across society.

Most of the CEOs of these companies are vegan activists themselves, people who embraced the idea that the animal welfare movement could use capitalism to decrease the number of animals killed for food. And yet, that new crop of startups has been described as a ‘boys’ club,’ in which everyone knows everyone else (and in some cases their friendships stretch back decades). The biggest names in the meat alternative space are all led by men—a list that includes Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, JUST, Memphis Meats, Mission Barns, Finless Foods, BlueNalu, Quorn, and many others.

The rise is also something of a gold rush, says McQuirter. “There is money to be made and the machine says young white boys get this money,” she says. There are a few startups launched and run by women, but the number is low—mimicking the makeup of the animal rights non-profit world a few years ago.

If leadership doesn’t represent the values of its main consumers, the products are not going to reflect those values, either. But if these startups make a concerted effort to make some of the same changes the non-profit groups have made—and more—it would arguably strengthen the cultures within and around the companies.

McQuirter has been involved with the vegan movement since the 1980s. She came up within a strong black vegan community, one that has long been talking about the intersectional issues (animal welfare, good nutrition, and social justice) that are only now at the forefront of conversations within the mainstream movement, which has long alienated people of color, as well as women.

“The realization that many white women and men are having now, we already had,” she says. “But we did not have the funding to create these national organizations—but if we did, just imagine how much further along the animal rights movement would be.”

Still, there are a hardscrabble group of entrepreneurial female entrepreneurs who are wading into the food technology space, elbows out.

“There are very specific reasons that women don’t take leadership roles,” says Lagally. “It’s what I call ‘women being punished for being essentially right and female at the same time.’”

Lagally dealt with it by creating her own company, one with a leadership team that is primarily female. And that’s how other women have broken out, too.

Michele Simon created and increased the membership of the Bay Area-based Plant Based Foods Association. Jess Krieger co-founded cell-cultured meat startup Artemys Foods. And Isha Datar is pioneering the cellular agriculture field through the influential support that her diverse non-profit organization, New Harvest, provides to researchers.

Even still, the playing field isn’t even for women in Silicon Valley, either. That much is acknowledged by Josh Balk, who leads the HSUS efforts around farm animal protection and co-founded San Francisco-based JUST in 2011 with his activist friend, Josh Tetrick. “It’s more challenging for women to raise money in the start-up world,” Balk says. He has no equity in the company today, but he’s still closely involved with the people in it.

When young women approach McQuirter today about joining animal rights organizations, she never advises them to shy away from them. She cautions, though, that they should have a community of people outside of work that they can “go to, and talk to, and breathe with.” The same rule applies for women looking to work within the Silicon Valley-driven animal welfare ecosystem.

“Call it discrimination or call it bias, but you’re constantly fighting it day in and day out,” Lagally says, even with an optimistic eye on the future.