Deb Markowitz: Bringing Women to the Fore in Environmental Work

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Deb Markowitz, director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts.

Deborah Markowitz
Deb Markowitz, courtesy of Deb Markowitz

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I come to the position of director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts after a long career in public service. I was in my mid-30s, with three very young children when I was first elected Vermont’s Secretary of State. After serving for 12 years, I ran for Governor of Vermont, and although I lost the primary election by less than 500 votes, the person who won appointed me to serve as his environmental secretary. From this experience I learned a couple of things. First, if you stay grounded in mission and purpose, you can withstand the ups and downs of ones’ career. Second, nothing great is ever accomplished alone. Ask for help, cultivate trusted partners, and use your power and privilege to lift others.  

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Our planet faces the dual crises of a rapidly changing climate and biodiversity loss. Massachusetts is on the front line of climate impacts, with sea level rise, extreme weather and heat waves, coastal storm surges, and floods. And, every year, thousands of acres of land that provide critical habitat for threatened species is lost to development and degradation. But I am optimistic that working together, we can meet these challenges.

Now, more than ever, we understand our interconnection with nature and the importance of a healthy environment to our wellbeing and the success of our communities. At TNC, we are leading the way with on the ground, scalable solutions that use the power of nature to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

I have been deeply impressed by the way people have come together across Massachusetts, even as we became socially distanced from COVID.  During the pandemic each one of us made personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. I am hopeful that this same ethos will enable us to turn the tide on the environmental crises of our time.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

What excites me about TNC is that, as a global organization, we think at a global scale, even as our work touches down locally. Everything we do is grounded in science, and we think about our work and deploy our resources in ways that recognize that ecosystems and environmental problems don’t end at state lines. We are also always looking to scale solutions. As a practical matter, this means that it is not enough that each of our individual projects stands up on its own. We use what we learn to inform our global science network, and our ultimate focus is on scaling long lasting solutions to the toughest environmental problems we are facing on our warming planet.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Being a woman in leadership roles for going on 30 years has meant running into many people who aren’t used to working with women in positions of authority. I can’t even count the number of times I was the only woman at the table, or that I was told that my greatest asset was my smile, or when I was called by my first name while my male colleagues was addressed by their title. It’s frustrating, of course, but it also taught me that I could be both tough and gracious. As a result of my experiences, I have committed myself to helping other women succeed. One of my greatest pleasures has been to see my many mentees grow into capable, empathetic and empowered leaders who are making a real difference in the world. 

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?

Quite simply, money talks. Foundations and individual donors can support gender equity by demanding that organizations they support with their philanthropy, and the financial institutions that manage their funds, have women in leadership positions, from the boardroom to the C-suite. It is just as important for this standard to apply to racial equity. There is mounting evidence that organizations that incorporate a diversity of perspectives and experiences are more effective in achieving their goals. So, when philanthropic supporters set a high bar for gender and racial inclusion, this not only helps to create a more equitable society, but it can also lead to improved organizational outcomes.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

It’s not enough to have women at the table. We must have women at the head of the table, setting the agenda, allocating resources and innovating. In the next decade, I expect to see more women, and in particular, women of color, in highly-visible leadership roles. I expect that the voice of authority will no longer be reserved for white men. That, in turn, can have a powerful influence over the unconscious bias we all share that has made it so difficult for women and people of color to achieve the highest positions of leadership.

More on Deb Markowitz:

Deb Markowitz is the State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. She was elected Vermont’s Secretary of State six times, serving from 1999-2011. After running for Governor of Vermont in 2010 and narrowly losing in the primary election, Markowitz was appointed Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) in 2011, where she served until 2017.

Before joining The Nature Conservancy, Markowitz served as the vice president of programs at Ceres, overseeing the organization’s Climate and Energy, Water, Food and Forest, and Capital Market System programs. Before that, she taught environmental policy and leadership at the University of Vermont and was the Director of Policy Outreach at the Gund Institute of Environment.

Deb Markowitz has been recognized nationally with a Lifetime Achievement Award from EPA, Region 1; an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellowship; and the Kennedy School of Governments’ Cahn Fellowship in Public Leadership. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Georgetown University Law Center, magna cum laude, and received a Certificate in Public Leadership from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.   

This interview has been minimally edited.

In The News

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at

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