SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) — Many experts have called 2018 the year of the woman; with the Me Too movement, Time’s Up movement, women’s marches and more – you can see why.
But you may be surprised to find out the San Diego Zoo is at the forefront of female empowerment. In fact, so many women have sustained successful careers there, the zoo is actually now looking to hire men – but it wasn’t always that way.
On any given day, you can walk through the San Diego Zoo and the majority of keepers and trainers you'll see are women.
Keeper April Schwartz recalls her first day 12 years ago.
"We had six men, there was 18 of us, now there's only two, so the dynamic has changed,” said April.
Not just the dynamic has changed, the entire zoo culture has shifted. The zoo industry nationwide used to be dominated by men - mostly former military.
"Times have really changed,” said Joan Embery.
Joan was one of the first keepers to tap - and eventually help break - the glass ceiling. She landed a job at the zoo in the 1970s. When she applied for her job with the zoo, she was the only woman in UC Davis’s veterinarian program.
"There were only two jobs for women - you could be a secretary, or you could work in the nursery at Children’s Zoo, because women were good with children and babies, that was it,” said Joan.
Keepers, curators, managers, directors – all other titles then were reserved for men.
"They would basically exclude you from social situations, not give you a lot of input and sometimes they would be pretty bullying,” Janet Hawes.
Slowly over time, that began to change, as women like Joan and Janet proved their worth.
"It was scary for me; I wasn't that experienced,” said Joan. “I remember thinking all the time, ‘I cannot make a mistake. I have to do everything right. I have to do everything the men do."
Embery became the zoo's goodwill ambassador earning praise from her superiors and warming hearts across America while making regular appearances alongside Johnny Carson.
"I tried hard to get along with everybody, to pull my weight and to be good at what I did,” Joan said.
On the outside, the women were strong - but inside there were struggles.
"I felt a little hazed. I felt a little embarrassed. I felt a little awkward, but I'm still here,” said Janet.
By staying and fighting for a career they dreamed of, they ultimately made dreams come true for today's women.
"The women have really stepped up,” said Joan. “They're doing a great job and it’s great to see women out there."
"For me, this is it this is, what I've always wanted to do,” April.
In this vintage News 8 footage from 1975 Joan Embery is seen leading led Carol the elephant to a ribbon-cutting for the San Diego Wild Animal Park's new "bridge of birds." The park was later renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which it is known by today.