PRESIDENT AND CEO | Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
A room full of men does not intimidate Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for 28 years. “I have no problem being the only woman in a room, and it’s because of the environment I grew up in,” she says.
Her self-confidence as well as her love of animals started early. “I grew up surrounded by cows, horses, pigs and other creatures on a farm in North Carolina — with three brothers.” She currently lives on a farm with her husband in Indiana Township.
“My parents, God bless them, treated us all the same,” she says. The siblings all worked in the fields of their tobacco farm as kids. “I did carpentry, one of my brothers did welding, car repair, tooland-die kind of stuff so we each learned different skills [on the farm]. I think my management style is probably very similar to a man’s because of it.”
At last count there were 22 women presidents/CEOs of zoos out of more than 300 zoos and aquariums in the U.S. It was another woman, Louise Brown, former director of Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation in 1990, who took a chance and hired the then-34-year-old veterinarian as director of the zoo.
“There are advantages to being a woman in this position. Ironically, being a woman opens many doors,” says Dr. Baker, who is 62. “It’s hard to say no to a woman because we can be very persistent,” she laughs.
“Our zoo is built around a very caring, nurturing environment, but you can be very passionate and intense about what you are doing,” she says.
Dr. Baker says zoos are incredibly important and will become even more so in the next decade because the wild is disappearing.
“We lose 96 elephants a day to poaching,” she says.
Her job entails being a preservationist, a conservationist, an educator and protector.
“Our zoo sponsors ranch dogs that protect the cattle of ranchers in Africa so the cheetahs don’t eat the cattle and the ranchers won’t kill the cheetahs.” They also sponsor mounted patrols in Kenya so rangers can monitor poachers on horseback. The zoo also operates a 1,000-acre elephant breeding facility in Somerset County.
In her experience, one of the disadvantages of being a woman is age-old.
“If you are forceful, assertive and resourceful and a go-getter, you can be accused of being too aggressive, whereas with a man, it’s perfectly normal and it’s considered very commanding,” Dr. Baker says. “If a woman comes off very commanding they can be criticized for that, which I think is hilarious.”
Barbara Baker holds a porcupine at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in Highland Park.