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Women have only 18.4% share of forestry sector

Hello! I’m Susan Gesner, the President of Gesner & Associates Environmental Learning. I started Gesner & Associates Environmental Learning (GAEL) in 1997 with a notion to integrate my blend of environmental knowledge, facilitation expertise and management skills. The projects that my colleagues and I undertake reflect my interest in the interface between learning and engagement, change management, facilitation and strategic planning.


Canada has 397 million hectares of forests and other woodlands, representing 10% of the world’s forest cover. These forests provide ecological, economic, social, and cultural benefits to all Canadians, regardless of whether they live in small northern communities or large urban centres. As a country, Canada is committed to sustainable forest management, which aims to maintain and enhance the long-term health of forested ecosystems while providing ecological, economic, cultural, and social opportunities for present and future generations.

But we know all that. Forestry and forest management is what we care about.

Who manages these incredible forests and their wealth of resources? Who is making the critical decisions about the future of our environment, our economy and our environmental health? Well, if you are a woman, it’s most likely not you. The number of women in senior management positions and executive boards, as well as in skilled trades (including supervisory roles and operating heavy equipment) is, well, rather underwhelming.

Female enrollment in undergraduate forestry programs has been steadily increasing for years. In the US (where I could actually find some statistics), female enrollment in undergraduate forestry and related programs increased from 34.5 % in 2005 to 40.8% in 2012 (source: J. For. 113(6):538-551 Nov 2015). That’s not huge, but it’s on the rise. Same goes for Canada. So what’s up?

Recent research indicates that women have an 18.4% share of the forestry and logging industry in Canada. Only construction and fishing, hunting and trapping have lower percentages that forestry. There is only one female Chief Forester working for a Canadian forest company. In general, natural resources companies, including energy and materials (mining and forestry) firms lag behind all other sectors for the proportion of women on their boards. A Globe and Mail report from the fall of 2014 found that, of Canada’s largest 251 companies in the S&P/TSX composite index, 42 per cent of mining and forestry companies and 16 per cent of non-resource companies had all male, one-dimensional boards.

I was shocked when I read that. And this situation persists, despite the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the considerable benefits of including women on boards and in senior management positions. In fact, companies that have more women on their boards outperform those that do not. A Credit Suisse study from September 2014 showed that companies with greater diversity on their boards have higher returns on equity (companies with at least one female board member since 2005 had ROE of 14.1 per cent versus 11.2 per cent for those with zero representation), higher price/book valuations (an average of 2.3 times for boards with female representation and 1.8 times for those without) and superior stock performance (an average of five per cent better for companies with female representation).

Many reports now outline the impact of including women in leadership, technical and trade positions and how that translates to greater return on investment. According to a report by McKinsey and Company, having a critical mass of 30 percent women in higher-level leadership positions significantly improves financial performance[1].

Specific benefits include but are not limited to[2]:

  • Better decision-making and performance – applied research with Boards consistently shows that mixed gender Boards have discussions that reflect the best governance practices. When women are involved, Boards tend to be more active in overseeing the strategic direction of the company and in reinforcing accountability through audits and risk management. They also tend to make decisions more objectively. Greater numbers of women on Boards are linked to:

  • Stronger financial performance for shareholders

  • Better merger and acquisition outcomes

  • Increased social responsibility ratings and enhanced reputation.

  • Increased disclosure and transparency for environmental, social and governance matters

  • Attracting and Retaining Valuable Talent – Women are notably seen as better listeners and supporters and are therefore considered better off than their male counterparts at attracting and retaining valuable talent.

  • Supporting Safety – greater attention to maintenance of equipment and less risk taking on site offers a safe workplace for everyone.

  • Competitive Advantage

  • Diversity as a Business Strategy - Greater pool of potential workers

  • Inclusive Employment Policies & Practices - Employer of choice

  • Focus on Employee Outcomes - More motivated employees

  • Performance Improvements - Reduced absenteeism, reduced turnover and greater productivity

  • Organization Performance - Cost savings, access to new talent and markets, high calibre staff

I am keenly interested in women in forestry, so I did some more digging. John Innes, Dean of Forestry at UBC shared this with me: “There has been some flagship progress in BC of late, including Jaqui Beban at Truck Loggers Association, Christine at ABCFP, Diane Nicholas as BC Chief Forester and Susan Yurkovich at the Council of Forest Industries, but the senior levels of the sector remain stubbornly dominated by old white men (such as myself). I was at a conference this week where a group of (old, white) CEOs talked about recruiting more diversity into the sector, but I strongly felt they had absolutely no idea what they are talking about!”

Cassie Phillips, Vice President of Sustainable Forestry for Weyerhaeuser also told me this: “My impression is female representation is better in the US than in Canada, somewhat the opposite of what one might expect.”

So where does that leave us? A culture shift is needed to change this trend toward a long-term sustainable senior management future for women in the forestry sector. Both Ms. Phillips and John Innes are keen to help continue research in Canada and provide support for exploring options and ideas. I’m hoping to do some interesting work with a few federal agencies on looking into gender equity in the forestry field….stay tuned, there will be more information soon!

[1] McKinsey (2010). Moving Women to the top: McKensey global survey results. McKinsey Quarterly.

[2] Women in Mining Canada, National Action Plan, March 2016

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