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Balancing out the forestry workplace

The Canadian forest industry is not a big employer of women, even though they represent a significant pool of potential employees that could help the industry address its projected labor shortages.

According to the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), the industry through its Vision 2020 initiative has set a target of refreshing its workforce by hiring 60,000 new workers by 2020, including more women, Aboriginals, and new Canadians. At present, however, there is limited female representation in forestry in all sectors from corporate administration to production to logging, even in this era of working toward greater gender equality in the workplace.

One prominent Canadian forest company, B.C.’s Tolko Industries, has recognized it needs to do more so far as female employment is concerned and wants to hire more qualified female employees, having developed a three-year, ‘Women Strategy’.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 4.5 times as many men as women employed nationally within the ‘natural resources’ sector, which includes forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas.

Tanya Wick, Tolko vice-president of people and services, says the average for women employed in the industry in B.C. and Alberta is 16 per cent, and 22 per cent in Saskatchewan. This takes corporate administration and production, but not logging, into account. By comparison, B.C.’s manufacturing sector is made up of about 20 per cent women.

About 11 per cent of Tolko’s workforce is women, so Wick says that the company recognizes that it has some work to do just to achieve the industry average in its home base in B.C. This explains its Women Strategy and she is leading its roll-out.

It will involve everyone in the company. Among its features:

  • Senior management is speaking publicly about how important they view this initiative

  • Adjustments are being made in company hiring and recruiting strategies

  • The initiative is being promoted and discussed on social media

  • Training is being conducted at all levels on how to avoid ‘unconscious biases’ toward women in both hiring processes and in the workplace

  • And steering committees are addressing such common workplace barriers to women as safety equipment that fits, access to washrooms, and access to tools and training on the production floor that provide opportunities for women to learn and advance.

Lacey Rose is community forest manager for the municipality of Renfrew County in Ontario. The forest industry has a ways to go to increase workplace diversity, and increase the number of women working in the industry—and some companies are leading the way. Tanya Wick (inset photo), Tolko’s vice-president of people and services, says the company has a strategy that, in part, ensures women have access to work opportunities, so they can learn and advance.

An internal survey conducted by Tolko found that some of their women employees were frustrated by limited opportunities for advancement, so they left the company. This raised a red flag.

As part of the roll-out, Wick has produced several articles describing some of the challenges that she and others face in the workplace as women, what women employed in the industry can do to achieve their career goals, and what Tolko hopes to achieve with its Women Strategy.

In one article, Wick describes her early experiences upon arriving at the company.

“The forestry industry has few women in senior leadership roles. That’s just a fact,” she writes. “So when I first arrived at Tolko, and even now at outside events, others assumed I am the wife of someone in the industry, rather than in the industry myself.

“I’ve been in similar situations multiple times. I see it as an opportunity to introduce myself and my role and break down a little barrier, so that others can see things in a new way. Over time, it will happen less and less, and I take pride in being part of that change.”

Another motivation behind the Women Strategy is the company’s own labor projections. They have recognized the need to increase the number of candidates applying for jobs and want more diversity among their applicants, while also creating a culture where women view Tolko as a really great place to work.

Tolko is not the only forestry stakeholder interested in promoting the involvement of more women in the industry.

Lacey Rose is a University of New Brunswick graduate and Registered Professional Forester (RPF) in Ontario. She has over a decade of planning and operational experience in northern Ontario, has worked for the Ontario government, and currently manages a community forest for the municipal government of Renfrew County. She has collaborated with Jessica Kaknevicius, who develops educational and outreach programs about forestry for an organization called Forest Ontario. They have created a Facebook networking site, web site, and blog called ‘Women In Wood.” They have also opened a Twitter account.

Both recognized the low participation rate by women in forestry and took a pro-active approach to encourage dialogue among women who are currently employed in forestry. They offer positive role models and a realistic perspective on what the industry has to offer to young women looking at career options, while helping those currently involved in the industry succeed in their career goals.

Many of these objectives are exactly what Tolko hopes to accomplish with its Women Strategy, and Wick is aware, familiar, and supportive of their goals.

Rose says that her experience in the industry has been positive, with great employers who have provided her with plenty of opportunities to gain experience; but she noted that while she has had many outstanding mentors, all were men and she was the first female forester in nearly all of her jobs. She and others have found the industry to be a welcoming environment, but what it comes down to is a bit of a numbers issue with so few women employed and the fact that women currently employed in the industry tend to be geographically spread out.

“Jessica and I met basically because we were often among the only young women at forestry conferences and events,” says Rose. “We tended to single each other out when we spotted each other. So we introduced ourselves and have had the opportunity to work on some education projects and events since then.”

Over time, their conversations evolved toward the possibility of creating some sort of network for women employed in the forest industry, which led to a Facebook network to reach out to women they knew were working in the industry. The response was remarkable, with as many as 300 now signed up in their Facebook group.

Rose adds that the response to the initiative has only been positive, with several companies reaching out and indicating that they have similar initiatives or would like to be involved in their endeavour somehow.

Among the initiatives that she believes could encourage more female participation and which they are promoting on their web site is to profile successful women currently involved in the industry, to encourage more young women who are considering career options. Also, Rose says that she encourages employers “to take a chance on the underdog, whether they be male or female,” because of the gratitude she feels to those who took a chance on her, so that she could gain some valuable work experience. Also in line with the Tolko initiative, she encourages companies to evaluate their own workforce, and if they have a low participation rate among women, to ask themselves why and identify if there are ways that they could encourage more women to apply and succeed.

A big part of the challenge of building the forestry workforce, she says, is not necessarily a gender issue.

When people have an image of a forestry worker, they think of the bearded, plaid-wearing, male lumberjack, she says. “But in reality, there are now more people in downtown Toronto who look like that than you would encounter in the woods.

“We just don’t tell our story enough. People have a misconception of what it means to work in forestry in general and that anyone is capable of doing these jobs.”

Wick says that women employed in the industry have a big role to play, to be more successful in achieving their goals.

“I’ve observed a tendency for some women to wait to be asked if they need help,” Wick writes. “When we don’t speak up, it can be interpreted that everything is going well. In reality, it can mean we don’t know how to ask. Take a risk and ask for what you need.”

She says that she wants Tolko to be an industry leader in attracting more women to the industry.

“I want Tolko to be the leader of the pack in our industry. I want us to be the pioneers of attracting, recruiting and retaining women,” she says. “I really want women to own their careers at Tolko and to get that mentorship and support to help them achieve their goals.”

Reposted from Logging & Sawmilling Journal -

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