Women in Wood Really Know How to Make a Fire
In April 2023 I attended my first Women in Wood (WiW) session at the Ontario Professional Foresters Association (OPFA) annual conference in Peterborough, Ontario. This was a fireside chat that took place during some social time just before the banquet. For me this was one of the most rewarding experiences of the conference.
I have been intrigued by the WiW organization for quite awhile but up to this point I have been on the sidelines, partly since I thought it was mostly for women. I have to say, this very inclusive event was a real eye-opener and was such a refreshing change from the typical word slides, graphs and technical mumbo-jumbo that I do love but does not really get us in touch with the people that make our profession tick.
Now just to be clear as a white, older male forester, I recognize my demographic may have served some role in the genesis of WiW. In my heart, I believe I am “not that guy” but I will say in my career I generally did not have to face any form of discrimination or challenges related to the changing culture. For me, even as a recently retired government employee, continuing to learn and improve is something I strive for every day. I am open to new approaches, so I am sure there are things I can always do better. I really can’t get over how engaging and informative I found the fireside chat to be.
The session was set up as a panel with a moderator (Lacey Rose). There was a lot of interest and we all squeezed into a side room off the bar. Three very brave professional women foresters (Carol Walker, Vanessa Nhan and Ritikaa Gupta) and one man (Fraser Smith) sat as a panel and they were asked by Lacey about diversity in the forestry sector, how it has improved, barrier’s that still exist and how we can do better. Each of them responded with very personal stories about their careers and lives. As Lacey pointed out there is a lot of power that comes from saying these things out loud, and it’s true, this approach engaged the social energy of the panelists and the audience in a way that was enlightening. It touched me in ways that a typical technical presentation about silviculture or climate change does not.
Working on the people side of our business is something forestry has been late to address. It is ironic when you consider how much of our business has this social element to it. Whether it is the citizen’s committees required to complete management plans, or project teams in field research or the networks used to write policy direction. They all involve people working together, sharing ideas and collaborating to solve challenges. If so much of our work involves people connections you would think we would spend more time expanding our minds in areas related to making these social environments more equitable and comfortable for everyone.
I think WiW are onto something. By creating an environment, a social evening that is safe, certain brave people can tell personal stories that relay their feelings, the inequity of a situation, or how being brought up in a different culture changes your opportunities and then give advice on how we can all do things better. I had to say “brave” again as I really think they are and they should be very proud of being able to share these stories. Their candid story telling is what made it all work. The approach used gave panel members the opportunity to relay situations, systemic problems or cultural perceptions, but also explained how they were overcome and the steps that have led to their longer-term success. This way of learning, as an audience member, listening to someone’s passionate life lessons will sit more deeply in your subconscious and I believe it will resonate for me in future practice.
I really like the WiW focus on sharing and letting people tell the positive stories about their careers or solving a problem. These are inspirational to everyone.
I look forward to attending my next WiW event and encourage everyone to engage with this group. Keep doing what you are doing WiW. This is a fantastic organization and it really fills a need.
Ken Elliott lives north of Peterborough in the rural community of Ennismore. Ken recently retired from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry after a 35-year career. He continues as an avid outdoor enthusiast and volunteers with various forestry and nature organizations but also dabbles in consulting as a part-time senior forester with FSmith Consulting and as a silvicultural instructor with Forests Ontario and the CIF, mostly helping to deliver the provincial tree marker training program. His career has spanned operations, science, policy and program development where he tested silvicultural approaches, and transferred knowledge through presentations and as part of multi-disciplinary writing teams for scientific papers and guiding documents.