Gender equality in forestry – a call for change

“More women than usual on this course. Good. We need them to file and sort papers”. This is what one of the instructors of Barbara Öllerer, a graduate forester and now PhD student, told the group of Austrian forestry students on a chainsaw course. Remarks like this are common among foresters. Only when she started talking to her fellow female colleagues in the forestry sector did she realise that these were common experiences, much more common than one would like. 

Barbara Öllerer is the Head of the Gender Sub-Commission at the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA) and Research Assistant at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU). For several years, she has been working on the topic of gender equality in the forestry sector, a field that up to today and despite various efforts, remains largely male-dominated, especially when we look at leadership positions. During our stop in Vienna, we had the unique chance to sit down with her and talk about her fascinating work. 

Gender equality in the forestry sector – an unwelcome topic in Central Europe?

Gender equality and gender awareness are crucial for sustainable development all around the globe. We have all heard of countries where women working in agriculture and forestry are strongly marginalised in decision-making, their voices and opinions are overlooked and they are even restricted from accessing resources. In Europe, we often like to think of regions in Asia or Africa, when we talk about processes ignoring gender equality issues. 

However, many gender aspects in the forestry sector are still largely disregarded in Austria, where Barbara is based, and in most European countries. Up until now, most of the literature on gender aspects in forestry is coming from the Nordic countries such as Sweden. In Austria – and other Central European countries – limited research has been conducted, even though the forestry sector is very important in the Austrian economy.

Women are largely underrepresented in forestry. This causes gender imbalance and an overall low representation of women among actors in forestry, although they make up half of the population. When talking to her, Barbara pointed out to us that the general perception often even suggests that women’s career paths might be easier. This is because many employers focus on increasing the percentage of female employees, through promoting the prioritisation of women when hiring or promoting. However, it seems that this does not have a big enough impact in improving the gender balance within the sector as it has remained largely male-dominated.

Gender-specific barriers in the forestry sector

All the above, coupled with some personal experiences, led Barbara to believe that there are further gender-specific barriers that prevent women from progressing at the same speed as men, or even from being fully included in the workplace culture, and attaining the same level of recognition. Therefore, within her Master Thesis, she aimed to understand gender-specific barriers in forestry and the strategies to overcome them. She conducted this research by interviewing female leaders in the Austrian forestry sector about their personal experiences and general perceptions of barriers and strategies. 

She found that there are several gender-specific barriers that the interviewees have experienced throughout their careers. First and foremost, none of the women interviewed said they did not experience any barriers throughout their career. The barriers they listed include, among others, reinforced roles and traditions, discrimination based on gender, sexual harassment, sexually connotative speech, inflexible working hours, family care responsibilities, and a glass ceiling with no further possibility for advancement. They also mourned a lack of solidarity among women and a general lack of awareness of the issue, meaning little to no support was provided by other observers in the workplace.

The strategies to overcome these barriers were very context-specific, they depended on the interviewee, the exact sector they work in, the barrier and other factors. Some strategies mentioned were: goal setting, becoming even more resilient, working hard in order to be better, looking for outside support, learning self-defense, joining women’s networks, taking legal action, and also, accepting the limitations that come with being a woman in forestry. Among the interviewed women, interestingly, some listed ‘addressing the issue’ as a working strategy, while others said ‘avoiding the issue’ was their chosen coping mechanism. 

What can bring change?

When asked what the interviewed women considered vital for overcoming gender-specific barriers, they noted that various circumstances must change. These include the support by those already working in the field and in charge of hiring, the availability of mentorship programmes and coaching, adapted forest education and training, the introduction of new working models, more women and parents in leadership positions and the equal recognition of women’s performance.

During our talk, we also came to the importance of wording. Barbara pointed out that she recently learned that even the much-used phrase “gender-sensitive” could perpetuate the status quo. Using the word “sensitive” in the context of this topic creates the feeling that it is sensitive to talk about it. A sensitive topic, almost taboo, which requires a lot of tiptoeing within discussions. In reality, we must not treat gender and gender equality as a sensitive, avoidable topic, but rather a necessary one. And this shift in mindsets is one of the key steps to progress in reaching gender equality. Therefore, the term “gender-aware” and gender awareness is a much better suited alternative. 

Gender questions affect all genders and ages

“I’ve heard things like “Why don’t you just laugh about it” on multiple occasions. (…) However, I believe that one’s education or chosen career path should never be regarded as a joke, but above all, they should definitely not be influenced by jokes. “ – we can hear in the opening statement she made at the conference ‘Forests in Women’s Hands’ in 2021 as representative of IFSA. “Gender doesn’t just affect us female forestry students. It is never just a women’s issue but one that impacts the sector and society on a global scale regardless of gender.”

Throughout the last years, Barbara has strongly been advocating for gender equality in forest education, and has contributed to successfully establishing a new Gender Sub-Commission within IFSA. IFSA has further developed a very interesting webinar series on gender and forestry. Its aim is to shed light on the topic, and provide learning opportunities for forestry students to solve today’s challenges surrounding gender in forestry. But the topic goes far beyond the forestry sector, and many other students working in different fields can find valuable information in this series.

Episode #1: #metoo, Networks and Organizations in the Forestry Field
Episode #2: Those Who Have Come Before Us

A call for a gender-aware learning and working environment

But the message has to go even further, and has to bring serious changes into forest education as we know it. At the moment, IFSA is preparing an open letter to forestry universities and faculties as well as policymakers all around the world. As the young generation of professionals, IFSA members advocate for gender equality in forest education and a gender-aware learning environment. They demand, among others, more gender-aware education and educational spaces, specific courses on gender-equality and network building, to establish more opportunities for gender-aware education, knowledge exchange and development. 

Through her work, Barbara and her colleagues at IFSA are drawing our attention to a crucial topic. Our society can only advance if its members value critical thinking, inclusivity, acceptance and respect towards others. We must not refrain from questioning outdated gender roles and behaviours, and their impact on the persons involved, let it be in the educational or working environment. Talking to Barbara, we realised how incredibly important it is to bring gender into the discussion table not only in forestry and forest education, but in many other fields as well. 

And after reading this, if you are still skeptical about whether there is even a problem here, and you think it is just another example of overreacting, we ask you to try one thing. The next time you meet non-male colleagues in your workplace, ask them about their experience with gender-specific barriers. Listen with the aim to understand, and maybe, you will be the initiator of a much-needed discussion. Listening is the first step in overcoming inequality.

2 thoughts on “Gender equality in forestry – a call for change”

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