Wood Business

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Editorial: Better balance

Learning from women in the forest sector


March 29, 2019
By Maria Church
Maria Church

Less than 30 years ago, an OSB mill in Canada simply did not hire women. In 1993 an order came down for the 10-year-old mill to hire females. It just so happens that the first woman that mill was required to hire is now the production co-ordination manager for Interfor’s nine mills in the U.S. Southeast.

This woman, Marlene Hall, was set on a career path in the forest industry and is now contributing to the success of one of Canada’s largest lumber producers because of an employment equity policy in the 90s.

This story is a good reminder that the path was paved for women in our industry not all that long ago.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Marlene in February while doing a project for CFI’s website on women in the workforce, in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8. I interviewed 10 women in various roles and seniorities from forest product companies across Canada with the goal of sharing their stories, career advice, and management tips.

While getting to know these 10 women, I found it striking the difference in experiences between the older and younger generation. Veterans like Marlene and lumber trader Judy Johnston spoke honestly about challenges they faced advancing in a male-dominated industry.

Judy explained that early on in her career she was discouraged from applying for positions that were not traditionally female, but she kept gunning for them in spite of the resistance. “… I can’t tell you how many men I trained for jobs that I sought after. But eventually, through help from HR … I got what I wanted and I haven’t looked back,” Judy said.

Twenty-three years later and Judy now proudly tells me that her two grown daughters have senior positions in their fields and never questioned their abilities to advance.

Similar to Judy’s daughters, the women I interviewed who are new to the industry spoke enthusiastically about the opportunities in front of them.

West Fraser’s Jessica Williams is 28 and pursuing a career in safety at a plywood plant. When I asked her if she’s faced challenges thus far, she said there was only one: herself. “… It’s so easy to think, “I’m a young woman, I don’t think I’m old enough yet to apply for this. Will people respect me or listen to me?” I was in my own head,” Jessica said. Once she grew out of that insecurity, it was easy to step forward for more senior jobs, she said.

In just 30 years the industry has made great strides to welcome women thanks to the perseverance of a few. But with just 17 per cent of the employment share in the industry as of 2016 (according to Status of Women Canada), there’s a ways to go for companies to tap into all 50 per cent of the female workforce, and unleash all the innovation that comes with new perspectives.

Many of the women I spoke with listed off a host of people who helped them advance in their careers. HR staff, managers, and colleagues are important supporters for women who still feel they have something to prove. The more women who enter the industry, the less there will be to prove.

Late last year the Canadian Institute of Forestry announced it’s creating a national action plan to promote gender equity in the forest industry. Notable industry champions like SFI president Kathy Abusow and Tolko vice-president of people and services, Tanya Wick (our Final Cut columnist on page 64), are steering the initiative, which is financially supported by the federal government.

It will be exciting to see what comes from this national action plan, but until then, head over to our website, www.woodbusiness.ca/forestwomen, to read the 10 Q&A profiles of women who are already forging the way towards a future in which no one thinks twice about whether they’d be the right fit in our industry.