Making connections: Q&A with senior forester Cheryl Hodder
By Maria Church
Cheryl Hodder is a planning and silviculture manager with Conifex Timber for the company’s Mackenzie and Fort St. James sawmills in northern B.C. Reflecting on her 21-year career, the registered professional forester says personal connections and mentorship are essential to seeing more women enter and stay in the forestry workforce.
CFI: When did you get your start in the forest industry?
I’ve been in the industry for 21 years. It all began in university. I loved plants, loved trees, the science of growing trees. I originally went into a plant science program at the University of Alberta.
Up until then I wasn’t really aware of forestry as a possible career. Then I took a forestry course and I became aware of the challenges of balancing the seemingly competing human values, the resource management part of forestry. How are we looking to sustain our landscape. That was the part that drew me into forestry. There was a particular course and a particular professor that peaked my interest. I changed majors and moved into a forest management degree. That was in ’95, and I graduated in ’98.
I worked for various forestry consulting companies and spent a lot of time doing fieldwork in the bush. I also did some independent contracting. Then I worked for a couple different sawmills and ended up in Fort St. James working for Canfor at the time. That site was Canfor, then it was Pope & Talbot, now it is Conifex.
This is now my third year in my role as planning and silviculture manager for Conifex.
CFI: What is involved in your current role, and what do you enjoy about it?
In my role I manage the planning, the pre-harvest and the post-harvest programs for Conifex for two sawmills: Fort St. James and Mackenzie. Together with a team of forestry professionals, we manage the landscape and block level planning from the initial policy framework to the handoff to the harvesting department, then it comes back to us post harvest for the silviculture practices and reforestation. Between those two mills there are approximately 1.2 million cubic metres per year that my team manages.
I enjoy the complexity of the different interests and values on the land base. There are various First Nations, many stakeholders and there are challenges of understanding those values and incorporating them into forest management. I love working with people, both in my team and the public, First Nations, and all the different views and values that have to be integrated on a public land base.
CFI: Were there people who encouraged or mentored you throughout your career?
When I reflect on that there have been different people along the way at different times. That professor when I was in university pointed me towards forestry. Then maybe 10 years into my career, there was a strong woman forester in a leadership role, the first one I had encountered, and she was an inspiration. She was a supervisor, and being able to see her success was very encouraging. Seeing how she navigated being the only woman in the room was encouraging. I saw the possibility and opportunity in that.
There have also been a handful of men along the way who have supported and encouraged me, and still do. And they have been key. I am grateful for their mentorship.
CFI: Did you, as a woman, find there were particular difficulties or challenges working in the industry?
There were definitely challenges. I can remember early in my career feeling on the outside of the jokes, or not being able to find close friendships at work because there were barriers there. That was hard, and I don’t feel that so much now. Although jokes and innuendos still exist, I don’t notice it as much. I think there is far more awareness now of the bias or potential bias.
There seems to be more women going into the field of forestry, but I hope more women stay with it.
In my graduating class I think it was a 40-60 split. Women were quite well represented. But, when I look at my current peers, that’s not the case. Somewhere along the way, there are fewer women who stay with it. That’s been my observation.
Companies need that flexibility for women, and for men as well, to be able to have both a family and a career. I still think there is a need for that. For companies, being able to have that diversity of men and women, especially in leadership, it serves them well.
It’s important for companies to encourage the conversations at a leadership level about acknowledging these historic biases and to be aware of them. Leaders in our industry should encourage the differences and make room for them, both women and other minorities. There is value in diverse perspectives.
CFI: What advice do you have for women interested in a career as a forester?
It’s fantastically rewarding, so stick with it, stay in. I would say to look for those opportunities where it fits with your life. Seek out women and men who can be mentors and you can connect with. There can be more than one. I think those people are important to both personal and professional growth.
In my own career, I’ve seen the change in perceptions of women through personal connections. This idea that there is a bias or judgements that people hold about women, I don’t think they are aware of it, it’s not malicious. The way past those biases is through personal interactions and getting to know and understand each other. Then we become people rather than men or women.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read more Q&As from CFI’s project on women in the forest industry here.