Q & A
Women in Forestry
Unexpected opportunities: Q&A with RPF and policy analyst Ritikaa Gupta
By Maria Church
The forest industry was not on Ritikaa Gupta’s radar when it came to making career decisions. But breaking from traditions and seizing unexpected opportunities led her to a position as a policy analyst with the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada – a position that fits with her goals to make meaningful contributions to forestry in our country.
CFI: What led you to forestry and to your position with the Canadian Forest Service (CFS)?
I was born and raised in rural Virginia. Me and my brothers were always outdoors so my love for nature definitely started there. My interest in sustainability and the environment came from my grandfather. He worked in agricultural co-operatives in southeast Asia, for the International Cooperative Alliance. His work required him to travel to different countries and work with farmers on the ground and develop community level projects. That always interested me.
But what I really wanted to do since I was a little girl was to become a commercial pilot. For university I ended up studying political science. And after my undergrad I wanted to go into flight school – but my parents pushed me towards law school. I had no interest, whatsoever, but when it comes to Asian families, you give in to pressure! I ended up writing the LSATs twice and got into multiple law schools as well as UofT’s forestry program I had applied to as backup. I was debating between environmental law programs and UofT’s forestry progam. I must admit that I did not fully understand what forestry was. It was a tough decision: on one side I was having to manage my family’s expectations and on the other I wanted to do something I would love. When I was doing research about forestry, most of information was about it being a sunset industry. My rational for why I chose forestry was that it’s environmental related and studying forestry would open up opportunities to flight school or join the Air Force. With law I’d be tied up all my life.
In the first semester I was a bit clueless. I thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ as I did not understand what forestry was any better. All my classmates had done their undergrad in forestry and knew what they wanted to do in terms of a career in the sector. I even called some law schools to see if they would take me back, but with no other option, I stuck with forestry and in the summer of my first year I was able to secure an internship with CFS. That’s when I realized that I could do forest policy and knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.
While a student I also had an opportunity to do a virtual internship with the United States Forest Service, which gave me insight into how forests are managed in the U.S.
After finishing my forestry degree I landed a 12-month internship with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) in Sault Ste. Marie. That one-year experience was truly eye opening. I got a really well-rounded forestry experience. I had the opportunity to work on different forest policy files as well as work at the district office where I got first-hand experience about how forest management plans are drafted.
After my internship I qualified for my Registered Professional Forestry designation. I did a short-term contract with the MNRF’s Deputy Minister’s office as a communications assistant, which gave me a good insight into the communications side of forestry. I then came back to the CFS as a policy analyst. I feel like I came full circle.
What do you enjoy about your job?
Even though forest management falls under the purview of provinces and territories, I feel I can influence forest policy and, to some degree, how forests are managed. I find this very fulfilling. Through my policy work I support senior management in their policy decisions related to sustainable forest management and the forest sector. As a policy analyst I have to stay up to date about forestry trends and issues and that’s really interesting because I’m always expanding my knowledge.
Do you find there are particular challenges or hurdles for women, especially women of colour, in the industry? How did you handle them?
At the MNRF I was the only Indian girl in the office, so sometimes in the beginning I would feel a little awkward walking around. But everyone was so welcoming and interested in my career journey. They were open to listening and willing to share their expertise and knowledge. I really appreciated that.
There were three other Indian colleagues of mine, they were senior economists, so that was totally unexpected and a nice surprise.
After my internship, I was offered a few forester positions up north. As much as I really wanted to take those positions – it was obviously a dream job – I felt I couldn’t. As a woman of colour of Indian origin, there were so many other things I had to consider. I never really consulted my family on the decision because I knew they wouldn’t be comfortable with me going that far. Other considerations were food – would I find my spices up there?
In my head I felt that I would be insecure. That’s me assuming things, but I didn’t want to have to move up there to find out whether or not that would be the case.
I also wondered whether or not people would respect me as a Brown woman forester. Would they believe in my capabilities and respect my decisions?
When I got those job offers the pandemic had started and I wasn’t looking to be so secluded from my family. When I turned down the job offers, I could tell that some people were confused.
After I got my RPF, because I don’t have that much on-the-ground experience, for a little while I doubted myself as a true forester. However, I later realized, it’s up to me to be apprised on issues and to expand my knowledge. We have so many resources accessible to us. The CFS does a lot of scientific research and policy thinking on forests and scientists and experts, more often than not, they are really willing to talk about their research and work.
Did you have any advocates or mentors who helped steer you through some challenges?
My first director at CFS was a woman, Amelie Roberge, and she was so empowering. Her bold leadership made me realize that I could also do policy and I always looked up to her. I aspire to be like her.
I also had two amazing mentors at the MNRF. One was a woman, Suzy Shalla, she was a district manager and she was so supportive. Having her as a senior-level forester really allowed me to articulate some of the things I was thinking and share my experiences and issues. I felt I could open up to her.
The other was David Repath, at the MNRF who was an amazing listener and through our conversations really helped me believe in myself as a forester. I was always candid with both of them and sought their advice in aspects of my career. I definitely could not have made it this far without them.
What advice do you have for women and people of colour considering a career in forestry?
When I think about it, I know maybe one or two people of colour who are foresters. That speaks to the amount of work we have to do. And I know the industry is doing work towards that. But there’s a lot left to do.
I want to help make the space for other Indian women foresters. From what I know, forestry is not considered a career choice in the Asian culture.
In the Asian culture, your family often has huge influence in the subject you study at university and your career choices and forestry is not on Asian parents’ list of career choices. And I think it’s because a lot of people still don’t understand what forestry is and the different types of jobs available within the sector.
Even now when I tell people that I am a forester they almost always ask what that is, and are not able to comprehend that I can be a forester while working in an office.
I’m involved with UofT’s forestry alumni association – I’m the president – so we’re trying to see what little small initiatives or projects we can do to bring up students’ awareness of forestry, and to support alumni.
My advice is don’t be intimidated by forestry. I certainly was. But I don’t think we should be. You might at first feel out of place, but push on and find your fit in the sector. Force yourself to expand your knowledge.
The forest sector is so diverse. There are different types of careers so everyone can find a fit – if you want to go in the field, or stay in the office, or something in between. At some point I know I want to get out and in the field, but right now I’m loving my policy work.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2022 and #BreaktheBias.
Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 8 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!