Q & A
Women in Forestry
‘Take the front row!’: Q&A with SFI’s Kathy Abusow
March 6, 2023 By Jennifer Ellson
Kathy Abusow is a renowned leader in the forest sector who is encouraging women to take the front row and help each other to succeed. She is the president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a non-profit leader dedicated to advancing sustainability through forest-focused collaborations. Under Kathy’s leadership, SFI has evolved into a solutions-oriented sustainability organization that works to address global issues such as climate action, conservation of biodiversity, and sustainable community development. A key driver of SFI’s success is SFI’s ability to engage networks to advance sustainability in the forest and conservation sector — a commitment that is represented in SFI’s vision, a world that values and benefits from sustainably managed forests.
CFI: What drew you to forestry and your job at SFI?
My love of forests started in the middle of the night in Vermont during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck just a few feet away from head, and all the electricity in the house went out. The next day, the electrician couldn’t figure out how we were still alive, but I knew. It was because my bed wasn’t made from a steel frame. My father, a cabinet maker, made my bed out of wood, and it saved my life.
I’m a forest hugger—valuing all the benefits that forests and forest products bring, all the life-saving and life-sustaining benefits. But unfortunately, we have seen that if a forest isn’t valued, it can be converted to something else, like a parking lot or mall, which means we lose the important environmental, social, and economic benefits sustainably managed forests provide.
At SFI, we are working to advance sustainability through forest-focused collaborations, and our vision is a world that values and benefits from sustainably managed forests. Through our work at SFI, my hope is that people value sustainably managed forests and we can work together for a better future.
CFI: Do you find there are certain challenges or hurdles for women to enter or stay in the industry?
In the State of Canada’s Forests: Annual Report 2022, it says that only 17 per cent of people employed in Canada’s forest sector are women. Without role models in leadership positions or organizations being intentional with recruiting and retaining, young women may not decide to pursue or stick with a green career pathway.
But when you are intentional and do the work, you see that women and a diversity of people, including Indigenous, Black, Latina/o/x, and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities and people living with disabilities, are very interested in the forest and conservation sector.
For example, through Project Learning Tree Canada (PLT Canada), an initiative of SFI, we’ve helped place over 7,000 young adults in green jobs across Canada with our Green Jobs program, and we’re very proud to have achieved gender balance and almost 15 per cent of placements for Indigenous youth.
We need to continue working on creating pathways for women and a diversity of people to leadership positions, because if you can see it, you can be it. Organizations have to create the conditions for success so that women and a diversity of people are getting those opportunities. When I speak to executives, they do recognize this need. But there is more work to be done here, even if I have seen improvements over the course of my career.
CFI: What was it like for women when you first got involved in the industry?
When I started in the forest and conservation sector, I was the only woman in the room. Today, thankfully, it’s changed. There has been great progress, inclusion, and opportunity, but we still have a ways to go. It’s important is to ensure a diversity of voices at the table.
CFI: What can companies do to attract and retain women?
We all need to work together to build a diverse and resilient workforce and create inclusive, welcoming workplaces.
For recruitment, we need to highlight women and a diversity of people in green jobs and showcase the exciting diversity of careers within Canada’s forest and conservation sector. We also know that awareness needs to start young, which is why PLT creates a lifetime of learning through environmental education, forest literacy, and career pathway resources and programs. As kids grow into young adults, we help them develop skills, networks, and experiences that can lead them to successful career paths. We’ve worked hard to help employers share role models and career opportunities, with resources like A Guide to Green Jobs in Canada: Voices of Indigenous Professionals, Black Faces in Green Spaces: The Journeys of Black Professionals in Green Careers, career fact sheets, Forest Quest, and more.
Then of course, once someone is excited about a career in the forest and conservation sector, they need to be welcomed into an inclusive workplace. Organizations need to do internal trainings and embed diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within their organization. They should also be intentional in ensuring they have gender equality and diverse representation in leadership, on boards, and on committees. We are working on more employer trainings to support these initiatives, such as PLT Canada’s Indigenous Rights and Relationship Building courses with Sault College and our Green Jobs Employer Series.
Mentorship is another powerful tool for recruiting, retaining, and advancing the workforce, so organizations can decide to invest in creating a program for their employees. It can help young women and a diversity of people get in the door, and it can help those already in the sector advance their own career by developing coaching and leadership skills.
CFI: What advice do you have for women considering a career the forest industry?
Take the front row! Be curious, believe in yourself, and learn from others. When you succeed, help others do the same—share your voice for good!
As the forest and conservation sector is traditionally male dominated, it can be intimidating entering the workforce as a young woman. Finding a mentor who can share wisdom, lessons learned, and connections, breaks down some barriers and can help you navigate the space. You can find an informal mentor through LinkedIn or networking events, or join a structured program, like PLT Canada’s Green Mentor program.
This article is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series, an annual celebration of women in the industry. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtag: #WomeninForestry.
Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 7 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!
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