Wood Business

Features Features Sawmilling Women in Forestry
Tapping new potential – removing barriers for women in forestry


April 16, 2019
By Kristen Gammel

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Kristen Gammel is the director of people and safety at Conifex Timber Inc.

Women average 17 per cent of all employees working in the forest sector. With the majority of forest sector activity taking place in rural communities where people seek stable good-paying jobs and employers need long-term skilled workers, you can see there is a lot of untapped potential. Conifex is pleased to support the Canadian Institute of Forestry (CIF)’s national public-private partnership on gender equality and its objective to create a national action plan on gender equality that will help make that number rise.

So what does a company like Conifex do when we sit above the national average, with women representing 28 per cent of our Canadian workforce? Should we do more? Definitely! Gender equality is one element among a number of diversity objectives that we care about. We are rightly proud of our track record in gender equality, but also in developing initiatives and programs to employ more Indigenous peoples, youth, and new Canadians in our workforce.

Conifex took a practical approach to gender equality that has paid off. We are a young public company by forest products standards, having been operational in B.C. for just over 10 years, through re-starting previously owned sawmills in Fort St. James and Mackenzie. We also built a biomass power plant on the Mackenzie site that uses residuals from our lumber manufacturing process to create green energy that powers 20,000 homes in B.C.

Support for gender equality must come from the top. Our founder and CEO Ken Shields believes in bringing the best people with different perspectives together to come up with the best ideas. He also believes in creating the conditions that remove barriers to attract and retain our top people. These are the foundations of any gender equality strategy.

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Leading by example has been a key part of that strategy. We believe that having capable women at all levels sends a strong message to our entire organization that we are serious about diversity. This includes Janine North, board member; Yuri Lewis, chief financial officer; Sandy Ferguson, vice-president of corporate affairs and business development; and Winny Tang, corporate controller.

Facing the choice of working in the service sector or working in the mill, many women in our northern communities have been attracted by the good paying jobs that the forest sector offers. In response, our managers have been encouraged to be creative in ensuring we offer a career path. For example, at the operational level, we have worked with the union to offer equal opportunities for advancement in our hourly workforce, including flexible hours that means women in our workforce don’t have to choose between their career and their families. For salaried employees we continue to have a general philosophy to hire and promote the best talent from within the organization. Linda Potvin, based in Fort St. James, worked her way up from the part-time clean-up crew through a variety of positions, to become the first woman at Conifex in the position of sawmill superintendent. Her ability to empathize and communicate effectively with her team is recognized across the company as a key success factor at the site.

We also believe a picture is worth a thousand words and we take special care to ensure that all our corporate materials – our website, job ads, brochures, and social media – reflect the full range of people who make up the Conifex family. We like to share stories about the diverse leaders in our company and encourage you to check out the profiles CFI has done on Cheryl Hodder, manager of planning and silviculture, and Jillian Pritchard, one of our newest certified electricians. (Read the profiles at www.woodbusiness.ca)

What’s next? Although we made some good choices and had some good luck, it’s now time to develop more targeted and measurable initiatives for our women leaders, including a mentorship program and succession planning that takes into account their needs and the steps they need to take to achieve their goals. These efforts will go hand in hand with Indigenous and youth initiatives as part of our overall focus on diversity, which taps underrepresented talent pools, removes advancement barriers, and ensures we have a workforce that represents the communities in which we live and work.


Kristen Gammel is the director of people and safety at Conifex Timber Inc.