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Wahine in Forestry – Answers to a long standing challenge

7 February 2023
The question of how to address the gender inequality that exists in our forest sector is not a new one, you only must read, “A Path Through The Trees”, the Mary Sutherland biography of the first woman forester in New Zealand to understand that change is a slow process.

Mary graduated in 1916 from the University College of North Wales, Bangor and encountered many tensions and prejudices throughout her extensive career in the Forest Service which are documented in this book and sounded eerily familiar to me.

The first woman to graduate the School of Forestry at Canterbury was in 1974, almost sixty years after Mary Sutherland arrived in New Zealand and many of her documented aspirations will also be recognisable to us today. How to improve perceptions of forestry in the public, getting forest education into schools and the minds of the next generation and improving the training and education for all forest workers. Sound familiar?

When I graduated from the School of Forestry in 1996 it was difficult to find work, and having finally found a job, I have the added feature of being sacked, not once, but twice for literally just being “a chick”. Some workplaces (and employers) were put out by having to accommodate female workers and it was easier for them to maintain ‘male only’ environments.

This could all sound depressing, but when you have a daughter in 4th year at the School of Forestry and a son about to enroll, it tends to motivate a person to providing positive role models and experiences for this next rotation, so here we are.

Wahine in Forestry is a women’s group formed by the Wood Councils that seeks to address the lack of a female perspective in our sector. Today we claim only 18% females in our forestry workforce, and you can count on one hand the number of women at any leadership levels in our organisations. We want to increase professional participation for women to expand the opportunities and think about our forests in new ways. There is great value in ensuring women are exposed to and have access to all avenues of the forest sector and in the future, this should lead to a more sustainable forestry community.

We are starting this process by exposing the female students at the School of Forestry to as many of our amazing women working in forestry as possible. Our first gathering in Christchurch last year saw four wonderful women speakers address thirty female students about their journey into forestry and what their careers mean to them. Angela Mackenzie and Kristie Paki Paki from Marlborough, Holly Chapman from Christchurch and Sarah de Gouw from Southland provided hilarious stories and inspiration.

We plan to keep this group engaged this year by providing evenings and weekends for networking and to showcase women in all levels and positions in the forest sector, provide role models, mentors and solutions to the unique challenges that face women by bringing us together and supporting each other. We also might just have some fun along the way.

We aim to introduce more women to forestry, open their eyes to the opportunities that exist and retain this critical portion of our workforce. Networks are vital to provide a sense of belonging, and that’s what Wahine in Forestry strives for, a mycorrhizal fungal network for others along with safe and welcoming workplaces fostering connection and connectivity.

The challenges facing our forests and workforces are diverse and there is need for more diverse perspectives to help ensure the health and future of our sector. We cannot solve all our problems, but wouldn’t it be great if we could participate in designing the solutions? How many forestry companies are run by women in New Zealand? How many lead our governance boards, associations and institutes? Together we can create that room for creative problem solving.

What has been pleasing to see is the support and reflection from the young men currently in the School of Forestry and our forestry men for this initiative. These students will be our friends and coworkers in the future, it is satisfying that they are becoming aware of their own, and others, attitudes and noticing what they can do to encourage and advocate for inclusion and diversity in our places of work.

Our group with the support of PF Olsen, Forest360 and the Wood Councils is looking forward to our first weekend get together at Hanmer Springs in March, registrations can be lodged on our website. Want to hang out with us, or represent your workplace? Then visit www.wahineinforestry.co.nzfor more information on this group or email wahine@wahineinforestry.co.nz to receive newsletters or information about events.

Photo: Students proudly wear their Wahine in Forestry shirts

Erica Kinder
CEO Southern North Island Wood Council

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