By: MaryKate Bullen
Member of the WFC Advisory Council
Director of Sustainability and ESG at Forest Investment Associates 

Early this May, I walked into a brightly lit meeting room in an airport hotel in Minneapolis. Ten heads swiveled, and ten faces smiled in my direction. I smiled back and stammered something about hoping I wasn’t too early or interrupting. A woman I’d never met in person but with whom I’d spent hours upon hours with on video conferences for the past two years jumped up to greet me with a hug. Then so did another. They were followed by a set of warm hellos and waves. This was the Women’s Forest Congress Steering Committee.

I am a member of the Advisory Council and was joining a portion of their two-day strategy and planning retreat already underway. While I went around the room meeting and re-meeting the Steering Committee, I still worried in the back of my head that I was interrupting. It was clear these folks were deep into the work. Packets of meeting papers strewn on the conference table were underlined, highlighted, and full of notes in the margins. But a chair was quickly pulled out, and I was encouraged to take a seat as everyone dove back into their shared work.

I watched intently. Something gave me pause as I tried to figure out where we were in the agenda and backfill what might have already been discussed. The group ranged in ages and careers, from a doctoral student to experienced CEO entrepreneurs to senior leaders from non-profits and corporates. This was a table entirely of women. This was the first time I was surrounded entirely by women leaders in a professional setting in my 15-year career. It felt wonderful to be there.

Dr. Mia Farrell was masterfully guiding the group through the agenda as the facilitator. The women around the table were listening, some nodding along and others scribbling notes. Mia paused frequently, and a person or two would speak up with a clarifying question or suggest a change to the text being finalized. There was an easy and natural rhythm to the meeting.

Within the first hour of joining, I wanted to share a comment on something.

“If I could just add in on that thought. I understand I’m observing the meeting today, but I had some information I thought would be useful for the discussion…”

Another half-hour or so later, I wanted to contribute again. For a second time, I found myself prefacing my contribution to the discussion. “Sorry to interrupt again, but…”

When I finished speaking, I found myself pausing in reflection – again. No one had sighed. No one continued talking over me. Heads turned to listen. I hadn’t interrupted at all. I thought back to my words. What was I apologizing for? Why wouldn’t the group want to hear relevant information?

I’ve never been one to be labeled quiet or shy of sharing opinions, and my natural mode is to jump in, take part, and enjoy a strong give-and-take or collaborative brainstorm. But I realized sitting in that room of engaged women, something in me was not what I was used to. I had changed my default business mode to a degree of hesitation, deference, and even superfluous apology. That was no mistake. I have grown used to being the only or one of a few women in important meetings, and for most of my career, I have often been among the youngest participants in a meeting. I had built up mechanisms to deal with these facts, which can often feel inconvenient rather than empowering.

Over the last three or so years, I completed leadership and development coaching and courses, several of which focused on women in leadership. During this time, I learned about the important, but frustrating data that confirm that men and women are perceived and judged differently for the same workplace behaviors and actions – to the disadvantage of women considered bossy, less competent, or too emotional.

When I first learned about this data, I assumed it must be outdated. It isn’t. I could not believe the esteemed professor leading courses on inspiring women in leadership was advocating for women to put forward more warmth and empathy in the workplace to enhance their chances of success. Surely, this was a societal wrong against which we should revolt. If enough of us agree, we can break down the bossy barrier, right? As my own journey and development continued, trial and error – there was and is still a lot of error – showed the professor was right. She was pragmatic and advised women on how to succeed within our world as it is today.

Sitting in that conference room in Minneapolis, I realized I still had not mastered what I was hoping for – that effortlessly perfect way of sharing my idea without diminishing myself while simultaneously making everyone else feel respected and appreciated for their ideas. I also realized that is okay. It’s a high bar to think on your feet, have the right body language, and chime in with that oh-so-perfect, succinct contribution. In this room, though, perfection did not matter, and the systemic bias we face in many work settings was purposefully excluded. These women had made a space where everyone not only had a seat at the table, but their voices were also heard, and their ideas were welcome and treated on an equitable basis. Again, this was no mistake; it was the result of great care and intention.

The WFC Steering Committee operates under a Community Agreement, which they define as “a consensus on what every person in our group needs from each other and commits to each other in order to feel safe, supported, open, productive, and trusting.” I learned about the existence of the Community Agreement only after I saw and felt it in action in that conference room. Their agreement states: “our shared goal is to transform the forest sector by creating a space for women to be heard and listened to by working together to plan the Women’s Forest Congress.”

I am proud to say I am part of advancing that goal and that each of us in that hotel conference room was part of the carefully curated success of the planning retreat. I’m even more excited for hundreds of others to join us at the inaugural Women’s Forest Congress this October 17-20 and experience what it is like to be part of this unique movement.

Here are some of the things the WFC is doing to make sure that every person who attends the Congress in October can bring their whole self to the event and feel belonging in this new and growing community.

  • Meeting spaces have been considered so that there is a minimal sense of hierarchy, such as using circular chair layouts for smaller discussion-based sessions
  • Showcasing a diverse and inclusive set of speakers, panelists, and workshop leaders across the five themes of the Congress
  • Creating welcoming spaces to encourage connection and not just networking
  • Providing different types of event activities and spaces to promote movement and exercise, mindfulness, and quiet for those who prefer it or need to recharge
  • Using a delegate system with shared responsibility for generating the resolutions of the Congress
  • Holding the event to a high standard of quality and professionalism – this is not a second-class event, and every participant is important
  • Providing scholarships and travel assistance to promote equitable access to the Congress

The above list is just a sampling of the ideas from the May retreat and the months of planning from the WFC working groups. I am truly impressed by the careful thought and creativity that has gone into ensuring the event lives up to the aspirations for inclusion, empowerment, support, and cooperation that have been set. If you have joined any of the WFC virtual events, I trust you have had a taste of these aspirations coming to fruition. Now imagine how that transforms into a time and space where we have a dedicated event venue, a three-day agenda, dozens of speakers and sessions inviting you to share your experience and views, and hundreds of participants. Each of them is there because they want to be.

As I get ready to book my flights, I look forward to more moments of reflection and the opportunity for growth and learning alongside other women who care deeply about the future of our forests.

I hope you are looking forward to it also – there’s a seat at the table, and we can’t wait to see you in it.