By: Kelly Cooper
Founder and CEO, Centre for Social Intelligence 
Co-Lead, Free to Grow in Forestry  

Several years before the Women’s Forest Congress was formed, the Free to Grow in Forestry initiative came together to achieve gender equality and meaningful inclusion of women, Indigenous peoples, and new Canadians at all levels from technical to executive-level positions in the forest sector. The idea of bringing together all stakeholders across the forest sector to unite their efforts to address gender inequality just made sense. How else can you ensure it will be sustained if you don’t have everyone working collaboratively? With that mindset, I set out to find a forest organization that would be willing to partner with me and seek out gender champions across the sector.  

The Canadian Institute of Forestry (CIF) is the voice of forest practitioners – an organization dedicated to providing national leadership, promoting competence, and fostering public awareness of Canadian and international forestry/forest issues. They seemed like a great fit to combine forces with myself and my diversity and inclusion (D&I) company, the Centre for Social Intelligence, and to now add a socio-economic arm to their mandate. In 2017, I approached them, and they were keen to make a difference in increasing the number of women in the forest sector. At 17%, it was hard for them to argue that there wasn’t work to be done.  We formed a partnership to develop the Gender Equity in Canada’s Forest Sector National Action Plan, which became the foundation for what is now called “Free to Grow in Forestry.” 

Together, the CIF and I set out to secure funding. The Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) department of the Canadian federal government had a grant intake program that aimed to support initiatives that increased women’s leadership in Canada with a 3-year funding envelope. We submitted a proposal to create a National Action Plan to increase the number of women in executive and technical positions in the forest sector and were successful.  

This was great, we were on our way, but we wanted more. We wanted the private sector to have “skin in the game” and sought funding from the forest industry. We were successful in securing some funds from the Forest Products Association of Canada that represents roughly 50% of the forest industry. This now meant we had the first public-private sector partnership in Canada’s forest sector that focused on gender equality. This focus would evolve over the 3-years to include diversity and inclusion as a whole. 

Our first order of business was to establish a national steering committee comprised of senior-level champions from the private, public, not-for-profit, academia, and Indigenous organizations to guide the development of our action plan.  Together we developed a new vision for the sector – that “Canada has a diverse and inclusive workforce that provides the foundation for a thriving forest sector and healthy communities.”  We laid out a framework for action that targeted three pillars of activity: 

  • Build the Evidence Base – to collect current data available on women and underrepresented groups and identify gaps to be pursued; 
  • Foster an Inclusive Culture – to help the sector with tools and approaches to create a greater sense of belonging for all Canadians in their workplace culture; and 
  • Reposition the Sector – to attract and retain underrepresented groups in the forest sector, to educate the current workforce on the benefits of diversity and inclusion, and to measure and track the performance of the changes that take place.  

Under each of these pillars of activity, we identified three actions to take.  And from there, we rolled up our sleeves and got busy. Real busy. Three years later, we have not only achieved everything we set out to do in the initiative itself, but we also mobilized all stakeholders across the sector to take action as well. 

Here’s a quick rundown of what has been achieved within the Initiative so far: 

  • For the first time, we have brought together all data related to women and underrepresented groups in Canada and developed an “evidence report” that gives hard and true facts about the state of the situation;  
  • A report on Indigenous women in leadership positions was developed – based on interviews with female indigenous forestry leaders in Canada in an effort to recognize the leadership contributions these women make in the sector, steering away from the stereotypical victim image that Indigenous women so often get pigeonholed into; 
  • Developed gender equality principles for the forest sector; 
  • Engaged 14 large forest sector companies in the development of three key reports: “A Plan to Eliminate Resistance to Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace”; “Inclusive Leadership – Creating a Culture of Empowerment, Accountability and Belonging”; and an allies toolkit called “Getting into Team – Leveraging Power and Privilege”;  
  • Branded the Initiative to be called “Free to Grow in Forestry,” playing off the forest practitioners’ phrase of letting the forest be “free to grow” when it is deemed no longer in need of human intervention. We created a communications plan and have systematically implemented it with the development of a website, social media channels, and even beyond to now having a “Free to Grow in Forestry” podcast series.  As the host of this podcast, I am engaging with people from across the forest sector – ranging from the C-suite to all underrepresented groups in an effort to open the channel of communication, creating greater understanding and empathy of diverse perspectives.   

Needless to say, this has been an exciting journey. And there’s more. All stakeholders involved have also implemented actions in their own spheres of influence too. From academia pursuing the development of D&I and forestry courses and reassessing who has tenure and other senior positions; to industry taking on new culture change initiatives; to greater attention to who is speaking at conferences, panels, sitting on boards, and more. All in all, these three years have been action-packed, and half of this timeframe has been during COVID-19 times. This context has meant we have been unable to meet in person and strengthen our networks to the extent we could have. In spite of that, however, we can move onward knowing we have accomplished all that we set out to do and then some.  

As we move forward, we turn our focus to a more regional context, engaging more forest sector organizations, including those along the supply chain. We have set our sights on greater impact and action on the ground through D&I training that creates a sustained shift across the forest sector workforce. We will look at the data gaps that were identified in the first phase of this Initiative and now look to filling those gaps. We will further our communication outreach to enlist more people to the “Free to Grow in Forestry” email list and visit the website, where we can all be well-versed in cutting-edge information and actions across the Canadian forest sector on this issue. By doing all of these actions (and more), we believe we will create a sector that is a beacon for new and high-flying talent, where everyone feels they belong, thereby strengthening its resilience in a globally competitive market. 

Stay connected and take action – follow Free to Grow in Forestry on social media and help move #ForestryForward!