By:Mindy S. Crandall (she/her/hers)

I recently gave a talk at the Society of American Foresters (SAF) National Convention about some efforts at a university to better retain women enrolled in traditional undergraduate forestry majors (1). It’s a topic near and dear to my heart; when I received my undergraduate forest management degree, only about 10% of us were women. Twenty-five years later, as a faculty member at a different institution, about 10% of the students were women.

I started the talk by situating the need to increase the proportion of women in forestry by drawing on literature from the business world that shows that more diverse teams perform better. The talk was virtual, thanks to COVID-19, but it was well attended (from what I could tell). One of the interesting side effects of presenting in this way was that I couldn’t see the audience; the questions came in through the chat just to the presenters and could be anonymous. The moderator and I both saw a long question come in the chat…I think to some extent, he was hoping to protect me from what started out with a challenging tone. “That’s a long one; we can jump ahead,” he said. I thought it was important to address, however, and said, “No, it’s important, let’s talk about it.” Besides – is it just me, or are many of us in science and forestry and business pretty used to being challenged when we bring up new ideas or push for the inclusion of women?

The crux of the question is essential, and it’s simple. Why does it matter if a forester is a woman? The question I actually received was longer. Here’s an abbreviated version. Are forests worse off? Is the practice of forest conservation different because of the gender of the practitioner? How so? How is female forestry different from male forestry? I’m not opposed to female foresters, but what’s the advantage of gender diversity? Are there disadvantages to gender diversity in forestry? How can I be a better forester by learning from women foresters?

It’s hard sometimes to think on one’s feet and respond eloquently in the moment. But it is well worth answering. Because if we don’t have a good answer for that, well then, what is even the role of the Women’s Forest Congress?

My response was close to: “I believe it does matter. I believe different people bring different tools to the table. The tools we each have, the tools we use, the possible solutions we see are all shaped by our experiences.” That’s the funny thing about being part of an exclusive group – you don’t know what you don’t know. You may not see other possibilities because you haven’t lived the experiences that would show them to you. I don’t know exactly how the practice of forestry is different because of the gender of the practitioner. It’s hard to imagine a mechanism connecting gender to forest management, to be honest, without calling on gender stereotypes, which is why the question was phrased that way. Are forests worse off when men are overrepresented as foresters? I’m not sure.

However, I do know that forests are better off, in general, when we have more creative management tools at our disposal. I know that forests can provide more goods and services to more people when there are more options and possibilities on the table for their management. So, I’d like to see what would happen to forests if 50% of foresters were women. We know the outcome when 10-20% of them are. What if things could be better? What if we had more tools, more options, more ideas on the table? Why wouldn’t we take that choice set and see where it takes us?

Society demands more from forests today than ever before. We still need lumber, paper, recreation, clean water, food, medicines, and clean air. And we also need habitat diversity, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, genetic resources, old-growth, and more. We need all the tools on the table to maintain what we have in the face of all these demands. We need more perspectives, more ideas, more solutions. If we don’t have room for everyone to bring these to practice, we limit our options for the future. So yeah, I do think it matters if a forester is a woman; forestry can only be better if it’s more inclusive.

[1] Crandall, M.S., K.L. Costanza, J.M. Zukswert, L.S. Kenefic, and J.E. Leahy. 2020. An adaptive and evidence-based approach to building and sustaining gender diversity within a university forestry education program: A case study of SWIFT. Journal of Forestry 118(2): 193-204. DOI: 10.1093/jofore/jfz072.

Mindy S. Crandall (she/her/hers)
Assistant Professor | Forest Policy
Department of Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management
College of Forestry | Oregon State University
Office location: 232 Peavy Forest Science Center