Canadian Biomass Magazine

The courage to change: Women in Forestry Virtual Summit calls for culture shift

March 12, 2021
By Kristina Urquhart

This week, hundreds of people gathered online to hear industry thought leaders discuss gender equity in the forest products sector at the inaugural Women in Forestry Summit.

The event, hosted on Mar. 9 by Canadian Forest Industries, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass, drew a total of 883 registrants, with 621 people attending the live event. (Missed the broadcast? Register for free to watch the recordings).

Women represented 17 per cent of the forestry labour force in 2016. Inspired by the ongoing efforts of industry leaders to dismantle the barriers that prevent or discourage women from entering the industry, and to facilitate conversations about advancing women into leadership positions, CFI, P&PC and CB have been tackling these topics in articles, profiles, podcasts and videos for the past three years – and now via this new event.

‘The courage to create space’

Beth MacNeil, assistant deputy minister of the Canadian Forest Service and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), opened the program with a brief look at how NRCan has created more opportunities for women in forestry.

One such initiative is a program that partners Indigenous and non-Indigenous women on research projects. Another is by requiring successful funding applicants to submit diversity and inclusion plans, and collect statistics that report on the effectiveness of those plans.

“While progress is being made, I don’t think it’s happening at the pace or at the scale at which it needs to occur,” MacNeil said.

She encouraged leaders to enable inclusivity at all levels of the workforce. One way she does this with her own team is by encouraging ideas, “especially when they challenge the status quo in a positive way and enhance important values.

“If you have the courage to create space, to allow your teams to imagine a different world within your organization, and you provide the support for good ideas, good things can happen,” she said.

Watch Beth MacNeil’s opening remarks here.

The power of privilege

Tanya Wick, vice-president of people and services at Tolko, delivered the event’s keynote, “Get Started: How to Be an Ally.”

Wick is well known for her work in gender equity in forestry, having launched several strategies over the past few years to encourage more women and youth to join the forest products sector. She also is one of three industry representatives on the steering committee for the Gender Equity in Forestry National Action Plan.

“I do want to share with the audience how important this moment is for me,” Wick said as she began. “When I started the journey five years ago to change my company and change the industry, at times it felt I was the only drop in a very big pool. And now with over 800 participants here today to hear our message and listen to our story, that’s pretty amazing.”

She focused on the power of privilege, sharing a graphic to demonstrate the varying degrees of privilege afforded to certain groups based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, wealth, education, health and other markers. “Acknowledging privilege can be uncomfortable,” Wick said. “But it’s important that we start talking openly about using our privilege to make space for others to find their voices.”

“This is not a women’s issue, but a business and workplace issue that impacts growth, innovation and quality of life for all of us.”

When it comes to supporting and advancing women and other underrepresented groups in the workplace, allies are a crucial part of the framework, Wick said.

“Anyone can be an ally,” she said. “An ally holds a position of power. They take responsibility for making changes that help others be successful. And they transfer the benefits of the privilege to those who lack it. They use their credibility to create more access and more inclusion, and they’re willing to have the tough conversations that are needed to create awareness and acceptance on these issues.”

She stressed the importance of business leaders taking action on inclusivity to ensure that the next generation of workers are aware of the possibilities open to them, and shared tips on how to listen, be accountable and commit to change.

“This is not a women’s issue, but a business and workplace issue that impacts growth, innovation and quality of life for all of us.”

Watch Tanya Wick’s presentation here.

A rising tide of change

Kelly Cooper, founder of the Centre for Social Intelligence and co-chair of the steering committee for Canada’s Gender Equity in Forestry National Action Plan, walked attendees through the cross-sector work that’s been done on a countrywide level as part of the action plan, which is now referred to as Free to Grow in Forestry.

The initiative, which initially started as a way to increase the number of women in senior executive positions and technical woodland roles and improve Canada’s competitiveness in the global market, has evolved to examine the barriers for all underrepresented groups in forestry, including Indigenous people and new Canadians.

The research conducted to build the framework for Free to Grow in Forestry showed four key barriers to entry for women: persistent wage gaps, low retention rates, lack of advancement opportunities and challenging workplace culture.

Cooper said the labour shortage in the forest sector is exacerbated by the low numbers of women (17 per cent), new Canadians (12 per cent), visible minorities (nine per cent) and Indigenous people (seven per cent) working in the industry. The research conducted to build the framework for Free to Grow in Forestry showed four key barriers to entry for women: persistent wage gaps, low retention rates, lack of advancement opportunities and challenging workplace culture.

For the past three years, the committee has been gathering diversity and inclusion data for the sector, identifying gaps to be filled, and developing tools that can be applied by forest sector companies to foster an inclusive workforce. Free to Grow in Forestry is now a website housing diversity and inclusion resources and stories featuring people who are underrepresented in industry. A podcast is forthcoming in April.

Cooper also shared many of the diversity and inclusion initiatives that have been rolling out at companies across the sector ranging from industry to not-for-profit to government to academia.

“All of our efforts on this project have created a ripple effect across the sector overall,” she said. “As John F. Kennedy was once quoted as saying, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ And all I can say is, we have a lot of boats in the water.”

Watch Kelly Cooper’s presentation here.

Moving from awareness to action

Following a statement from Derek Nighbor, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada, celebrating the achievements of women working in the sector, Kara Biles, director of learning and leadership at Canfor, took the stage to share Canfor’s journey to inclusivity – a comprehensive, company-wide strategy that has been underway since 2015.

“I’ve personally experienced what a difference inclusion and belonging can make in someone’s life, because I’ve had my own struggles feeling like I belong,” said Biles, who is Anishinaabe and of mixed settler ancestry from the Batchewana First Nation. She shared that growing up mixed race made it difficult to know where she fit in and led to bullying and stereotyping – and as a result, she attempted to downplay her heritage.

“Along the way, I realized I did belong,” she said. “We all have a diversity story, even those you might not expect. Every last one of us knows what it feels like to be excluded. We all want to be welcomed, valued, respected and heard.”

When she joined the forest products sector, Biles’ difficult experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field led her to want to change things. Now, as director of learning and leadership at Canfor, Biles shared how she’s been leading Canfor’s teams to a more inclusive, equitable and diverse workforce. She underscored that the path to diversity and inclusion is a journey, and not a destination – it requires ongoing work.

“Along the way, I realized I did belong,” she said. “We all have a diversity story, even those you might not expect. Every last one of us knows what it feels like to be excluded. We all want to be welcomed, valued, respected and heard.”

This required transitioning an executive commitment into a blueprint for change at the company. “It was made clear that all employees are expected to contribute to an inclusive workplace culture, and that they would be provided with tools and training to support this expectation.”

Some of the more recent initiatives have included implementing a diversity council, mentoring programs, leadership accountability strategies and staff training. The company has been rolling out diversity and inclusion training across all of its employees at a faster-than-expected rate – the goal was to train at least 75 per cent of all Canadian salaried employees by the end of 2020. So far they’ve trained 100 per cent of their executive leadership and 95 per cent of all staff in Canada.

Watch Kara Biles’ presentation here.

Clockwise from top left: Kate Lindsay, Lacey Rose, Charlene Strelaeff, Fahimeh Yazdan Panah, Johanne Latour

A need for flexibility

Closing off the event was a panel discussion moderated by Kate Lindsay, senior vice-president at the Forest Products Association of Canada.

Lindsay was joined by Charlene Strelaeff, fibre forester at Mercer Celgar, Fahimeh Yazdan Panah, director of research and technical development at Wood Pellet Association of Canada, Johanne Latour, director of talent and culture at EACOM Timber Corporation, and Lacey Rose, county forester for the County of Renfrew and co-founder of Women in Wood.

The panelists discussed the barriers to women entering and staying in the sector, the ways they’ve negotiated to get to their own positions, and the supports they want to see from organizations to help women advance to more senior positions.

Strelaeff and Latour both stressed the need for flexibility when it comes to job roles, whether for remote work options, flexible travel or field days. Rose agreed, saying that there needs to be more emphasis on growth opportunities for women, with recognition from leaders that external factors like childcare and other traditional gender roles may threaten the ability of women to move up the ladder.

“There is this conscious and unconscious bias that does exist. Part of it is on us to know how to deal with it, and we need to learn how to be brave,” Yazdan Panah said. “We need to raise our daughters to be brave.”

Watch the panel discussion here.

Watch online

Missed the live event? The entire Women in Forestry Virtual Summit is available on-demand, including additional pre-recorded sessions: Janelle Abela, principal consultant at Diverse Strategy Solutions, covers what diversity, equity and inclusion in forestry means, and Janis Simpkins, senior vice-president of the Alberta Forest Products Association, discusses knowing your value no matter what level you’re at in the industry.

All of the sessions are free to watch – just register to unlock the content.

Thank you to our sponsors for their support of the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit, and for making this event possible: Forest Products Association of Canada, Sustainable Forestry Initiative/Project Learning Tree Canada, Canadian Institute of Forestry-Institute Forestier du Canada, Canfor, Cascades, EACOM, John Deere, Ponsse, Alberta Forest Products Association, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, Forests Ontario, FSC Canada, Interfor, Resolute Forest Products, Tolko and Woodtone.

Have an idea for next year’s sessions? Contact Ellen Cools at or Kristina Urquhart at

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