Women’s Forest Congress – at long last

Written by Amanda Mahaffey, complied by Colleen Robinson

I was in a room with 500 women foresters. What?! When did that happen, ever? It happened at the inaugural Women’s Forest Congress this October in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Opening remarks at Congress.

Dr. Antomia Farrell welcoming 500 women forest stewards to the Congress.

About the Congress:

The Congress was designed to inspire and empower women in the forest sector. This event was the culmination of years of work by women leaders in the field who felt that now was the time for a space dedicated to elevating the voices of women in the forestry profession. Congress sessions highlighted the important role that women landowners play in forest stewardship. No surprise, several Guild members were involved.

The Women’s Forest Congress challenges organizations in the forest and forest products sector to:

FOSTER workforce opportunities for all women through mentorship programs, professional development, scholarships, with a particular focus on reaching out to those who need help or are asking for assistance in any part of their journey.

BROADEN recruiting practices to include wider networks, and build a pipeline of talent by connecting with and showcasing forests and the forest and forest products sector to youth and students, creating job shadowing and internship opportunities, etc.

BUILD workplace systems that support mental health coverage, and include training and programs promoting healthy lifestyles, such as family leave, flexible work schedules, generous vacation plans, social opportunities, and holistic wellness programs.

PROMOTE a variety of working environments, encourage flexibility, and ensure all work environments are fully accessible.

ENABLE employees to prioritize mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health and model healthy behaviors for others.

CREATE a safe, inviting, and welcoming workspace for all resulting in greater wellness, increased retention, higher productivity, improved creativity, and heart-centered decision-making.

ASSESS compensation for women and promote paths to pay equity at all levels, including discrepancies in intersectional identities, communities, and demographics.

INTENTIONALLY IDENTIFY and support more women and those from underrepresented groups to achieve leadership positions.

INCREASE the use of storytelling in conferences, trainings, and workshops.

APPLY models and frameworks to generate and realize solutions to the greatest forest challenges that are built on women’s strengths, such as inclusive, collaborative, and multi-scale holistic thinking.

The participants of the 2022 Women’s Forest Congress, our supporters, and partners commit ourselves to advance these actions through our organizations, networks, partnerships, and spheres of influence.

Jess Wikle presenting

Jess Wikle presents on one of the five congress themes, Addressing Today’s Greatest Forest Challenges

Amanda’s story:

The Women’s Forest Congress was unlike any conference I have ever been to. The focus was not on forestry knowledge, though this group could offer a wealth of that, but rather on building connections and community so that together, we might address the world’s greatest forest challenges. Why a Women’s Forest Congress? Data and experience show that women are sadly underrepresented in the field and in leadership positions within the sector. The women who attended came from industry, academia, non-profit, government, and everything in between. We represented 38 states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 8 other countries. We came as leaders, mid-career professionals, young foresters, and students. We came to share our passion for igniting a new role for women in forestry.

Women having fun with photo op at Congress.

WOW leaders Georgia Peterson (MI), Angie Gupta (MN),
and Amanda Mahaffey (ME) having fun with forestry tools during the
Women’s Forest Congress.

The Congress program flowed through an arc of experience woven of the five themes of the Congress: Leadership for Equity and Inclusion; Workforce Opportunities for Increasing Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement; Women as Catalysts for Change; Addressing Today’s Greatest Forest Challenges; and Supporting Each Other. Inspirational speakers from inside and outside the forestry profession taught us to commit ourselves to embodying the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. To never give up in our determination to blaze a path for girls who will come after us. To have each other’s backs and affirm our truths. To support each other and lift each other up. To tell herstory in our sector’s history in the past, present, and future. To paddle upstream together and breathe in the world around us. To laugh, dance, and celebrate who we are.

Jessica Leahy speaks as a member of the WFC advisory council.

Jessica Leahy speaks as a member of the WFC advisory council about why this work is so important to her.

Breakout sessions were more like collaborative workshops than one-way presentations. Rooms were packed to overflowing with women asking good questions, providing input in world cafés, and building connections through small group discussions. Special spaces for creativity, wellness, and nursing mothers set this meeting apart from traditional forestry conferences. In the midst of all this activity, delegates worked diligently to articulate declarations that would come out of the Congress and establish a shared vision for the future of women in forestry. We heard powerful individual stories and universal support for one another. This special gathering of women was made even more impactful because of our shared experiences through the pandemic, which had a pronounced effect on women.

My mind is blown by the experience of the 2022 Women’s Forest Congress. This landmark gathering invited us to bring our whole selves, on equal footing with our colleagues, and with plenty to accomplish together. As I return home, I know inside that I am changed by this experience. I am ready to inspire, train, and empower the women around me to be the change we want to see, to work together to steward our forests for the future.

I am a woman forester. I am a catalyst for change. With others, I will rise, and we will shape the future.

Women in a Congress session

Photo depicts a breakout session, “The Past is Prologue, But Together, Women Will Create the Future Paradigm.” This workshop utilized insights from recent research as a foundation for participants to develop recommendations for policy and cultural changes centered on increasing the recruitment, retention, and advancement of female employees in the forest sector.