Women in Trees: Sharing Experiences and Lessons Learned

When Fleming College Professor of Urban Forestry, Katrina Van Osch-Saxon, first asked me to speak at the one-day Women in Trees Conference and Awareness Day on Earth Day 2017, I didn’t know what to expect or what I could offer. When I first started my career in urban forestry I often found myself surrounded mostly by men during meetings. Getting acquainted with other women professionals who inspired and supported me was instrumental to my growth and confidence as I moved along my journey.

And so, in preparation for this event, I started making a list of all the women who have influenced and supported me in my career thus far. This quickly became an exhaustive exercise as I realized how many women imparted lessons and shaped my professional development. I knew I wanted to be part of the Women in Trees event to share some of the lessons I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had with respect to applied practice, policy development, and research.

There were two parts to this day: the morning included a panel of three speakers and the afternoon involved climbing trees! Yes, climbing trees—ropes, harnesses, hard hats, carabineers, steel toed boots, ladders, and tree canoes—the whole nine yards! I’m thankful for the opportunity to have included my sister in the day, reconnect with familiar faces, and meet many new women.

During my doctoral work I interviewed many arborists and collected stories about language, labour, agency, and education (Bardekjian, 2015). Many of the stories from women arborists included perspectives on their often-underrepresented roles. Stories also surfaced that just didn’t sit well with me, including tales of being sexualized, disrespected by clients and colleagues, and a series of other derogatory gender biases. Women voiced the common observation that they needed to work harder to prove themselves—whereas male ability was assumed.

Despite the challenges that women have faced in the urban forest and arboricultural industries, we are seeing more young women embrace opportunities and pursue careers in the field. Part of this is attributable to women better understanding what the job options are; for instance, overcoming the misconception that career options solely involve labor-intensive fieldwork and operating machinery. Another part is equipping women with personal and professional development tools to navigate the workforce.

WIT_Katrina
Katrina and I all geared up and ready to climb trees at the Women In Trees conference in Lindsay, ON, April 22, 2017.

Events like the Women in Trees Conference offer invaluable networking opportunities for young women getting into the industry. At Women in Trees, participants were exposed to multiple job options and perspectives from diverse cultures and different generations. In addition, networking groups like Women in Wood provide online forums for women to exchange ideas and share experiences and knowledge.

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Women in Trees panelists were asked to share lessons and offer suggestions to young women who want to get into the industry or who are considering a change. Drawing on some of the experiences and challenges that were instrumental in shaping my own career, here are ten lessons I learned:

  1. Try everything: Embrace new experiences and opportunities despite reservations. My introduction to urban forestry began when I embarked on a Masters of Forest Conservation at the University of Toronto. For my thesis, I had an opportunity to work with the Toronto District School Board in developing a tree inventory and management plan. The learning curve for me was steep—I knew nothing about trees or inventories—and terms like “attribute data” and “quantitative analysis” were a new language for me. This experience launched me into the following years of learning to conduct tree inventories with mapping, design management plans, develop funding proposals, deliver curriculum, navigate and develop policy, negotiate partnerships, and foster creativity. I would have never learned any of these had I succumbed to the initial hesitation and fear of the unknown.
  2. Talk to everyone: Seek out women and supportive male colleagues to inspire you and learn from. Speaking to as many people as possible offers insights from diverse perspectives. With Tree Canada, I manage the Canadian Urban Forest Network, Strategy, and Conference. Successes over the past three years have included fostering greater learning both nationally and internationally, providing multiple opportunities for people to come together, and building a national urban forestry community in which people feel heard.
  3. Practice effective dialogue: Listen to what others are saying to understand where they are coming from before passing judgment. Listening intently to people with an open mind does not mean you need to agree with them. However, their perspective may shed some insight on your own biases.
  4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Step out of the things that are familiar—this is how you will grow. Being at York in a PhD program gave me the language to ground certain concepts in theoretical frameworks like social constructions and political ecology. It was here that I learned to question everything and in particular, my own biases. I learned to become more self-reflective and this has helped to shape my research and ideas about urban forestry practice.
  5. Do what you love and follow your instincts: Do what you love even if people try to discourage you. Just because someone says you can’t do something doesn’t mean it’s true. When my colleague and I were organizing the Urban Forests & Political Ecologies Conference we were met with strong opposition from the very people we thought would support us the most. There were subtle hints that we were elbowing our way onto someone else’s turf. At the Conference we also organized an urban environmental art exhibit as part of the event. We’d never done anything like that before, but we brought together a great group of women and made it happen! This experience affirmed my creative drive to share stories that I’m passionate about. For me, this meant creating communication outlets using photography and films to share messages to wide audiences. Examples of this for me include Limbwalkers and Partners in Action: A Shade Policy for the City of Toronto, which won the Canadian Dermatology Public Education Award in 2014.
  6. Job shadowing: During my undergraduate years, I worked at Concordia University’s Counseling & Development Department, where job-shadowing coordination was one of the services we offered. It was a great way for young people to see the daily reality of a career they were interested in pursuing. Even if job shadowing is not available in a formal sense, contacting people who you respect in the field and asking for an informational interview is also beneficial. In my experience, most people will give you half an hour of their time.
  7. Attend conferences and workshops: Whether you’re a participant or a speaker, these events are great networking opportunities. A recent survey on LinkedIn showed that over 70% of jobs are obtained through networking. I have developed a wide national and international network of personal and professional contacts from attending events and speaking to people about their work and interests. The Canadian Urban Forest Conference is an example of a national event with great networking possibilities. It’s held every two years, and the next one will be in Vancouver, BC, in 2018 as part of a larger international urban forest congress. Get involved!
  8. Volunteer with different groups: Working with interdisciplinary teams offers opportunities to learn from different viewpoints and deal with conflicting personalities. My experience volunteering with the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition, a multidisciplinary board made up of different departments from the City—Urban Forestry and Parks, Child Services, Public Health, as well as environmental groups and academic representation— taught me how to navigate differing priorities and ask complicated questions that may not always render positive responses. This taught me that even when people share the same mandates and goals, their methods and ideologies might not be compatible.
  9. Take professional development courses: Professional development courses and coaching opportunities are a great way to learn more about yourself and others. A colleague of mine and I from Tree Canada recently took a course on management and it proved to be quite insightful about conduct, social psychology, and conflict resolution. We left with tools about understanding decision-making processes and how we can better adapt our management skills to be more empathetic and inclusive. There are many organizations that offer professional development courses to their staff on topics like management, business development, time management, and professional conduct.
  10. Read!: Take the initiative to learn about the things you want to know more about, be it field related, special interests, or personal growth. There are a plethora of books and articles available for self-improvement. Some of the suggested readings from the course I mentioned above include: Mindset by Carol Dweck; Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler; and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. I would have liked to read these sooner in my own career!

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There are many opportunities for women to pursue careers in trees and urban forestry, be it applied practice (e.g. arboriculture, developing tree inventories), policy development (e.g. implementing bylaws), or academic research and education (e.g. contributing to advancing discourses and sharing knowledge). I’m thrilled to see the interest in the field growing among women. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be around so many inspiring women with mutual interests and I’m thankful to work with a team at Tree Canada where 12 out of our 15 staff are women!

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not only the women with whom we work who motivate us—in fact, much of the time it’s the ones closest to us. In my case it’s my big sister who I look up to dearly, a full-time Corporate Real Estate Manager in downtown Toronto and a mother of two.

I was reminded of my affection for my own students at the end of the Women in Trees Conference; the graduating students surprised the organizers by planting two trees in their honour on the Fleming College campus. In addition, as a thanks to all three speakers, the organizing committee wanted to give us something to do with trees and wisdom. They presented us with owls carved by Gerald Guenkel, retired Fleming College Forestry Professor. Needless to say, these are beautiful and I will cherish this gift!

A huge thanks to Katrina Van Osch-Saxon and Adele Russell from Fleming College for organizing a wonderful event. Thank you to my co-panellists who offered invaluable insights from their own experiences: Daniele Fleming from Ontario Power Worker’s Union, and Jessica Kaknevicius from Forests Ontario and co-founder of the Women in Wood online network. Lastly, I want to thank the 100-plus women who attended the event—it was an amazing experience being in the treetops with you all, and I am looking forward to future collaborations!

Adrina C. Bardekjian, MFC, PhD

Check out the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMDL7LD3BBw

This article was edited by Michelle Sutton, and will be published in the July/August issue of City Trees magazine, a publication of the Society of Municipal Arborists. For more information, please visit: www.urban-forestry.com

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