Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, Jemima Letts, assistant forester at Chatsworth Estate and founder of social enterprise Tree Sparks, offers a personal reflection on her own experience of being a woman in forestry.

‘WOMEN in forestry’ has become a popular talking point over the past couple of years, especially with the increasing push to encourage more people to consider careers in forestry and arboriculture. As someone who identifies as a ‘woman in forestry’, this has made me contemplate my own experiences, how they have differed from what I expected when I first started out, and some of the opportunities I’ve been able to gain, in part, due to my gender.

Prior to starting my studies, I hadn’t given any thought to going into a career which was and still is seen as being male-dominated. The topic only arose after accepting my place on a forestry course when well-meaning friends and family members expressed their concerns about me entering into the profession – concerns I did not share at the time due to my naivety of what forestry actually was!

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When I began studying at Bangor in 2015, I did find myself at a disadvantage. Not only had I decided to embark upon a course in a subject I knew nothing about, but I also discovered the small forestry cohort was predominantly male. This made early morning lectures hard to skip out of as everyone noticed if the ‘lass’ wasn’t present (although, to be fair, at the time I had quite a distinctive look, with brightly coloured trousers, odd shoes and very long hair). I soon came to realise that being a female was a bit of a ‘big deal’ when studying forestry. 

While getting settled into student life, it became clear a distinction was being made between myself and fellow coursemates, because I was a female. At the start of new forestry modules, lecturers would make a point of asking how many females were in the cohort, along with people from other courses referring to me as ‘the girl’ studying forestry. To begin with, I found this slightly distracting, creating a lot of unwanted attention. I didn’t see myself as any different to the others on my course, with us all being new to Bangor and university life and all having a passion for the environment and trees. Eventually though, the novelty began to fade.

The additional attention drawn to my presence was something which subconsciously started to make me feel under pressure to perform and made me nervous about my future. Even though, within my cohort, I was just one of the lads, how would the rest of the forestry world see me once I graduated? I started to worry I wouldn’t fit in with the ‘forestry crowd’ and that being a female would make what I perceived to be my weaknesses more noticeable. 

Despite these worries, I landed a one-year placement on the Chatsworth Estate as their trainee forester – an awesome opportunity for me to actually experience what forestry was and to make myself look more attractive to future potential employers. Arriving at Chatsworth was similar to arriving at university. I found myself joining a predominantly male forestry team, but with one big difference: I was treated exactly the same as everyone else within the team. There were the usual initial pleasantries from some of the more traditional members of the team, but once they saw me mucking in and getting involved, I was just one of the lads. 

Towards the end of university and over my time at Chatsworth (now well into my third year as assistant forester), I have been approached by event organisers, forestry bodies and content creators to talk all about forestry, with these requests becoming frighteningly frequent. Although I know my experience working at Chatsworth and Tree Sparks and my different viewpoint were important factors in me being asked to participate, there was another reason cited for my invitations: my gender and identifying as a ‘woman in forestry’. It is now an ongoing joke within my team that I am only asked to participate because it looks good, and to an extent this is true. Asking me to participate on panel discussions or podcasts is down to my knowledge and speaking ability, but also down to organisers wanting to diversify their collection of presenters.

This has been disheartening for some of my male colleagues who are potentially denied opportunities just because they fit the forester stereotype (especially as they have a wealth of knowledge and experiences of their own). It is also a bit of a blow to me personally, with this emphasis on my gender taking away from my experience and opinions. There is always a small part of me asking whether I’ve just been asked to add diversity to what might have been an otherwise all-male, all-white panel.

Forestry Journal:  Some of the Bangor University forestry first-year cohort in 2015. Some of the Bangor University forestry first-year cohort in 2015. (Image: FJ)

I believe diversity is a lot more than simply whether someone identifies as female or male. The forestry and arboriculture team at Chatsworth is extremely diverse, but not necessarily to look at! Although a male-dominated team, its members come from an assorted mix of backgrounds ranging from military and police to engineering and IT to tree surgeons and forestry by trade. These different life experiences have created a diversity of thought within our team, meaning for every problem we encounter, we come up with 15 unique solutions (and conversations at lunch are never boring). This isn’t to say that gender isn’t an important part of diversity, but it shouldn’t all be about looks. 

My experiences so far in forestry have been amazing and I couldn’t imagine having a better career than the one I have chosen. In some instances, though, I feel my experiences have been slightly tarred by a distinction being made between myself and others simply because of gender. All I want to be is just one of the lads.