Mar 7, 2023 | News

The ForestLink’s Forum for Forest Executives, May 2023 is open for applications. Apply now to be part of this first of its kind platform for bringing together the top leadership of forest companies in the tropics.


I grew up in a home, where both my parents worked outside of the house (this has a different meaning nowadays) … I don’t think I was ever “told” that I could do anything I wanted, or “be” anything I wanted, it was just an integrated part of the way I was parented, the example I was shown. As I moved through adulthood – it never occurred to me that the opportunities I would have and choices I would need to make would be different than my male peers.  

Looking back on my career with a “gender lens” I am taken aback by how being a woman has both provided opportunities and challenges from my rather gender-privileged upbringing. 

+ I was awarded scholarships in university, in part, due to being female, 

– Early in my career I was paid less than a male colleague for performing the same job. Even though I proved that I was more experienced and qualified, he was given more responsibility than me and I had to show him what to do, 

– In a previous job, part of my responsibility included supervising logging crews, where I often received snide remarks, and did not feel respected, 

– I have felt on several occasions the need to speak louder and stronger to be heard when compared to my male peers, 

+ / – I had to choose (but also luckily had the freedom), when in my career was the right time to have a family and pause professionally to prioritize being a mother, 

+ I felt safe in my decision to leave a good, secure job to pursue my professional ambitions because I wasn’t burdened by being a solo bread-winner, like many of my male peers who don’t have the luxury of taking that leap of faith because of society’s pressure on them to provide security for their families (even if it means stifling motivation and creativity).  

In honour of the upcoming International Women’s Day (on March 8th), I’m re-running this article I posted last year, and highlighting 3 women of authority in the forest sector where I’ve interviewed and posted a separate article for each (see links below). In these individual accounts, we cross cultures, geographies, roles and responsibilities to understand how these women have worked to the top of their field and gain an understanding on their unique position on women winning in the woods. 

Fearless girl (the fearless girl that stares down the bull of wallstreet)
Photo by Hyunwon Jang 

MaryKate Bullen is a thought leader and industry expert in ESG in forest investment, where she currently works as the Director of Sustainability and ESG at Forest Investment Associates. In this article, MaryKate speaks to the challenges and accomplishments she’s encountered due to gender bias. She provides thoughts on changing the forestry narrative and some enlightening ways to attract more women to forestry.

Mette Løyche Wilkie is a retired Director of the Forestry Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. She has achieved significant outcomes in her tenure as leader of the most far-reaching forest policy organization in the world. In this article, we speak about how gender diversity has improved since Mette first started out, and how she quickly gained respect in the forest.

Lina Hong leads a teak plantation company in Cambodia, Grandis Timber, where she was hired on as a young sustainability manager, and in just six short years, through her quick learning, ability to see the big picture and motivation to move the company forward, was promoted to the top role in the company as Operations Manager.

Polarities in gender disparity – from the boardroom to firewood collection  

Gender disparity exists at different levels across countries, cultures, socioeconomic conditions, and workplaces. When tying the topic to the forest sector, you see a lack of female representation in the sector professionally and machismo especially in forest operations. In the tropical forest context where I focus my work, in forest-dwelling communities, women are often marginalized. 

A 2021 article in the Financial Times noted that just 1 in 10 recently appointed leaders in big companies were women, pointing out that only 5% of top jobs at big companies are held by women. Without distinguishing among work responsibilities, in 2020, the forest sector in Europe comprised a workforce of 416,000 men to only 74,000 women (or 15% of workers) (EU Gender Statistics, 2020). 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) points out that despite improvements in gender equality, women continue to be disadvantaged by insecure property rights, and limited access to forest, trees and land resources. Adding that they also suffer from discrimination and bias in the provision of services, and are often excluded from decision-making at household, community, and national levels (FAO, 2021). 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), highlight the need for female decision-making authority and recognition of basic human rights as far as gender equality is concerned under UN SDG 5Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. In the following figure, I break down UN SDG 5 into its targets and indicators that relate to gender disparity in forestry – and provide examples of how these are surfacing (and progressing) in the forestry space: both professionally, and those living in forest communities.  

UN SDG 5 Target and IndicatorLink to Progress in the Forest
End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
·          Whether or not legal frameworks are in place to promote, enforce and monitor equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex

Many companies are monitoring the number of female employees they have, both in gross number, but also as a representation of executive, decision-making authority.
EXAMPLE:  in FSC certified operations, job opportunities shall be open to both women and men under the same conditions, and women are encouraged to participate actively in all levels of employment. Also, same wages are paid for the same work conducted by men or women, and certified operations shall encourage men to take paid paternity leave to support their families.
Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life
·          Proportion of women in managerial positions
Number of women in positions of authority in the forest sector, across all fields is on the rise.
EXAMPLE: Just as Mette Løyche Wilkie retires from her position as Director of the Forestry Division of the FAO, in December, 2021, the International Timber Trade Organization (ITTO) appointed their first female Executive Director, Ms Sheam Satkuru and Ms. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo was appointed as Director of The United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF).
Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance, and natural resources, in accordance with national laws
·          Proportion of total agricultural population with ownership or secure rights over agricultural land, by sex; and (b) share of women among owners or rights-bearers of agricultural land, by type of tenure
·          Proportion of countries where the legal framework (including customary law) guarantees women’s equal rights to land ownership and/or control
Indicators for performance in gender equality are emerging in forest investments and co-benefit programs that support equal rights to economic resources for women are increasing .
EXAMPLE: in Mirova’s Land Degradation Netutrality Fund’s (LDN Fund) Komaza investment, 50% of partnering tree farmers are women.
UN SDG 5 Targets and Indicators linked to progress in the Forest sector

How to promote gender equality in forest investments in the tropics 

In line with the Komaza example provided above, forest impact investment in the tropics presents a significant opportunity to improve gender equality, both directly in the workplace and also indirectly through targeted co-benefit programs. In a previous article, I addressed several UN SDGs, not traditionally associated with forest investment, to describe how a forest impact investment strategy in the tropics can align with these other UN SDGs. Below I extract from this previous article some steps you can take to directly or indirectly support gender equality in your forest investments in the tropics, aligning with UN SDG 5.  


Direct Impacts

Indirect Impacts

  • Implement gender equality policies in the workplace, including items such as equal number of jobs for women, opportunities for women in management roles, code of conduct, safe/anonymous grievance procedures to protect women in the workplace
  • Hold gender equality trainings for workers
  • Provision of childcare facilities to support female workers with young children
  • Support community gender equality awareness campaigns
  • Support programmes that target local women entrepreneurs
  • Access to maternity and women’s healthcare

The risk of gender inequality in the forestry sector 

Risk management is an important component of any business or investment and assessing gender disparity risk has become a token element to include in any ESG assessment. I say token, because I believe it is often included out of obligation, not out of sincere respect for the risk. Large companies with a more gender balanced executive team have shown to perform better than their male-dominated competitors. In their 2018 reportDelivering through Diversity, McKinsey found that companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation. Norms that prevent women from reaching top authoritative roles in business limits the innovation, leadership and diverse thinking that allows businesses to succeed in our rapidly changing economy. And on the ground, I have seen first-hand the results of gender inequality in cultural norms that marginalize women. In the example I have in mind – an escalating series of events could have been quelled if it weren’t for managerial oversight around the gender equality issue in question. The events resulted in a management overhaul, in terms of trainings, the development of new policies and procedures and awareness raising at a significant cost. Reputational damage resulted, and the most harmful consequence was that several women suffered unnecessarily. 

Strong leadership recognizes that gender equality is good for business 

In recent articles, I’ve been writing on the importance of strong leadership to move forest businesses in the tropics forward. A quality I’ve recognized among strong leaders is their awareness of promoting and supporting women in the workplace, and not only that this promotes equality, but it improves business. Take Lina’s example above – where she was recommended by an outgoing expat CEO as the manager in best position to take the company forward. This outgoing CEO continued to mentor Lina as she was handed the reigns. Another example I’ve observed is where a CEO had a policy of considering women first in new hires, in order to balance an outdated male-dominated model. He noted that since increasing his female staff, employee performance on the whole has improved.

If you lead a forest company in the tropics and are looking for ways to improve the gender diversity and equality in the business you manage – be sure to check out The Forum for Forest Executives – where building the right team will be among the topics discussed. The Forum is taking place this May and is created to connect you to your peers, share knowledge, and build thriving forest businesses in the tropics. If you have any questions about the event, please reach out – Applications close on March 24th. 

Apply Now for the Forum for Forest Executives

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