It might surprise you to learn that officially the global forestry sector employs some 13.7 million formal workers . This statistic doesn’t surprise me, it actually worries me; because I believe it doesn’t include the large numbers of men and women working ‘informally’ in the industry. Women in particular tend to be offered informal work, work that is not regulated or secured. Why? Because gender inequality is still widespread in the forestry industry and existing roles for women are poorly supported by current forestry policy.

Having first come in contact with the Indonesian forestry industry in 1997, I have seen cross-cutting themes of gender, and health and safety crop-up time and time again. In my opinion, not enough has been done around the world to move from sporadic dialogue about change to full gender equality strategies that can change the lives of female, and male, forestry workers alike. It is my hope that the few positive examples that do exist will help to move the industry in the right direction.

woman worker

Around the world, there are widespread misconceptions that forestry work is too physical or that the environment is too dangerous for women to work in. That, to me, is just an archaic point of view.

But despite these perceptions being out-dated, unfortunately there remains a significant gap between what organizations in developed countries are offering in terms of gender-balanced and women-friendly policies, and the state of play in developing countries.

project manager

Being Indonesian, and working in the region, means I have first-hand experience of forestry from a developing country’s perspective. Developing countries can learn a lot from developed countries where governments have taken affirmative action in offering education, training, and childcare to working women.

Sweden and Norway, for instance, were some of the first countries to discuss gender equality issues in forestry, which led to recognized local policies. In fact, Sweden established several different networks in the 1990s to strengthen female influence in the industry and open channels of communication between female forestry workers. The aim of these networks is also, of course, to raise awareness of responsible forest management.

It is clear to me that the road forward should focus on widespread access to education, skills training, and available jobs including management and leadership positions. A lack of access or awareness, combined with the underrepresentation of women in management positions, means training and job opportunities are either not visible or simply not accessible. In rural areas of developing countries in particular, the dominant assumption is that female forestry workers may not be able to perform the same tasks (and to the same standard) as their male counterparts.

And while producing guidance documents and strategies to address employment and gender equality issues won’t solve the problem overnight, they will help dispel myths and stereotypes, while formalizing, and bettering, the industry. After all, improving working conditions for forest workers across the board – especially the most vulnerable, such as contractors, migrants, women, and youth – will benefit the productivity and sustainability of the sector.

working woman Congo

Gender equality also makes business sense. Just like men, women have many personality traits and assets to bring to the table – for example, it’s proven that women are more likely to be diplomatic and empathetic in their communications style. This can drive efficiencies, and what’s more, the recently reported decline in the number of people working in the industry could be reversed if women could train for, and apply for, non-administrative jobs.

To me, the newly released FSC Guidance Document on Promoting Gender Equality in National Forest Stewardship Standards is a strong step in the right direction. Not because it’s the first criteria to address the issue, but because it is the most specific. It’s a step towards encouraging and enforcing gender equality in forestry, by offering specific strategies for standard development groups, trade unions, and organizations to adopt and adapt.

By addressing gender issues in forestry at a global level in 2016 – almost twenty years since I began work in Indonesia – my hope is that by 2020, the image of the forestry industry could drastically improve. By that time, I’d too like to be surprised: but not at the volume of workers in forestry, but in how far we’ve come to implement full gender equality strategies.

Rulita Wijayaningdyah

A forester by training, Wijayaningdyah has been working with forestry workers unions since 1998. In this role, she has witnessed how illegal logging and unsustainable forestry have led to the rapid decline of Indonesian wood industries and to massive layoffs. With that experience in mind, she aims to ensure that forest certification and sustainable management are included in her trade union agenda.

Here you can find more information about Rulita and her role as the Chairperson of the International Board of Directors of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).