In the past, the phrase “timber industry” would have conjured up images of big, burly men lugging hefty logs around in the forest or sawing through great logs in dusty sawmills.
These days that image couldn’t be further from the truth. New technologies have created an entirely different industry – one where machines and computers do the heavy lifting, and one where the customer is king. Ideally, this is the type of industry where physicality and gender should be irrelevant. However, the timber industry is still primarily comprised of men.
“The industry does tend to be heavily male dominated in the ‘hands on’ work – operating the machinery, working on the tools,” says Emma Watt, CEO of the TMA. “This kind of work environment can be intimidating to some women, to the extent that I don’t believe that many women actually consider applying for the jobs.”
But this is slowly changing. Women are now beginning to make their mark on the industry, and we are now seeing an increasing number of female staff in timber – across manufacture, wholesale, forestry, sales, marketing and management.
“More women are entering the industry as awareness of the diversity of roles continues to grow,” says Kersten Gentle, Executive Officer, FTMA Australia. “Women are in leadership positions within all sectors of the industry from forest harvesting through to furniture and everything in between.”
A woman’s world
Gentle and Watt are just two of the many women have hold leadership positions in the industry.
“There are many within the industry who stand out – we could dedicate an entire edition of TimberTrader News to women within the industry,” says Gentle. “However, for me personally those that have had an impact on my career and who have inspired me are Kate Carnell, former CEO of NAFI (AFPA); Jane Calvert, Victorian State Secretary CFMEU FFPD; and Lisa Marty, former CEO of VAFI and First Super Board member.
“There are many inspiring stories of women in the industry and I have been fortunate to work across most sectors. I could name the amazing women within the harvesting and haulage sector who run their small families businesses or the women forging ahead within the frame and truss industry as leaders and owners of their own businesses.”
For a lot of women in the industry, their association with timber has been through family or marriage. Gentle herself grew up in a timber town with a grandfather who owned a sawmill. But most women don’t grow up with sawdust in their veins. For most, the industry is still viewed as a “man’s world” – one where women are not welcome. But the women in the timber industry are keen to make it clear – the timber industry is just as much a woman’s world as it is a man’s.
“When people first think about the timber industry they tend to think of dirty sawmills and old production lines and think you need to be a big tough man to work at a sawmill,” says Taylor Towers, account manager at AKD Softwoods. “They don’t realise just how far the timber industry has come and some of the amazing technology we now have. Here at AKD we have had and still do have women in really interesting and hands-on roles such as a saw doctor and log sort driver. I think once you get a foot in the door and you’re willing to work hard there is an abundance of opportunity for a really exciting career. “
There is also, perhaps a fear or perception that a woman might not be welcome in such a workplace. But if the dozens of women who TimberTrader talked to in the lead-up to this article are anything to go by, this is not usually the case.
“I think most of the industry are welcoming and are getting used the idea of woman being in the industry,” Towers says. “However, there is the odd person who’s stuck in their ways and I have to work harder than others to earn their respect, especially because I am a younger female. People can take a little while to realise that I am just as able as my male equivalents.”
Jennifer Heller is the manager at Wingham Frames and Trusses. She started out in the industry making tea and coffee at age 17, and has since worked her way up to owning her own business with husband Dane.
“I have always found myself to be treated fairly,” she says “If we feel that something is not right as women in a male-dominated industry we need to have a loud voice, have confidence in our own abilities and – most importantly – believe in ourselves and what we are doing. Never let anybody intimidate you or not let you be heard.”
An untapped resource
“Women are one of the greatest undiscovered gems of the timber industry,” says Michael Kennedy of Kennedy’s Timbers (who, by the way is looking for a wood machinist and a cabinet maker right now). “They add a different dimension, which is difficult to quantify. The more women we see in the industry, the greater community acceptance our industry will have.”
Kennedy is just one of many employers across the industry who is keen to recruit more women, and who has seen the value that female staff bring to a business.
“I think it’s an undeveloped resource,” says Shane Vicary, CEO of AKD Softwoods. “Frankly I think it’s about competitive advantage. Those with a greater gender balance are going to manage their organisations that much better.
“I’m not a big fan of collective statements, though. Change occurs from the ground up. We used to have this analogy when I played rugby – when you’re in a scrum if you want to push forward you need to take lots of little steps rather than big steps. It’s up to each individual company to make change – and how they are then perceived will ultimately change how the industry is perceived.”
How the industry is perceived will, in turn, change women’s perceptions about the viability of timber as a career path. And one of the best ways to start making change is to create more inclusive workplaces.
“There is one TMA member who, for many years, employed a number of women as wood machining operators,” says Watt. “These women wanted to work part time, within school hours, and the employer was happy to accommodate them.”
Gentle agrees that flexibility is key: “The industry has changed in many areas ensuring it’s more attractive to women but it can continue to evolve with flexible work hours and working from home options in some fields within the industry,” she says. “Obviously this doesn’t suit all sectors of the industry, but there are areas such as the frame and truss industry that it is a possibility – not just for women but for men who need more time home with their children or flexible work hours to fit in with their families.”
Another important step that can be taken is educating young people about the many options that are open to both men and women in the industry.
“It’s not seen as a career goal or high on the agenda for a teenager,” says Kerrie Chivers, who works as a forklift operator at Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH). “The timber industry needs to educate high schoolers that this is a viable career path with plenty of opportunities.
“Promote and offer trades to women! Encourage from early on that girls can do trades, and it’s okay to love it! The industry is continuously changing; it’s how the public perceive the industry that needs to transform.”
An image problem?
As the timber industry continues to flourish and grow through innovation and technology, the opportunities for everyone – especially women – only continue to expand.
“Technology is the way the world is heading,” Towers says. “We have to keep up with our overseas competitors who currently are producing quicker, cheaper and more efficiently than we are in Australia.”
While technological advancements are essential, the biggest challenge for the timber industry may still be its image. One crucial aspect in timber’s continued growth is increasing public awareness of the sustainable nature of timber.
“Consumers need to get their head around the sustainability aspect of our industry,” says Kristy Coster, a mill operator at ASH. “We have to work together as an industry to educate others about the regeneration process and how timber is the most sustainable building material. The industry will be even more successful if we can achieve this.”
Another aspect that many may not be aware of is the true sense of community and belonging that comes from being part of the timber industry.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a logger, a mill worker or machine operator – everyone is made to feel a part of the industry community,” says Coster.
Helena Stone, also a mill operator at ASH, points out that there are some surprising rewards that come from working in such an industry.
“What I enjoy most is watching the whole life cycle of timber – from the logs coming in to the finished product,” she says. “It gives you a wave of satisfaction when you see a finished product, knowing that you had a hand in creating it.”
It seems the industry is ripe for change, and ripe with opportunity. It’s our time now to step up and show the women of Australia that this is the case. With such a vast array of roles available, there’s something for pretty much everyone. And as gender roles break down, there’s no reason why more women can’t be out there driving forklifts or managing plantations, developing new machinery or running a sawmill.
“Women, like men, are capable of hard work, learning and problem solving,” says Watt. “Recruiting for these characteristics, regardless of sex, means an employer has an employee who can be of immense value to the business.”
Women in Timber Network
The Women in Timber Network was formed to bring women together from across the wider forest and wood products industry to network and provide mentoring. You can register by visiting forestworks.com.au/networks/wftn-2.