Skip to main content

New study outlines ways to recruit more women into bioenergy and forestry – UMaine News

To recruit more women for careers in the forest industry, particularly in the bioenergy sector, researchers at the University of Maine have developed a roadmap.

The team, led by Abigayl “Abby” Novak, a master’s student in forest resources in the BioEnergy Lab at the School of Forest Resources (SFR), found that attracting and retaining women in bioenergy and related fields, including those who are young or historically underrepresented groups, can be done by providing opportunities for interdisciplinary research in higher education, asking employers to provide sufficient support and awareness, and promoting relatable success stories.

Increasing gender diversity in the workforce not only helps women looking to enter or advance careers in bioenergy or forestry, but also benefits businesses. According to the researchers, having more mixed teams can result in better teamwork and more innovative products, services and problem solving.

Their study, conducted by Novak, Ling Li, lecturer in sustainable bioenergy systems at SFR, and Katherine Glover, associate researcher at the Climate Change Institute, was published in the academic journal Sustainability.

To determine the possible benefits of academic interdisciplinary research, the group organized a summer program that involved students and faculty working on projects related to biochar production and multiple applications, which was funded by the programs Research Reinvestment Fund (RRF) Grants AY 21–22 UMS. : Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Collaborations. Eight undergraduate students, three graduate students and six professors participated. Six of the 11 students were women. One faculty participant was a woman.

According to the researchers, the program provided young students with skills that helped them consider a career in forestry and identify and use their strengths for their projects. They also benefited from collaborative work and exposure to mentors – graduate students and professors – with varied backgrounds.

At the end of it, two undergraduate students, including a woman, produced research results that they were able to present at several conferences, symposia and workshops. Two women students shared plans to pursue graduate studies in nanoscience and sustainability, and one enrolled in a graduate program related to forestry sustainability at UMaine. Several reports produced by program participants were featured in the “2021 Wild Blueberry Grower Report” published by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“When I participated in this program as a junior in my undergraduate career, it opened up my perspective on the depth of interdisciplinary research,” says UMaine graduate student Jessica Hutchinson now. “It’s crucial for deepening your understanding of what collaboration looks like, as well as broadening the way you question and approach a topic. Now I am a graduate student in plant, soil and environmental science working with native woody species. Being involved in a bioenergy research project not only prepared me for the skills needed for graduate research, but broadened the scope of application of the principles of my discipline. I hope to integrate and promote interdisciplinary studies in my field, focusing on the broad applications of bioenergy.

In addition to providing opportunities for their students, researchers say universities offering degrees in bioenergy and forestry can help create a more gender-diverse workforce in the industry by implementing programs ambassadors, apprenticeships, internships and similar activities for nearby middle and high school students, as well as other forms of awareness.

“The need for universities and colleges to build a more gender-diverse bioenergy/forestry workforce is key to moving forward as a society that values ​​diversity and different backgrounds” , says Novak. “In order to create change and new innovative ideas, for researchers and the community, we must make it a priority to take steps to change the existing institutional dynamics, especially in an industry and sector historically dominated by white males. . Being able to have multiple perspectives can bring all voices together.

The study authors also determined what efforts employers could make to not only recruit more female workers, but also to better support and encourage them to pursue leadership roles.

These measures include creating safe spaces for people from underrepresented groups to voice their struggles without fear of reprisal, setting achievable goals for recruiting more women leaders, being transparent about the efforts and challenges that are associated with them and the highlighting of the past or present work of women in the forestry sector. in workshops, conferences, newsletters, social media or word of mouth.

According to the researchers, the implementation efforts of academic institutions and companies will benefit from well-developed and well-resourced planning committees.

“Since the 1970s, women in forestry have grown from virtually zero to where we are today. While we have made significant progress during this time, there is more we can do, as a university, industry, and state, to promote opportunities for women and underrepresented populations in Maine’s forest economy” , says Li. “Bringing different backgrounds and experiences into the workforce and leadership provides greater opportunities for new ideas and approaches to solving problems.”

The study also explored the degree of female representation among Maine’s bioenergy companies, with a particular focus on biochar. By analyzing public data, the researchers found that women hold 33-39% of leadership positions in Maine companies that contribute to biochar production.

For the forestry industry as a whole, just over 30% is made up of women, with a small portion made up of minority women. Nationally, 38% of forestry workers and managers are women.

“Abby began researching these demographics in her field in the spring of 2021 as part of a project for my ‘Women and Climate Change’ course,” says Glover. “I’m excited to see how this study has evolved to incorporate the workforce development programs that take place here on our campus. We now know, from multiple supporting studies, that diverse teams are best positioned to drive the innovation we will need to combat the effects of climate change. Through this study, we are able to offer practical advice to others who wish to implement similar training programs that develop a diverse workforce and a sense of belonging.

Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721; [email protected]