By: Ashley McNeil, The Corps Network
This past March, the theme for Women’s History Month was “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” To close out the month-long celebration, we wanted to talk to women who literally blaze trails: the women of Conservation Corps.
Based on the model of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression, modern Conservation Corps are locally-based organizations that engage diverse young adults in service and job training in communities and on public lands. Corps participants – or “Corpsmembers” – engage in a wide range of projects, including building and improving trails, removing invasive species, preserving historic structures, and fighting or preventing wildfires. Many of these projects take place on properties operated by local, state or federal resource management agencies.
While the Civilian Conservation Corps put some 3 million men to work on public lands from 1933 to 1942, today’s Corps annually enroll about 25,000 young adults, roughly half of whom are women. However, the conservation workforce is still dominated by men. For example, women comprise only about 25 percent of foresters with the U.S. Forest Service (and this is higher than the percentage of women in the U.S. forestry profession as a whole). Considering how women continue to face discrimination in the workforce in general, it can be particularly challenging for a woman to navigate gender stereotypes in the male-dominated world of public lands management.
Through Corps, young women learn how to use axes, chainsaws, and heavy equipment. They might learn carpentry or masonry; they might serve on a prescribed burn crew. They do work traditionally considered to be “a man’s job.” We spoke with several Corps about how they approach biases and gender stereotypes in conservation.
The issues that arise
Most Corps operate a model in which a crew of up to about a dozen Corpsmembers serve under one or two trained crew leaders. The crew leaders are the main people responsible for supervising and training Corpsmembers. Crew leaders are also responsible for day-to-day interactions with project partners (i.e. staff at the forest or park where a given service project takes place). While Corps consciously practice inclusivity internally, several noted the challenge of promoting the capability of female Corpsmembers and crew leaders externally.
Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) finds that subtle discrimination often occurs when a man and a woman co-lead a crew.
“...members of the crew, and even project partners, will defer to the male leader,” said Kelly Mildenberger, Communications Manager at MCC. “In some cases, someone is experiencing a female in a leadership role in manual labor for the first time, so it is important to understand that, at times, this challenges a person’s idea of what’s standard, and as a result, it challenges what they are comfortable with.”
Texas Conservation Corps (TxCC), a program of the Austin-based organization American YouthWorks, reports similar situations. Partners have approached male participants to share project information instead of sharing with female participants. Furthermore, women on their field crews have been asked if they earned their position by “outworking a man.” There are also many situations in which partners will try to offer female Corpsmembers “help.” Erica Keller, Training and Logistics Coordinator for TxCC notes that these situations seem to arise because even many longtime conservation professionals simply do not have much experience working with women in this field.
“Some people who ask questions like these might be sincerely interested to understand this concept. They may never have observed high performance in manual labor to be modeled by a female,” said Keller. “Conservation has long been a male-dominated profession and females may experience lingering residue from a patriarchal society. It is very likely that participants of any gender, and particularly females, will find themselves feeling underestimated, objectified, or on display while helping diminish gender stereotypes in a workforce that has traditionally been male-dominated.”
Montana Conservation Corps mentioned the importance of empowering their male and female Corpsmembers and crew leaders with the education and skills to diffuse any uncomfortable situations surrounding gender bias. They recognize that bias against female crew leaders can eventually trickle down to female Corpsmembers, who begin to doubt their abilities on the job.
“I think that for females in this field, there is a greater tendency towards self-doubt. We try to empower all of our members to at least try and not simply accept defeat,” said Mildenberger. “We need women in conservation as much as we need men; we need their creativity, their passion, their dedication.”
Afton McKusick, National Restoration Program Manager for American Conservation Experience (ACE), a Corps with offices across the country, stated a similar observation.
“Women have this unspoken thought that to be respected by our peers in this field, we have to be better at the job, be in the best shape, all while meeting our stereotypical rolls so we can become ‘one of the guys.’ And that is just white women,” said McKusick, acknowledging that women of color often face additional barriers in the outdoors.
As stated by one female Corpsmember with ACE, “To elaborate a bit on feeling skepticism from other male Corpsmembers, I’ve really experienced it with generally insecure males. Ones that physically weren’t necessarily stronger or bigger than me, but would always ask if I needed help (never asking other males on the crew). If anything, they were normally struggling with their own insecurities.”
Education and Empowerment
TxCC believes in the power of conversation; talking about structural biases does not need to be uncomfortable. Discussing strategies to bridge gaps and create understanding around gender and cultural differences is essential to creating a welcoming space for all. TxCC finds that this practice of healthy dialogue lessens the propensity for conflict and empowers Corpsmembers to tackle uncomfortable situations.
Recognizing that incidences involving gender bias can hinder a woman’s ability to learn and gain skills personally and professionally, TxCC aims to be a source of empowerment for their participants. TxCC educates staff and Corpsmembers about gender inequality, trans and queer inequality, and the ways in which bias should be addressed. As of this year, the organization has created a subcommittee to gather resources and address member needs regarding these issues.
Similarly, MCC believes that the key to addressing gender bias issues is to actively acknowledge they exist and take proactive steps towards a solution. All staff undergo training on diversity, inclusion, and tolerance of different beliefs; they are made to feel free to discuss issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Staff are encouraged to share their feelings and challenge perspectives.
MCC has an Associate Director of Diversity & Inclusion to tackle issues related to stereotypes and biases. However, they note that extensive training in inclusion gives crew leaders the skills to begin to handle stereotyping issues on their own. When bias against someone occurs, the Corps’ goal is that the person’s crewmates, male and female alike, will have the insight to support their crewmate.
In addition to education, some Corps offer other resources and counseling. In addition to having mentors who work internally to support Corpmsembers, Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) in Denver, CO provides external support and resources for women of color and those who identify as LGBT or non-binary. They are conscious of using inclusive practices to provide a safe space for everyone.
“It is unfair, but I plan to keep doing the job to the best of my ability because I believe women have the stamina to break these norms and rise above the stigmas,” said MHYC Alumni Mentor Mary Jachim, “It is very satisfying to dissolve their skepticisms about women in the workforce…I think women are extremely lucky, especially in this generation, to make their own progress and empowerment.”
Multiple Corps stated that the most important thing they can do to empower young women in conservation is to hire women in leadership roles.
“When women see people like me or members of my staff, which is 50 percent female, rising in the ranks at work, they believe it is possible for them to rise into senior positions, too,” said Sarah Miggins, State Director for ACE.
TxCC also pushes for more female representation in all positions, hoping to provide role models for others.
“The scarcity in representation has made us develop a very deep and sincere appreciation for these everyday heroic females,” said Keller of TxCC.
At MHYC, the staff is conscious of empowering women to recognize that they receive the same training as their male counterparts and are just as capable, if not better prepared, to step into leadership roles. At MCC, nearly all leadership positions are currently held by women. Additionally, MCC makes a conscious effort to use photos and social media to inspire more women to get involved in conservation work.
ACE believes in empowering Corpsmembers of any gender to focus on what unique skills and experience they can bring to the project. Rather than actively seeking a gender balance on each crew, ACE focuses on recognizing the relative strengths, experience levels, and interests of participants when making assignments. ACE believes that this approach to hiring and project placement strengthens their ability to complete projects in an effective manner. Sometimes, by chance, ACE has found that the best qualified and most appropriate members for a project are all female. The Corps promotes the philosophy that cooperative labor on meaningful conservation projects fosters cross-cultural understanding; a challenging volunteer service experience can unite people of all backgrounds for a common cause.
A Woman’s Corps Experience
Even in a field traditionally dominated by men, MCC believes male and female Corpsmembers typically have the same experience in their program. However, they note women have a tendency to view their experience in the outdoors as a “journey” or “quest,” or a process of self-realization, whereas male Corpsmembers seem to be more focused on project outcomes. Crew leader Ann Marie Bowlus explains, “Through this program, I have tested the bounds of resilience, patience and determination. But what I will take to the grave from this experience with MCC is the importance of flexibility and balance professionally, personally and beyond.”
Last month, in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, Krish Karau of ACE led an all-female crew on a project in Moab, UT to restore a popular hiking and swimming destination. Jenny Diamond, a Corpsmember, stated, “Operating as a female-only crew for the past two hitches has been pretty incredible. Keeping in mind that we all get along in terms of our personalities, we also appreciate not having to deal with gender skepticisms or having to refrain from more ‘female’ conversations, like menstrual cycles.”
ACE believes the presence of an all-female crew, in a typically male-dominated field, is a testament to how society is progressively moving forward and surpassing stereotypes about gender and gender roles.
Voices from the field:
“I break so many stereotypes - I am a female, I am a veteran, I am African American - and that has been tremendous for me and for people who follow me on social media, and for younger generations of MCCers - it shows others that you can go and do this, it doesn’t matter what other people are saying, you don't have to follow what is supposed to be the norm in your culture. You can be a leader. Anyone can be a leader.” – Jovan Vargas, 2014 Corpsmember with Montana Conservation Corps’ Veterans Green Corps
“Once I put myself into an environment that was physically and mentally tasking, I stopped comparing myself to my male counterparts. Even though some skills are new, I can use a chainsaw, Pulaski, or whatever other trail work tool you can think of, almost as well as all of my fellow crew members, but it’s my eye for detail that I pride myself in more than anything.” – Taylor Major-Dame, Texas Conservation Corps
Women in Corps break barriers and stereotypes, working against biases that surround gender roles. Corps are progressive in that they promote, empower, and highlight female achievements in conservation work. These acts are essential steps towards breaking the glass ceiling and moving towards equality in the workplace. The steps Corps take to acknowledge and address biases help ensure that people of different backgrounds and identities can work together in a safe environment.