Forest Service research and development bridging the gender gap

December 11, 2015

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Penn. (Dec. 11, 2015): While women remain underrepresented in science careers, a study comparing employment of women in science in academia with the USDA Forest Service's Research and Development (R&D) program concludes that institutions influence the demographic composition of scientists. In the USDA Forest Service, initiatives to promote women in science have steadily narrowed the gender gap over the past 30 years.

The study, "Bridging the gender gap: demographics of scientists in the USDA Forest Service and academia," explored the role of the institutions employing ecological scientists in bridging the gender gap. The study is published online in the journal BioScience and is available at

"The Forest Service believes that a more representative workforce is fundamental to our success and this, of course, includes our science corps," said Michael T. Rains, Director of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. "We are committed to achieving a more representative scientific cadre, including a better gender balance, to ensure the vibrancy of our scientific achievements will help the Forest Service meet America's contemporary conservation challenges now and ahead."

Universities employ one-third of U.S. biological/life scientists, and Federal agencies employ approximately 20 percent of biological/life scientists in the Nation. To test for the influence of institution, the researchers identified a subset of U.S. universities most closely affiliated with forestry and related natural resource fields, and compared the number of women they employ as environmental scientists, and those scientists' tenure status, with the number and pay grade of women who are employed as scientists in Forest Service R&D. Faculties of natural resource schools studied include 19 percent women, while the Forest Service R&D group includes 26 percent women as scientists.

"Our research suggests that the top-down structure of centralized government facilitates agency goals to create a diverse workforce within the institution across R&D's seven regional research stations," said Christel Kern, the study's lead author and a research forester in Rhinelander, Wis. In contrast, academia is decentralized and operates as a loosely connected network of independent universities in which the enforcement and implementation of diversity initiatives are uneven.

While the study grew out of a recent Northern Research Station civil rights project that examined the experiences of women in science within the Station, it was a topic for which Kern and co-authors Laura Kenefic, a Team Leader and research forester at the Penobscot Experimental Forest in Bradley, Maine, and Susan Stout, a Project Leader and research forester in Irvine, Penn., had been gathering data for decades. "At its core, our work was motivated by our observation that there weren't a lot of women in science, and we wanted to find out if that observation was correct," Kenefic said. "This is an issue that resonates with all of us as women in science."

Stout, who joined the Forest Service in 1981, credits the 1981 consent decree with launching recruitment initiatives that drew her to a career in Forest Service science. In her early years, it was not unusual for Stout to be the only women present in any of the forestry meetings she attended. "That isn't true anymore, and the Forest Service has been a leader in that," Stout said.

The consent decree, which resolved a lawsuit alleging discrimination in Forest Service hiring and promotion of women, required the agency to identify job series where women were underrepresented and correct that underrepresentation wherever it occurred. The Cooperative Education Program, through which Stout and Kenefic were hired, was one of the initiatives stemming from the consent decree. The Forest Service's Scientist Recruitment Initiative, which Kern credits with enabling her to pursue a career in science, continues to make the field of biological/life science more accessible to women.

The mission of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station is to improve people's lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.

The mission of the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the Nation's clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.
USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Stop 9410, Washington, DC 20250-9410, or call toll-free at (866) 632-9992 (English) or (800) 877-8339 (TDD) or (866) 377-8642 (English Federal-relay) or (800) 845-6136 (Spanish Federal-relay).

USDA Forest Service - Northern Research Station

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