Be your own advocate: Q&A with SFI’s Jessica Kaknevicius
By Ellen Cools
Jessica Kaknevicius is the vice-president of education for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), overseeing both Project Learning Tree Canada (PLT Canada) and Project Learning Tree (PLT). Jessica’s path to forestry wasn’t a traditional one. She became interested in the industry while at the University of Toronto completing her undergraduate degree. After getting her start in tree planting, she worked for Forests Ontario, and later transitioned to SFI. She is now a well-known advocate for the forest sector, overseeing the delivery of education and community outreach programs. She is also the co-founder of Women in Wood, a networking group for women in the forest and wood-related sectors to share advice, information and encouragement.
CFI: How did you get your start in forestry?
I went to the University of Toronto intending to be a veterinarian. I stumbled into forestry because I wanted to broaden my course load. So, I attended my first forestry course and was interested in learning more about what that world looked like. Then I went tree planting, which was my real introduction to the sector. Growing up just outside of Toronto, I didn’t understand what the forest sector was, what it entailed or who was involved. When I was tree planting, I remembered thinking, “Well, this is interesting. Why are we doing this?” I wanted to learn more, so I kept taking forestry courses and snapping up any opportunities to learn more and get engaged. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science, majoring in zoology as well as forest conservation.
I didn’t graduate thinking that I would end up in forestry, but I took a year off and then decided to do my Masters of Forest Conservation. Then when I graduated from my Masters, I continued to do some consulting work. I started volunteering and then working at Forests Ontario. I was there for nine years.
I don’t have a ton of on-the-ground forestry experience, but I’ve done a lot of work understanding what it involves, how to communicate it to the public, how to engage youth in learning about it, and, most importantly, how to make it relatable to someone who’s not in the sector. That’s kind of where my passion has grown. I don’t need to be in the field doing it, but I need to make people understand that the people who are out there in the field are doing good work. They love what they do, and they’re doing it to be sustainable because they care and want healthy forests to be there in the future. That was the message I wanted to share with the world.
CFI: In your current role, what are your responsibilities and what do you like most about it?
A large part of the work I do is around program delivery and evaluation, government relations, strategic development, strategic program planning, financial oversight, and governance. It’s all the leadership aspects that I think are really important. I’m no longer the person on the ground delivering programs like I did 10 years ago. Now, I’m looking for opportunities to make those programs happen, trying to tell people why it’s important, and trying to find funding for it or expressing to government that it’s a critical piece of the work that we do. I then get the pleasure of working with amazing team members that help to make our visions a reality.
CFI: As a woman in the industry, have you encountered any particular challenges or difficulties?
I would say I’m unique in that I don’t feel like my gender has created a roadblock for my own path, but I know it has impacted a lot of women in the sector. I know for a fact, through the Women in Wood group, that there are a lot of challenges that women face in the sector.
Because I have heard their stories, I know there’s a lot of work to be done in the sector. And I think there are a lot of people that are willing to learn more about how to support women, how to lift them up and advance them. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had some awesome bosses where gender wasn’t a barrier to how they saw me grow. I’ve had a few experiences when delivering programs out in the field that were negative, but it hasn’t impacted my work, and for that I am lucky. But for women that do, I could see how it could be a really negative thing that might drive someone out of the sector.
CFI: So, what do you think the industry should be doing to encourage more women to become involved and overcome these barriers?
From what I’ve heard and seen through my job and Women in Wood, you can recruit as many women as you want. But, if you don’t change the way your organization supports women or the way women are treated and talked to by other employees – if you don’t create that inclusive environment, it doesn’t matter how many women you hire, they’re not going to stay in the field. So, companies need to provide training for employees around equity and inclusion, which includes addressing hard topics like sexism and sexual harassment. They need to provide opportunities for women to get trained and advance. They need to create policies that really drive changes to support women. Hiring is just one piece of it.
The best thing that companies can do is ask women what they need to be successful, because every woman’s needs and paths are different. Flexibility may work for some women, while other strategies like providing equitable access to training or a voice at the table may be what some women need. Hearing from women what they need in order to be successful, both at home and in the workplace, is an important piece of supporting women, or anyone for that matter, in the sector.
There are a lot of companies that are doing great things, but the one thing that I think Women in Wood does is it provides that other side of the story. Employers can create policies and things like that, but Women in Wood provides the employee interaction or the education amongst people that are in the sector. Creating training is a good thing, but if women don’t feel like they’re being heard, well, maybe there’s another space for them to feel like they’re being heard. I think there’s always two pieces of the puzzle – it’s not just changing strategies, employee engagement is really important, too.
CFI: What are some of the key things you’ve learned since forming Women in Wood with Lacey Rose?
Women in Wood has been interesting for me. As I said before, I didn’t really face a lot of barriers because of my gender, but I know that that’s not at all reflective of many women that are in the sector. So, I’ve learned a lot from the challenges that people face. I’ve learned that having a safe space for women to have conversations around everything, from basic things like equipment to salary equity to sexual harassment is really, really critical. We’ve gotten some pushback on why the Facebook group is women-only, but we also know that if there wasn’t that safe space, then those open and honest conversations wouldn’t happen. So, I think that’s been enlightening.
When we created the group, it was meant to be a fun place for people to chat and meet each other. We thought there would be just a couple dozen people. But to see that it’s grown to over 2,000 people from around the world just proves that there’s a need to bring women together. I love seeing the networking and the education that people get from having those conversations. In the beginning, we had to drive a lot of that, but now there’s constantly conversations driven by the members. They talk about everything, even just sharing job postings, which is also a really important tool, because people can say they’re going to train women, but if they’re not making the postings available to women or tapping into the right network of people, they’re not going to get more women applying.
But, the honest conversations have probably been the most enlightening for me, where women are helping lift each other up and navigate a challenge. There was one woman who was going to ask for a raise. She was going to ask for a very minimal raise, but people pushed her to ask for more, and I think she ended up getting 17 per cent more than what she was going to ask for. The group motivated her to go ask for what she deserved. I think sometimes people just need that push to see the value of themselves.
CFI: You’re a mentor as part of PLT Canada’s Green Mentor program. How important do you think mentorship is to encouraging more women, especially young women, to get into the industry?
I think it can be a really valuable tool. I didn’t have a mentor. I’ve had a lot of coaching conversations with a lot of great people along the way, which has been really valuable for me. But, I never developed that one-on-one mentorship for myself. Going through it now, I understand the value of it, especially if you’re young and you’re looking to develop your network or you’re trying to navigate what’s important for your career. Having someone to help you create a network, especially for young people that are fresh out of school and during COVID times, is useful because it can be really tough to have that networking opportunity. So, I think mentorship can play a huge role in that.
I will say, though, that there are a lot of opportunities for women to think beyond mentorship. Often, women are told that they can pursue mentorship as a career advancement tool. I think it’s a tool in the toolbox, but I think learning about business is really critical, and often men are taught that and women aren’t. Mentorship is one tool, but I think there are lots of other tools that women should have. When people are talking to their employees or trying to advance their employees, they should think about whether they’re giving equal access to training and whether they’re providing the same information regardless of their gender.
CFI: Do you have any advice for young women who want to join the industry, or for women already in the industry looking to advance their careers?
My biggest piece of advice is that you are the only one who can really decide where you’re going to go. You can sit there expecting promotions or greater workloads, you can sit there expecting to take on a leadership opportunity, but only you can ask for that. You have to be your own advocate in your own career path, and I think some women have a hard time with that. Some women will sit back and wait for opportunities. But, you’re driving your own boat. So, I think it’s really important to work hard and ask for opportunities, and show that you have the potential to grow. You have to speak for yourself – don’t expect others to.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge.