Women In Forestry

Rooted ambitions: Q&A with Ritikaa Gupta 

March 7, 2024
By Jennifer Ellson Avatar photo
Presented by:
Wood Business
Women in Forestry

A youth advocate in the forest industry, Ritikaa Gupta blends her expertise in political science and forestry with a passion for wildfire policy and youth engagement. Inspired by the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai’, her journey spans from the Italian Alps to the Himalayas, advocating for mountain forests. Ritikaa highlights the challenges women face in forestry, advocating for inclusivity and support. Committed to global forestry goals, she envisions herself as a catalyst for change, inspiring the next generation of foresters worldwide.

CFI: What inspires you to continue working in forestry? 

Through forestry I believe I have found my ‘ikigai’, a Japanese concept that translates to “your reason for being”.  This realization has ignited a sense of excitement and possibility and there’s so much I want to explore within the forestry. What continues to inspire me is the fact that there are so many aspects to forestry. I feel there are so many forestry-related  topics I can read about and take courses in to expand my portfolio.

For example, last summer I had the opportunity to travel to the Italian Alps to receive a training in a course titled “Youth and the Future of Mountain Forests” delivered by the International Programme on Research and Training on Sustainable Management of Mountain Areas (IPROMO), organized annually by the Mountain Partnership Alliance of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and  with the University of Turin and the University of Tuscia.

Something I wanted to share was that my love and interest in mountains developed before I encountered forestry. When visiting India during my summers, I spent a lot of time in the Himalayan region and hiked among the cedrus deodara forests which are considered a divine species in the Hindu culture and in Sanskrit translated to “wood of the gods” or “timber of the gods”. And now, through the Mountain Youth Hub, a youth-led initiative set up by my IRPOMO classmates and myself, I hope to advocate for mountain forests and trees which are extremely vulnerable to climate change.

Beyond this, I am keeping myself busy in forestry with side-projects relating to forestry communications. I have a passion for advancing understanding and awareness of the sector. This drive stems from a vivid memory during my post-bachelor’s days when I faced the choice between pursuing environmental law and forestry. At that time, I had no understanding of what forestry was and so that uncertainty now fuels my dedication to raising awareness about what forestry is all about.

For example, in January this year, I was in Mexico where I was invited to attend a workshop inaugurating the North American Forest Communications Network (NA-FCN). The Forest Communicators Network (FCN) is an initiative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and provides a forum for international interaction and cooperation in forest-related communication. I met with forestry professionals from Canada, U.S and Mexico to discuss the intersection of forestry and communications and how to strengthen forestry communications across North America.

CFI: Do you find there are certain challenges or hurdles for women to enter or stay in the industry? 

As an Asian woman of Indian ethnicity born and raised in North America, I have had to fight family and cultural expectations for me to get to where I am as a forester.

I studied political science in undergraduate studies with aspirations of entering the aviation industry. However, post-graduation family expectations pressured me to pursue law school – a  more appropriate and professional career. Despite being accepted into law schools, I chose forestry as an escape route, and even though I had little understanding of the field. I thought to myself nothing could go wrong by learning about forests and the environment.

Fast-forward to graduation and completing my first forestry internship. I was offered multiple forester positions in northern regions, but I hesitated to accept. Several factors weighed heavily on my decision. The pandemic had just started, but beyond that, practical considerations came into play. Would I have access to familiar foods and spices? Could I navigate the challenges of being a woman of color in a male-dominated field? And most significantly, would my family support me working in a forest miles away?

Plus, field work was another dilemma. Conversations with my female classmates who worked in the field revealed the tough realities on the ground.  There are not enough protocols nor investments being made to ensure safety of women in all respects. One glaring issue is the lack of properly designed field clothing for women. During my internship with  the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry I had to search multiple stores to find a proper set of field boots. Existing field clothing is tailored for men, which is uncomfortable, impractical and unfashionable and can make you feel insecure. This is a major inconvenience and deterrent for women working in the field.

As women, we face a unique set of challenges and issues in this industry and companies need to make the effort to listen to their women staff and seriously address their concerns. It’s the only way to break down barriers and create a more inclusive and supportive environment for women working in the field but also other areas of the industry dominated by men such as operations.

As per my experience in government, even today, I find myself being either the only woman, or the only woman of color in meetings and at tables. And at forestry conferences and workshops, panels and speakers are missing diversity.

I wish to spotlight a few women foresters who I looked up to as I navigated my forestry journey. Each of them had a positive influence in my career and continue to inspire me: Christine Leduc, Annonciade Murat,  Dana Collins, Janani Sivarajah and Lacey Rose.

CFI: What can companies do to attract and support women or other people with diverse backgrounds and to advance them into leadership?

Without having colored role models in the industry, it’s hard for me and, I feel for other women of color to find a reason to stay or consider advancing within a sector that still has lots of work to do in terms of diversity and inclusion. But, although us women face unique challenges in forestry, our resilience and contributions will be vital for the industry’s growth.

To cultivate a forest sector of inclusion, it will be super important to invest in professional development opportunities for women (e.g. funding courses, conferences, workshops) to equip them with the skills, knowledge and experience of confidence to empower them to take on and succeed in leadership roles.

However, practical barriers persist. Not all of us possess a set of experiences and skills as those familiar with the forest sector or living close to the forest may have. For example, I lived and studied in Toronto without needing a drivers license as I used the subway. This however worked to my disadvantage post- graduation, when I started looking for jobs as more than half required a full driving license. This automatically disqualified me from more than half of job postings and restricted me to only office jobs. Even though I wanted to do field work, I couldn’t simply because I didn’t have a driver’s license.

And so companies should prioritize setting up internships and apprenticeships to allow underrepresented people of diverse backgrounds to gain forestry appropriate skills, knowledge and experience.

And maybe even finding ways to make their job sites accessible, job sites, especially in remote areas, need to be accessible. Companies can look into providing assistance in coordinating travel and arranging accommodations. Just imagine someone transitioning from a city or different country relocating  to a remote location—it would be unsettling.

Companies need to realize that to tackle complex issues affecting the forest sector diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences will be necessary. I feel the older generation of foresters are not open to new ways of thinking and still hold a traditional mindset towards forestry. The new, younger foresters must be given spaces to share their thoughts, especially women who remain marginalized. Let’s also honor, respect and acknowledge Indigenous peoples, their knowledge and connection to forests in Canada.

CFI: What advice do you have for those considering a career in the forest industry, or those in the industry looking to advance? 

My advice has always been to not be intimidated by forestry and so explore the sector to find your fit. Reach out to your fellow foresters and forest professionals. Despite the industry’s size, our network is surprisingly tight-knit. Leverage platforms like LinkedIn, other social media channels, and attend conferences or workshops. Strike up conversations, ask questions, and learn from those who’ve walked the forest trails before you.

I would advise those who are looking to advance in the sector to continue learning and build diversity into your portfolio. Find opportunities and activities relating to forestry outside of your job that can help you expand your knowledge and network.  Volunteer with forestry-focused NGOs, mentor aspiring foresers, take relevant courses, and read about forestry trends. A well-rounded portfolio will set you apart. It’s so important to stay active within the forestry community as we are small, but growing.

There is a common misunderstanding: one has to move up to the North to be a successful forester. I certainly had this impression post-graduation, that in order to have a successful forestry career and be a “qualified” forester I would have to relocate to the North but this isn’t true.  While the north offers many forestry jobs, don’t be deterred as there are opportunities even in the south and in cities. Forestry is not a one-size-fits-all career and has options between the field and office.

Also you don’t also necessarily need to be a forester by training but even knowledge of natural resources or environmental sustainability gives you enough grounding to enter the sector. Forestry needs not only foresters, but also biologists, economics, experts in communications, policy and data analysts.

Where do you see your career in forestry taking you?

My work in forest policy has taken on new meaning.  End of last year I accepted a new position with the Wildfire Team at the Canadian Forest Service (CFS). Every summer, wildfires are becoming a new threat globally. Wildfire smoke is now from space and being deposited in glacial ice and particles spreading across continents. I am driven to positively contribute to wildfire policy,

Until I saw the policy side of wildfire, I did not comprehend the amount of work required to fight and manage wildfires. Wildland firefighting is a huge collaborative effort that involves multiple players including our brave firefighters on-the ground to office desks where modeling and weather forecasting takes place and at policy tables where  guidelines are formulated to safeguard our forests and communities through wildfire prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

As I continue my forest policy journey, I envision myself as a youth advocate for forestry both within and beyond Canada. And aspire to contribute to the Global Forest Goals of the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030.

As a young woman forester I am committed to inspiring the next generation of foresters to find their own forest trails.

This article is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series, an annual celebration of women in the industry. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtag: #WomeninForestry.

Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 8 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!