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Gender Diversification in the U.S. Forest Service: Does It Still Matter?

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Abstract

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has historically provided a useful model for understanding administrative behavior and organizational change. In 1990 and 1996, nationwide studies of USFS employees were conducted to evaluate the emergence of a new resource management paradigm and to examine the role of workforce diversification, especially gender, in contributing to organizational change. In 2008, a new survey of Forest Service employees was conducted to measure what changes have occurred over the last decade. More than a decade later, workforce diversification continues to evoke powerful negative and positive attitudinal responses among USFS employees. Larger organizational issues, especially reduced program budgets and a reduction in workforce, have stalled agency diversification efforts, reducing opportunities for women to enter leadership roles. The authors analysis suggests that the USFS is operating from a discrimination-and-fairness organizational diversity paradigm rather than a valuing-and-integrating paradigm, which will ultimately limit the benefits purported to accrue from workforce diversification.

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... They found four primary arguments in favor of diversity, several of which are implied in the Forest Service statements above and can be found across the US federal government (Bradbury 2011). Forest Service reasoning often echoes Batavia and colleagues, especially the argument that the agency should create a workforce that represents a diverse society, and that staying relevant in a diverse society requires a diverse workforce (Brown et al. 2010a, Batavia et al. 2020. However, to fully achieve the goals of representation and relevance, they argue, more than numbers is required; employees from nondominant groups must also have a voice in shaping policies and programs (Batavia et al. 2020). ...
... Although the Forest Service has goals of a representative workforce, not unlike other organizations, it has had both successes and difficulties achieving this and related diversity goals (USDA Forest Service 1991, Bosworth 2006, Brown et al. 2010a. Several studies have explored trends in Forest Service employee race/ ethnicity and gender demographics, allowing a partial assessment of the Forest Service's progress towards building a multicultural organization. ...
... Thomas and Mohai (1995) assessed Forest Service employment data from 1983 to 1995 (these data were reported separately for gender and for employees of color as a whole) and found that the Forest Service increased the number and percentage of both female employees and employees of color, but that growth was uneven across job types, with continued low numbers in positions that develop into leadership roles (Thomas and Mohai 1995). Brown, Harris, and Squirrell have several publications investigating changes in the Forest Service workforce, with an emphasis on gender and on new disciplines (e.g., wildlife biologists) being hired in response to changing laws and societal expectations (Brown and Harris 1993, 2001, Brown et al. 2010a, 2010b. Brown and colleagues' analysis show an increase in female Forest Service employees in the 1990s, and some movement of female employees into leadership positions (Brown et al. 2010b). ...
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We analyzed USDA Forest Service (Forest Service) employment data from 1995 to 2017, by race and ethnicity, gender, as well as race/ethnicity and gender, to assess progress towards the Forest Service’s goal of achieving a multicultural workforce that reflects the US population. We look at the trends by an employee’s level in the Forest Service and by branch of the Forest Service. Our data show an overall decrease in the workforce by 24%, an increase in diversity in Forest Service leadership levels, little change in the percentage of employees in non-White racial/ethnic groups combined, the number of Black employees decreased, and the number of women in lower grades and in the National Forest System Deputy Area decreased. Comparison with the civilian labor force provides additional context. Implications are relevant beyond the Forest Service, including a risk of losing public trust and reduced agency effectiveness if a representative workforce is not achieved. Study Implications: Like other land management agencies, the USDA Forest Service aims for workforce diversity to help meet its mission to serve the American people. Assessing progress toward meeting diversity goals is key and looking at Forest Service employee demographic data over a 22-year period (1995–2017), we find mixed results. The Forest Service workforce has declined in overall numbers and has lost representative diversity in many gender, race, and ethnicity categories. However, some sections of the agency, such as leadership grades and business operation positions, have increased representative diversity. Slow progress in meeting diversity goals may limit the effectiveness of the Forest Service and the public’s trust in the agency (and other public land management agencies), especially if diversity of perspective and thought among employees is not also supported. More work is needed to evaluate why progress toward Forest Service diversity goals has been uneven. In particular, these data do not tell us about how the presence or absence of representative diversity affects the quality of people’s experiences as agency employees, or why people either leave or stay with the agency over time.
... Women and ethnic-minority professionals in forestry are associated with a more ecosystems-based approach, and can help with the shift towards more participatory and multi-functional forestry (Brown et al, 2010). Higher diversity is also associated with better sector image, retention of much required talent pool, innovation and better reflection of customer and stakeholder needs, all of which are significant sources of market and financial benefits over the longer run. ...
... In academia, studies have associated unconscious bias in peer searches and hiring decisions with the low representation of women scientists in university faculty (Glass and Minnotte 2010). In the Forest Service, the workplace culture has favored leaders who make decisions on recruitment and promotion that foster " acculturation " (Robinson 1975), or compliance with the organization norms (Chojnacky 2012), such that women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions and within the workforce in general (Brown et al. 2010a). ...
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