WOMEN IN THE WOODS


 This is Chapter Twenty-six of my recent book, "Government Biologist: With the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century (Symbios Books 2017). If you'd like a full, free copy, drop me a note and I'll send along a PDF.

*   *   * 

One of the biggest changes that occurred during my natural resources years was the dramatic increase in the number of women entering the profession. I wanted to say something on the subject. It doesn't fit any place in particular in my narrative, so I've just plugged it in here.   

   In her high school in Massachusetts in the 1950s, Sally took some sort of test to determine her career interests and aptitudes. After viewing the results, her counselor's opinion went somewhat like this: "Well, if you were a boy, I'd say you should be a forest ranger. As a girl... I don't know, maybe a flower arranger in a florist's shop?" I don't think we had any such counseling in my California high school but, if we did, the advice would probably have been much the same. Nutty, right?

   But that's the way it was. Even though women during World War II had shown that they were capable of doing anything that men could do - and many of them loved the work - the years after showed them mostly relegated to their former roles of housewives, secretaries, or nurses. The world in which I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s was clearly male-dominated, and I'm sure (after the fact) that a lot of it was power-driven; i.e., the man was the head of the household, and the last word in just about everything was his. But there was an equally strong side (the side I grew up on), on which women were special creations to be cherished and protected by men; still chauvinistic, but with much better intentions. Either outlook led to the same conclusion: The Outdoors was the domain of men.

   That's probably why there were only three women in the natural resources programs at Humboldt while I was there. I don't think there were any women in forestry; one was in fisheries, and two in wildlife management. One of the latter was already married to a wildlife graduate, so that was sort of "understandable;" we self-important young men were pretty sure the other was just "looking for a husband." I suspect there were female students in the biology department with strong leanings toward outdoor work, but we wouldn't have seen them often on our side of the campus.

   Wildlifers were men who wore jeans, boots, and (often) beards. That was a fact.

*   *   *

   Around 1960 or 1961, California Department of Fish and Game hired a woman seasonal aid at Los Banos (where I had worked for awhile), and she was going to be living in the refuge bunkhouse. My brother was still working there. I don't remember any opinions he might have had, but when he told our mother, her reaction was along the lines of: "There are going to be some angry and suspicious wives and girlfriends." The implications were that somehow having males and females working (and living!) together would be a threat to "family values," either because the men wouldn't be able to control themselves in the presence of a woman, or because the woman would purposely stir up trouble. (Would a "respectable" girl put herself in that position?) Nutty, right?

   But remember, this was still a couple of years before Emancipation. Most college dorms were single sex only, and at Humboldt we were just one step short of having armed guards to keep any male from getting beyond the lobby of the Female Camp. (I was never sure why college dorms were such a threat to the female population, when there were drive-in movies, cars in parking lots, friends with off-campus housing, and a whole lot of forest. But that's the way it was.) Young women were still in need of constant protection, right? We didn't send them out in the woods where they were vulnerable.

   This all sounds pretty silly now, but I think it was a big factor in slowing the recruitment of women to the natural resources profession.

*   *   *

   My first encounter with a woman on the job (who wasn't in an administrative or clerical position) was when I was biologist at Sacramento Refuge, probably in 1965. The years 1964-1965 saw major efforts to change the status of racial minorities, women, and "the poor" in the Federal workplace. Impetus was President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" and the resulting Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Office of Economic Opportunity was established, with one of its functions being the operation of the Job Corps, providing work and education for "underprivileged" youth. Also created was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), set up to promote "affirmative action," to end job discrimination in the Federal Government, and help correct existing inequities in the hiring of women and minorities. A number of executive orders and administrative directives followed.

   Our employee came to us as the result of a referral by some congressman. She was Black, college-aged, from one of the Southern states, and was interested in a career in "biology." Fish and Wildlife Service hired biologists, so naturally we were asked to find her a job. We moved her 3,000 miles from home, to a rural location far from any family or friends, and with none of "her kind." (Obviously, that's not a politically correct way to say it, but even the least culturally-sensitive people on the refuge realized that being one of the few African-Americans in a 50-mile radius, in 1960s America, could not be a comfortable situation for her.) Oh, there was one other problem: when she said she was interested in biology, she was thinking in terms of medicine, academia, or laboratory work. She had absolutely no interest in ducks, marshes, or wildlife management.

   She was a good enough worker, and went along with me on my various refuge projects, but her heart wasn't in it. She stuck it out for about a month, I think, but then resigned and returned home. It wasn't her fault, but that of an overzealous and un-researched effort to embrace the new directives.

*   *   *

   When I left college in 1963, the natural resources field was still very definitely a man's world. During the next half-dozen years, I didn't see any particular change in the field. That didn't mean there wasn't a lot going on. Because I was in college in The Sixties, it seems like I should have been involved in Viet Nam War riots, civil rights protests, free love, and drugs. Actually, all that seemed to begin in the year I graduated. The college campuses depicted on the news in 1963 and 1964 were as alien to me as Prohibition or the Roaring Twenties. It seemed impossible that the Humboldt State College of the mid-Sixties - with sex, drugs, rock and roll, women’s lib, civil disobedience, and protest - was the school I had graduated from just a few months earlier. The scenes of other campuses we saw on television were unreal. There was nothing there that I could relate to. For good and bad reasons, Youth was trying to break free.

   But there was more to it than the overt cultural "rebellion." The early Sixties also began a period of environmental awareness such as hadn't occurred in the United States in a number of decades. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which became a best-seller and opened many eyes to the subjects of pesticides and pollution. Congress passed the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act, established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and put into place other significant environmental laws and regulations. People - especially young people - felt the need (and saw the opportunity) to get involved.

   It all came together. College-aged women, having gained new "freedom" and confidence with the beginnings of the Age of Aquarius, began to see a life opening up in natural resources work that went well beyond hunting, fishing, and harvesting trees. The new Federal "equal opportunity" and "affirmative action" laws were probably not too important initially, but added long-range hope that trained women might be able to find jobs and advancement more in tune with their interests than arranging flowers in a florist's shop. Enrollment of women in fish, wildlife, and forestry colleges increased dramatically, and by the mid-1970s nearly a quarter of the natural resources student body in the United States were women.

*   *   *

   Changes in the agencies were not particularly evident through the 1960s, but with the first crop of graduates entering the work force in the late 1960s and early 1970s, women were suddenly everywhere. I noticed it first in the Forest Service, because I worked most with the national forest staffs, but Fish and Wildlife Service had our share of female recruits, as well. The changes were "interesting." I'm sure that the worst fears of mothers, wives and sweethearts were realized during this sudden mixing of the sexes in what had been an all-male world. I know from observation that a certain amount of sleeping bag-sharing occurred, sometimes because the women enjoyed their new "freedom," and sometimes because they felt it was required to be "accepted." It was only "different" from the rest of the adult world because both sexes were feeling their way in what to that moment had been a single-sex occupation.

   For most of us "professionals" (biologists, managers) - ten or more years older than our new fellow-workers, often married, often with kids of our own - the situation was different. Although we were sociable enough to have girlfriends and to get married, as a rule we were not experts on the "opposite sex." (A lot of us were more comfortable with bears and salmon than we were with "the birds and bees.") Also, we were products of the 1940s and 1950s, and had often been taught that girls needed to be respected and protected. (Note: If it seems to you that I'm having trouble putting this into words, I am. Fifty years after the fact, it all seems a little surreal. Bear with me, please.) Suddenly, we were working side-by-side with women - in offices, in cars, in meetings, hiking with them, camping with them. Do you lend a female co-worker a hand when crossing a creek, like you would your wife or girlfriend? Do you wait to let her enter the room or the elevator first? What happens when she (or you) needs a bathroom break? (When it was men only, you just stopped the truck and stepped outside.) There were no easy answers to any of these or related questions, and the response to whatever you did wasn't always predictable. Sometimes a woman wildlifer would accept a helping hand with obvious appreciation, or she would accept it without comment, perhaps a silent  acknowledgement of your good intentions. But once in awhile, your "good intentions" were received with real resentment, as if you were questioning her abilities or doubting her independence. It all took some getting used to. (This wasn't just a male adjustment issue; women undoubtedly had similar questions with every new contact. After all, they had entered Man's World.)

*   *   *

   The Fish and Wildlife Service response to the new "affirmative action" mandates worked against a peaceful and orderly transition out of our all-male professional world, and caused unnecessary resentments. As I recall, the orders from the Department of Interior read something along the lines of: hire a woman (or a minority man) unless there is a compelling reason not to. Our Directorate translated that to: if a woman or minority person is on the application list, hire her or him. White male position-seekers understood that to mean that the Service was going for quantity, not quality, and that their chances of getting selected for any job had shrunk, markedly. They weren't wrong.

   In an earlier chapter, I had mentioned that my boss while I was with the Endangered Species program had rejected my selection (a male) for a staff biologist position, and had instead hired a woman from another region. On paper, her experience was "okay," considering her short time with the Service, and in future years she proved herself to be an excellent administrator. She became a good friend, one of several former co-workers that I regularly met for lunch several years after my retirement. Had I waited a few more years before I retired, she probably would have been my boss. All's well that ends well, right?

   The problem was that the new biologist position had been approved because I badly needed someone with special knowledge of mammalogy and herpetology, to help handle the rapidly growing workload of listing packages and recovery plans. There was a "compelling reason" to select the person I picked. My new hire was a good general biologist, but didn't meet my program needs. She joined my staff of good general biologists, but I never did get a person who could handle the specialized work. The reason for the selection was pretty apparent, and caused resentment and probably a dismissal by some of her many good qualities.

*   *   *

   Unfortunately, my experience with the endangered species biologist was just one of many hires that caused resentment and suspicion for many years (and I suspect is still a problem, today). Almost ten years later, when I was supervising the national wildlife refuges in the Northwest, a grievance was filed against me for hiring a woman project leader for the Little Pend Oreille Refuge. Fish and Wildlife Service is a relatively small agency without a lot of project leader positions. The complainant, a long-term friend of mine and with almost as much Service time as I had, was highly qualified for any refuge manager job, but had never been selected. When he saw that I had picked a woman who had never been a project leader, he suspected "affirmative action" was the reason. It wasn't.

   Little Pend Oreille had been a national wildlife refuge since 1939, but for most of that time had been administered under a cooperative agreement by the Washington Department of Game. A Service representative might visit the area once or twice in a year, but we had almost no involvement in management of the area. In the early 1990s, the Service decided to take over active administration. This upset the Department of Game, worried refuge permit holders (which included ranchers and the military) and recreationists (hunters and campers, mainly), and left many questions for county commissioners regarding tax revenues, citizen complaints, and possible changes in management direction. I perceived the first several years of refuge administration as one long "public relations" nightmare. I picked a person (who happened to be a woman) who had enough general refuge administration to "get by," and had a particularly strong record of successfully dealing with complicated interagency and public involvement issues.

   I had a long talk with the complainant, explaining my rationale. I'm pretty sure he didn't agree with my decision - and our talk certainly didn't make him any happier - but he did see that  - in this instance, at least - he didn't have a supportable case. He withdrew his complaint. My hire did very well in her new role. She became only the second female refuge manager in our six-state Region; the other was also in my District.

*   *   *

   The adjustments to an increasingly mixed-sex workforce were not just about hiring, as shown by the two years in the late 1980s when I served as an EEO counselor. My job was investigating complaints that had to do with "equal opportunity" and "discrimination." The memo appointing me set out my duties: "A good counselor can resolve most situations, restore harmony to a deteriorating work environment, and save the Service time and money by preventing formal complaints of discrimination." Pretty easy task, right?

   Some of the complaints that might have come to my attention were unequal pay for the same work done by a man or a woman; perceived unfairness in getting promotions, or in receiving training; or the feeling that one was being treated with lack of respect.  Actually, most of the complaints I investigated had to do with what was termed a "hostile work environment." The grievances were not always from women, but most were. They included too many "fucks" and "shits" in their fellow employees' vocabularies, too much general talk about sex (some considered pretty graphic), and actual sexual innuendo and suggestions aimed at them specifically.

   The general "bad language" complaints were both easy and hard to deal with. Now, with today's standards of speech on television and in popular music, most of them probably wouldn't be lodged. Even in the 1990s, I heard women who were almost as prolific and inventive as the men with "vernacular" speech. Therefore, it was sometimes tempting to just tell the offended one to "get over it." Still, some of it was pretty grating to anybody's ears, female or male. The usual "solution" involved face-to-face discussions, to suggest that offenders "tone it down" and the offended "lighten up." None of my investigations ever went forward to a formal complaint, but I doubt much progress was made toward reducing "bad language."

   "Sex talk," referring to the body parts of women, discussing sexual conquests (real or imagined), "rating" women numerically, or using derogatory names for females should have been objectionable to anyone of any sex. If I found a pattern of this behavior, I considered it a failure of the project leader to insure a non-hostile work environment, and urged direct confrontation of specific offenders, and "training" for the whole staff.

   Most of the complaints in these two categories involved the work areas where men gathered. The office environments, whether in the city or on a refuge or fish hatchery, were usually more "refined" in speech and action. This wasn't because "blue collar" workers were cruder than "white collar;" it was because the shops were often the equivalent of sports "locker rooms," where men could tell dirty jokes and regale each other with sexual tales and fantasies. I've known men who, in the office, were paragons of "niceness," but who swore and told tales with the most outrageous of them when on a break in the shop. While not the most appealing of social interaction, this was (and is) pretty standard male talk. Some men had a hard time adjusting to women working with them, not understanding that a woman wanting to be an accepted member of the team was not the same as wanting to be "one of the boys."

   The third level of complaint, in which the attentions were directed at a specific person, was the type most likely to go forward as a formal grievance. Some men were undoubtedly perfectly sincere when they said they were just "teasing" or expressing their real interest in a woman when they made comments about how they looked or what they were wearing. Maybe so, and maybe it would be fine with the woman after hours, but this was the workplace, where she was trying to be recognized as an equal.

   (As I write this, I can't help thinking about the television show, "NCIS." One of the characters on this long-running Federal crime fighter show, Tony DiNozzo, couldn't open his mouth without saying something sexually suggestive (or outright sexual). Some of the other characters mildly challenged him at times, but in general everybody treated him like a really nice, fun guy. Even his boss, who made a point of relating to the women who worked for him with real fatherly care and understanding, never rebuked Tony for his behavior. Thankfully, back here In the real world, there's no way that Tony - and his boss - would have escaped formal EEO complaints for creating and maintaining a "hostile work environment" for women.)

*   *   *

   Is there any job in natural resources work that a woman couldn't do as well as a man? I doubt it. Women do at least as well as men academically, often better. If they are in good shape, their endurance and agility is as good. Physical strength may be less in some women than it is in some men (and the key word here is "some"), but there are often a number of ways to accomplish a task that only on first glance requires brute force. I worked with a number of women who hated carrying a gun when that became a requirement of her position; I worked with a number of men who felt the same way. When it came down to the actual job, both sexes responded equally well.

   Some supervisors were reluctant to hire women for the more remote locations, partly because of concern for their personal safety, but also because of the (unfortunately, real) bullying and chauvinistic behavior of some rural men. Obviously, one wouldn't put a woman into that position unless she was well-trained, experienced, and mature. The same should be considered when placing a man in such a job. Once in place, women often prove to be better negotiators and problem-solvers than men. The profession has gained a lot by no longer being "men only."

   To women in the natural resources professions, we can truthfully say - as did all those Virginia Slims cigarette commercials - "You've come a long way, baby!" (although the  "baby" may not be politically correct). Looking through the personnel lists of Fish and Wildlife Service, one sees almost as many female names as male names for project leaders and upper level managers. Some are really good at their jobs, some not so much (just like men). Some got to where they are by solid endeavor and merit advancement, some got there by special dispensations or the political spoils system (just like men). If the playing field hasn't been leveled, it has certainly been tilted in the right direction.

   One would like to think that everything is okay now, or at least getting there. But just this year (2016), the National Park Service has had high executives retiring early, park superintendents being moved to non-supervisory jobs, and Congressional investigations being held. These are the result of widespread allegations of gender bias in training and promotions, disrespectful treatment of women on the job, sexual harassment, and even sexual assault. I haven't heard of similar concerns in Fish and Wildlife Service or other natural resource agencies, but clearly there are still serious problems to be overcome.


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