By Candace Sofianos King
Timber industry role players shed light on what it takes to be a woman in the wood sector.

For women working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, challenges abound, however, change is also evident in terms of further inclusion of females in the industry as well as the development and promotion of women in the sector. These are the opinions of some of the timber industry’s female role players.

“Women, if given the appropriate opportunities, can provide an important role in the timber industry. There is no reason why a woman with the appropriate training and experience cannot head up a large company. In my mind, women can make an equal and significant contribution to the sector,” believes Stephanie Dyer, industry expert and founder of Timber Information Services, a consultancy providing a professional wood identification service to the industry and public.

Stephanie Dyer, industry expert and founder of Timber Information Services.

Stephanie Dyer, industry expert and founder of Timber Information Services. Credit: Stephanie Dyer

Dyer’s consultancy is used by a wide spectrum of clients ranging from timber merchants, antique dealers and restorers to the timber industry, government and researchers. Dyer says the wood identification service has made an invaluable contribution to those using it over the years, with many interesting applications or cases. It is the only professional wood identification service in South Africa, she notes.

After studying plant sciences at university, Dyer started working as a forestry professional officer at the South African Forestry Research Institute, doing mainly wood anatomical research work. She was also trained in wood identification techniques and took over the wood identification service from her father, Neels Kromhout. From there Dyer moved to Forestek at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), where she continued with research work and the wood identification service.

Dyer also assists with timber information, for example, properties of timber species and substitute species for well-known species, and also offers training courses in wood identification techniques to government and non-government agencies and officers who are responsible for the curbing of illegal trading of protected timber species.

“I am very sensitive to the challenges faced by women, not only in the timber and construction sector, but at home, in the workplace and in the world, especially at such a uniquely fraught juncture in our global story. While the construction sector in South Africa is still very clearly male-steered, I have only experienced the sector as welcoming, helpful and open to change,” says Jennifer Rees, director of Haas&DAS Communications, an agency geared to promoting brands in the construction, engineering and industrial sectors.

Instrumental in the launch of Timber iQ magazine, Rees boasts a master’s degree in English studies with a focus on gender studies from the University of Stellenbosch. As an avid promoter of timber as an industry and a building material, Rees says that by working on the publication, she had the opportunity to learn a great deal about timber, its versatility for design and construction and very importantly, the inimitable properties that support its status as a naturally greener material with which to design and build.

“Something else I became aware of during this time was the disparity between the superb, world-class skills and products coming out of this sector in South Africa and a gap in the marketing and promotion thereof; at the time, I felt it was long overdue for the timber industry to be more bold in telling its stories,” says Rees.

Rees explains that the prevailing economic and political climate in South Africa is making itself felt in the industry with local and international investment carrying tenuous undertones. “It is especially important when it comes to timber products and construction, or any construction for that matter, that quality standards are maintained, regulations are adhered to and stakeholders uphold their respective roles and responsibilities in the value chain. During less certain economic times, it can be tempting to opt for lower quality products or workmanship, or to take short cuts; both the public and the trade should avoid taking this route and be on high alert for such activity,” she says.

Transformation and achievement

Dyer says she has had a very good experience dealing with clients in the timber industry and have been accepted as a specialist in the field of wood anatomy and identification. Having said this, Dyer feels that transformation is definitely taking place in the industry. “There is visible transformation in the market place with regard to gender and race and this is very pleasing, but I believe that there is still some way to go.

“There should be more opportunities for, in particular, young people, so that their potential can be discovered and unleashed.

The limited number of wood scientists and the relatively small number of graduates coming into the workforce is also a challenge,” says Dyer.

“The wheel is slow to turn, but I believe it is turning. While government can offer the private sector a framework for transformation, it is incumbent upon the players in the sector to meet these criteria, not just for the sake of compliance, but to create meaningful and sustainable opportunities for diversity, growth and advancement of the industry and its players,” says Rees.

She adds, “I am aware of a number of programmes in the construction sector, both formal and informal, that aim to give previously disadvantaged youth a leg up

Jennifer Rees, director of Haas&DAS Communications.

Jennifer Rees, director of Haas&DAS Communications. Credit: Jennifer Rees

into the industry; some even aim to produce self-sufficient entrepreneurs through learnership programmes, who will then return to their communities to start their own businesses and share their knowledge and skills. As the saying goes, ‘A closed hand cannot receive’. I believe being open to transformation is being open to opportunity.”

The time is ripe for women who are already in the sector to influence its current reputation as a male-dominated sphere, drive the gender equality and equal pay agenda and transform the sector into one that is accessible to all who not only want in, but are prepared to work for it, advises Rees.

“Greater representation of women in the sector is not only a priority for the demographical change we seek, but an essential component of bringing different perspectives to the industry; diverse views and experiences are key factors in breaking down ‘group think’ and encourage much-needed innovation.

“New and successive generations entering the workforce that intrinsically value gender equality on all fronts, are sensitive to privilege and the converse, and do not view career choice as contingent upon one’s gender, will embody and drive transformation for a better, more diverse and equal industry,” she says.

Rees believes that school learning, training and learnerships are essential to the transformation process in the sector.

“Parents and guardians, hand in hand with primary and secondary schools, have an obligation to their children to identify and hone talents and skills at an early age, and to guide them towards training, apprenticeships, learnership programmes or formal studies that are the best fit for them. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly blinkered to the value of tertiary education that is not offered by a university, which can make vocational training seem like a lesser alternative, or simply not even a worthwhile option.

“South African colleges have a number of excellent vocational training avenues which need to be heavily promoted as viable and sound pathways to access self-fulfilment and real economic mobility. Players in the public and private spheres of the sector should prioritise learnerships and apprenticeships and take good care of the reputation of the industries they will leave to future generations.”

Future industry endeavours

Dyer says her greatest achievement was the publication of the book Guide to the Properties and Uses of Southern African Wood, which she wrote with two other wood lovers, Barry and Danielle James. The book, which was published in 2016 by Briza, brings together all the available information on the most important indigenous timbers and makes it accessible to everyone.

She continues, “My personal goal at present is to find and train a candidate to continue with the wood identification service when I retire. A key challenge is to source finances to enable this. I would like to see more women in managerial positions, even managing directors of companies. I also want to see a far greater awareness and appreciation of wood in South Africa,” shares Dyer.

“Personally, I strive to learn more about timber as a construction material as well as the details of local market complexity. I am interested in the potential of harnessing more diverse timber material offerings, like cross laminated timber (CLT) and full-scale prefabricated timber homes to intelligently respond to South Africa’s – and many developing countries’ – desperate need for dignified, durable housing options with quick delivery times.

“Developing a culture that readily accepts and values timber as a legitimate housing option not only for the wealthy will play a tremendous role in shifting attitudes towards the material, which will impact both public and private spend, ultimately tipping the scales of feasibility to make building with timber even more accessible. The economic and environmental benefits for a timber-favouring culture are manifold,” says Rees.

On the subject of assigning loaded cultural morals to children based on their gender, she says, “As the mother of a little girl, I am struck daily by the many outside forces that jostle to tell her (and me!) how she should dress, behave and play and by all accounts what career path she should pursue one day as a girl.”

As such, on the future of female representation in the construction sector, Rees believes a profound force in transforming an industry is raising young people – both boys and girls – to expect nothing less than equality, equal reward for equal efforts, to be unencumbered by western media’s examples and teachings of how boys and girls should be in the world and to encourage girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

With heightened awareness of the challenges women face in their various sectors, a greater impetus to work for gender equality from a grassroots level is poised to enhance inclusivity in all industries, not just the construction sector. As a driver of development, economy and innovation, inclusivity is essential not only for the survival of any industry, but its prosperity well into the future.