More women in Nebraska finding careers in natural resources-related fields

Aug. 24, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

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Thanks to an initiative to diversify the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resources in gender, geography, and ethnicity, more women are finding careers in the traditionally male-dominated intersection of nature and science.

From fisheries, wildlife, and forestry, to water studies and climate sciences, more women are finding careers in natural resources-related fields.

Hanna Pinneo started working at the Nebraska Forest Service a year and a half ago. She’s a conservation education coordinator who loves her job and tries to encourage young women to work outdoors as a career.

The forest service workforce is about half men and half women now. That’s much different than it used to be.

At a recent retirement party for forest service members, Pinneo had several women tell her, “Well, I remember when there wasn’t even a women’s restroom in the forestry building, there was only a men’s room, so we’ve definitely come a long way,” Pinneo said.

John Carroll is the chair of the University of Nebraska School of Natural Resources. (Photo courtesy Shawna Richter-Ryerson)

John Carroll, the chair of the University of Nebraska School of Natural Resources, said more women than ever are interested in studying natural resources.

Carroll said the initiative to diversify the department in gender, geography, and ethnicity started in 2015 when a group of department employees was charged with finding ways to create a more diverse faculty, including more women.

“I think that in particular, we’ve had a history here of just not figuring out how to make this place attractive to women to come here in natural resources,” Carroll said.

That has started to change. According to statistics provided by the School of Natural Resources, the number of women faculty members has doubled in the last 10 years.

In 2008, there were 13 women in the department, which includes lecturers and non-tenure track employees. This year, there are currently 27 women out of a total faculty of 91. Several of those women have relocated here from other parts of the country.

Hanna Pinneo helps Stella Lozano with bug netting at a Prairie Pines Second Saturday event. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Forest Service)

Carroll said the initiative has resulted in the hiring of some outstanding young female scientists researching climate, environmental restoration, fisheries and wildlife, grassland ecology and management, regional and community forestry, and water.

“Providing women the opportunity to get their foot in the door and showing us what they’ve got,” Carroll said.

And, the number of young women interested in pursuing natural resources keeps growing.

Jazmin Castillo, a UNL graduate student, said outreach programs may be one reason.

“They’re starting to realize that you don’t always have to always make girls grow up with Barbie’s and stuff,” Castillo said. “You can also teach them how to be outdoors, and more practical learning skills than what they usually used to teach.”

Jamilynn Poletto is a fish biologist from New York who recently moved to Nebraska. She said many female students are either not aware or don’t know how to access opportunities in these kinds of careers.

“Or it’s maybe not a role they saw themselves in from a young age because it is traditionally male-dominated,” Poletto said.

Poletto said she thinks it’s time for a new perspective.

“It’s really important for me to show young women that are entering the field, that you can actually attain a level of responsibility, of authority, and of leadership even within working in the sort of old boys clubs of many natural science fields,” Poletto said.

Assistant professor in fish biology Jamilynn Poletto poses with University of Nebraska students Alex Engel, left, and Zach Horstman at the fish laboratory. (Photo courtesy Shawna Richter-Ryerson)

Pinneo with the forest service said she’s also hoping the departmental initiative helps women scientists advance into leadership roles.

“How do we help women get into that leadership role because of the women within the agency are not right now in that top leadership and not in charge of supervising anybody,” Pinneo said. “Forestry, in general, has been typically male-dominated. But we are seeing more and more women come up through the ranks.”

Mary Bomberger Brown is a professor who has been taking students out into the field to study birds for the last 40 years. She says now is the opportune time for young women to be in natural resources.

“It’s a brilliant time to be in the STEM fields; if this is what you want to do if this is where your skills are, your heart is and your intellect is, then yes, this is a brilliant time,” Bomberger Brown said.

But, after decades spent in the presence of a mostly male department, Bomberger Brown wants to credit her predecessors in helping open up more prospects in the field to all students.

“It’s like anything; we stand on the shoulders of giants. The women and the men who have gone before us have moved things forward,” she said.

John Carroll said while his department has made strides in gender and geographic equity, continuing to expand all types of diversity in the natural sciences workforce is still a priority.