Sometimes when Southwest Conservation Crew 428 arrives at a sawyer job, crew members receive second looks from clients for carrying saws or wearing manual labor gear. At times, the client ends up looking for the man in charge.
“There’s definitely stereotypes and gender norms within this field,” said Cassie McCarty, a crew leader. “Even if they’re slight, they’re still there.”
Crew 428 is a team of all women and gender nonbinary individuals – the first of its kind for the SCC.
Gender makes a difference in the conservation field. Crews work and live together 24/7 while working on natural resource stewardship projects. Most of the members are male. This August, SCC launched Crew 428 to tackle long-standing issues of gender-based stereotypes, special treatment or even discrimination.
“I feel that females tend to be overlooked,” said Lisa Slupianek, SCC program manager. “A lot of folks hand the chainsaw straight to the male individual. That’s where I’m coming from. I want it to be a level playing field.”
SCC is a program of Conservation Legacy, which was founded in 1998 to continue the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.
Part of its mission is to create an inclusive environment for members, mostly AmeriCorps volunteers, to enter the field. That means creating safe spaces for underrepresented groups of people to learn professional skills, Slupianek said.
“We had a ton of applicants,” said Slupianek, who spent two years forming the crew with other SCC team members. “We were stoked and felt we could move forward successfully.”
Crew 428 is made up of six members. One person, Tiger Tuchel, identifies as gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, and five people identify as women and use she/her pronouns.
Gender nonbinary often means a person does not exclusively identify as male or female, but the term can cover other gender identities. Gender terms like woman and nonbinary do not imply any sexual orientation.
McCarty, 25, said being in the crew gave her the chance to be respected as a leader because of her experience, “instead of being judged on my looks.” She recalled when men told her she was too pretty to build a table or doubted her skills.
“It makes me feel unseen,” McCarty said. “I like figuring out how to solve problems ... like how to get a tree on the ground safely. I don’t think my appearance or my gender has anything to do with that.”
Greta Binzen, 24, has never worked on a sawyer crew before. She would have joined if Crew 428 didn’t exist – but she would have been more stressed about it.
“(It’s) not something that I would necessarily feel super comfortable learning and exploring in a different type of environment ... like dealing with the macho mansplaining situation,” Binzen said.
Tuchel, 30, was looking for a gender-friendly sawyer crew opportunity and saw SCC had a women’s crew.
“I was like, that could be chill. I could be a woman for the sake of an application,” Tuchel said. “The fact they put that in the job description made me feel a lot better about going out for this job.”
Male-dominated industries can struggle with creating a level playing field. It’s an issue that crops up across industries, in the pay scale and – emphatically – with sexual harassment issues during the #MeToo movement in 2017.
Women in majority-male workplaces are more likely to say their gender has made it harder for them to get ahead at work, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis. They are less likely to say women are treated fairly in personnel matters, and they report experiencing gender discrimination at significantly higher rates, the center said.
In a 2020 Texas A&M University study, nonbinary employees faced more prejudice than men and transgender women.
The three Crew 428 members interviewed by The Durango Herald described instances when their skills were doubted because of their looks or gender. People are surprised to see them wield saws professionally or dismiss their ideas. Sometimes it makes them feel like they had to work harder to prove themselves, or they couldn’t dress or act “girly.”
“The conservation field is pretty male dominant, and there’s definitely some gender discrimination,” Slupianek said. “(The crew) was an avenue for individuals to build technical skills they need to see if this is a career they want to join.”
For Tuchel, it’s a respite from gender pressures.
“It doesn’t even feel good to ask a man for help sometimes when you need that expertise because it often comes with condescension. Being in this environment without that is awesome,” Tuchel said.
When that reprieve ends, the crew members expect to enter multi-gender workforces with new skills under their belts. The format of the crew even offers a vision of what workplaces could be like – where people could have spaces that welcomed conversations about different gender experiences.
“Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I have to be one thing or the other,” McCarty said. “I can be as many things as I want to be.”