Gina Paola Gallo is a Colombian forest engineer graduated from the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas, with more than 10 years of experience in environmental management of the territory, especially in the design and planning of Watershed Management Plans , in Regional Autonomous Corporations and consultancy companies.
Gina shares with us her experiences as a woman in the forest sector, the activities she has carried out and the challenges she has faced throughout her professional career.
Lili: Gina, tell us about yourself, your background and what you currently do.
Gina: My name is Gina Paola Gallo and I graduated from the Universidad Distrital de Bogotá 11 years ago. Currently, I work at CAM, the environmental authority of the Department of Huila and the area in which I have worked the most has been watersheds and water resources. Most of my experience has been with government institutions and I worked for a while in the area of forestry plantations. Basically, my main interest continues to be water resources; it is the subject that I have liked the most to this day.
Lili: I would like to go back a little bit and find out why you decided to study forest engineering, what was the reason or motive for you to choose this career?
Gina: The truth is that I didn’t choose it, it chose me because it was a matter of destiny and indecision, the honest truth to this day I don’t know what it was, but I had filled out the application to study a Bachelor’s Degree in Languages, and the last day of enrollment, standing in line to hand in the application form I started to look at the booklet that they give out at school, and I don’t know, and something told me no, maybe I don’t have the necessary vocation for a career like that and additionally I didn’t see myself practicing it. So, I checked the engineering curriculum and I liked the forestry one a lot, there were subjects that looked open, like forestry extension and everything related, and I said well, it sounds interesting. But the reality is that I had never heard anything about forestry engineering, much less about a forest engineer, basically I was completely new to the career, even thinking about it, since I was left with the idea of the brochure, and with that I took a risk, I applied and was admitted to the university. There I learned about forest engineering.
Lili: When you finished your degree and graduated, what were the first obstacles you had to face?
Gina: On a personal level, the expectation of what a forest engineer does, the first jobs are usually in the field, in areas far from the cities, in my case for example: to get to the field to try to harmonize a little what you learn at the university and what you really find in the territory and how to act, how to apply what you learned, but without going to extremes because in practice things are not as accurate as you see them in the career, without it being a problem of the university, it is something that no university can predict. My first job was in a rural area of quite sexist influence, visiting farm by farm, reviewing and planning the social component, trying to somehow convince users to generate changes within their property to improve the environmental condition, since it was a sensitive area, it was not a moor area, but with occupation, with the presence of communities.
Arriving as a woman to an area where all the users are men, men who do not even let their wives speak, who do not let you pass the door, without them believing something, it was difficult, besides, because of my build, I am not the biggest woman, so of course I arrived and more or less they asked where is the forest engineer, with everything they imagined a forest engineer to be, as if I did not visually meet the expectations of what they imagined a forest engineer to be. It was a big challenge to gain their trust from a professional point of view and for them to consider that you really have something to contribute and that you have the intention to receive and learn from their territories. So, the first few months were very difficult, apart from the fact that I was in an area where I had no communication with my family.
I worked with professionals from different areas (veterinarians, environmental engineers, psychologists, etc.), so it is also a challenge to show how your career can really be complementary to the work that others develop. Of course, there is a moment when you say, “oh, why didn’t I study something that had me on a beach”, something much easier in the sense that it is easier to react, that your task is: you know exactly what you have to do, while here there are moments when you have to be quiet a little bit, listen and see what is happening, to see if really something of what you have to contribute is also valid in those contexts.
Lili: when you were at university did you visualize yourself working in environmental management, that is, did you say I am going to go out and work in watersheds, I am going to plan the territory, or did you generate other kinds of expectations at university, what were you thinking at that time?
Gina: In the university and as almost always one says that in this field I am doing well, I am going to work in this field. But no, I really liked the subject of soils and dendrology, I even wanted to do my thesis on soils, but in the end I couldn’t do it.
I saw myself learning all the names of the species, I really liked botany. In contrast with the area of rural community extension, since I am not the most social woman and I was never so skillful to manage a group or to think that I could lead some process that had that social context, then I really thought that what I had done best in college, that was what I was going to dedicate myself to. I like the subject of watersheds, at the university it was complete and today I believe that the vision we had in watersheds at the university has perhaps not changed much, beyond the social subject, but it was not a subject that I ever said: “yes I am going to dedicate myself to that”, because for me at that time the subject of watersheds was more of a purely hydrological subject, so it was not within my expectations of working life. This gave me the opportunity to learn a little more about management, not only of the forestry component, but of everything that integrates the watershed and how to try to make a more adequate management of each territory.
Lili: What are those strengths that you have developed during your career?
Gina: I would think that the contact with people, how to make the knowledge you have useful in the field of work. What has most attracted my attention in the watershed area is the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, all the topics that are integrated, the challenge of reading the territory from different points of view. To begin to form a more critical vision, to learn to make decisions with what you have. The versatility that we engineers have of wanting to do everything and the contact with people. If I compare myself with my 10-year-old self, now I have a more critical vision of how to act and react to certain situations.
Lili: Do you think that women’s participation has changed from what it was 10 years ago?
Gina: Initially, in my first job I worked with many men and my role was very technical, I was not so involved in the forestry sector, it is very difficult for me to remember at that time what the role of women was like. Later I had the opportunity to work with women forestry managers in different areas and I always heard negative comments: “she is very angry”, “as she is a woman you have to be more careful with her”, then when people see the person’s performance they value her management. I am very grateful for the gender differences, because they allow us to value the strengths of men and women. Now I see more women in decision-making roles and in general it is valued.
Internally, it is not easy for women to get to a decision-making position; they feel the need to get there with their feet firmly on the ground because it has not been easy to get there. In general, the role of women in forestry has been very relevant, which at the beginning was considered a career for men, and it is key for the management of different components. But it is important to emphasize that it has always been through someone else, a person who motivates or pushes another to get where she is.
Lili: What advice would you give to the new generations of Forest Engineers?
Gina: I don’t know if I am the best person to give advice, but I think that we should not expect to be excellent in everything, it is essential to decide what we like and do what we can. It is not only the training that makes you a good or bad engineer, it is having the clarity that you need many professions and different types of people. Networking is essential, I always have people to refer to. So be proud of your profession and the line you choose to develop it with all the attitude.
With Gina I had the opportunity to work on several projects, I really like to share her story with you, it is a very honest story about our profession in a fundamental area such as environmental management of the territory. This is how we close this interview, I hope you enjoy it. And for the people who read us, don’t forget to comment and share.
Thank you all! See you in the next interview.