When Chris Lehnertz took the helm at Grand Canyon National Park last fall, she became the first female superintendent in the park's nearly 100-year history.
A notable moment for Grand Canyon, Lehnert’z arrival also made her the fourth woman in as many years to take over a top land management job in northern Arizona. Women now oversee the Kaibab and Coconino national forests as well as the Flagstaff Area National Monuments. Together, they are responsible for more than 7,000 square miles of public land stretching from the Kaibab Plateau to the Mogollon Rim.
The women also came into their current roles at a time when gender representation and gender relations in the Park Service and Forest Service are receiving heightened attention.
While it’s no longer a rarity for women to hold top public lands jobs, the fact remains that the balance in both agencies remains lopsided, with women making up 35 percent of employees at the Forest Service and 38 percent at the National Park Service.
At the same time, the agencies are confronting longstanding patterns of harassment, including sexual harassment, that have been forced into the spotlight through news reports, federal testimony, surveys and agency investigations.
The two are connected, Lehnertz said.
“I do believe there is a certain amount of culture change that comes from having more women in the workforce,” Lehnertz said. "It doesn't just take women to change our hostile work environment and sexual harassment, but it does take fair representation to change the overall culture of the Park Service."
Though women make up less than four in 10 employees at the Forest Service and Park Service, the land managers said that's a substantial increase from when they started their government jobs about 30 years ago. At the beginning, they all said they were one of only a few female faces.
On her first job with the Forest Service in 1985, Kaibab National Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio said she was the only woman on her fire crew.
“I was a novelty, we hardly had any women in leadership,” Provencio said. “When I started I felt like I had to be a guy to fit in and to be successful. I figured I needed to do what the guys did.”
The Forest Service and the Park Service didn’t have readily accessible data on the makeup of their workforces 30 years ago.
Fast forward three decades and both agencies have, at various times, been led by women, while females occupy a range of top management positions.
It's no longer a big deal to see women in positions like hers, said Laura Jo West, supervisor of the Coconino National Forest.
The Forest Service has come to recognize that women not only bring different qualities and skills but also effective leadership styles, said Carla Fisher in a 2012 Forest Service blog post.
Further back in the agency's history, Fisher, who has studied the history of women in the Forest Service, noted other factors that compelled the Forest Service to diversify its workforce. One was a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a female employee in 1972 that forced the agency to change its practices in relation to women and minorities. Another was the women’s and environmental movements of the 1970s that forced shifts in agency attitudes towards land management and human resources, Fisher wrote in her 2010 dissertation.
Yet another factor for all public lands agencies is the increasing number of women graduating with relevant degrees. A 2010 paper about gender diversification in the Forest Service authored by Australian researcher Greg Brown noted that by the early 2000s, more than half of students graduating with undergraduate or master’s degrees in agricultural and natural resource fields were female.
From her own experience, Provencio said the biggest factor in attracting more women to public lands work is seeing other women in those same roles.
“Diversity begets diversity,” she said.
Kayci Cook Collins, the superintendent of the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, similarly said that as a young Park Service employee it really mattered to see other women break into supervisor or other leadership positions.
“When you can tell that competence is the reason for the selection, it reinforces the sense that opportunity exists for anyone who works hard and does well regardless of gender,” Collins wrote in a follow-up email.
Both women suggested those source of influence are continuing to grow, while Lehnertz pointed to another sign the gender balance could be shifting in the Park Service.
Recent statistics show that 47 percent of the agency’s temporary workforce are women. Considering the fact that those temporary employees feed into the Park Service’s permanent workforce, “that’s a good trend,” Lehnertz said.
Even as they have seen more female faces among their coworkers, the land managers said harassment has persisted through their years working in federal agencies. Early in their careers, they experienced it themselves.
For Provencio it was catcalls and remarks questioning what she was doing on the job as well as being propositioned by superiors, which caught her off-guard.
As a young temporary employee with state and federal agencies, Lehnertz said she was confronted with sexual harassment in the form of comments, looks, supervisors hitting on her and inappropriate touching.
As they advanced in their respective agencies, the women described hearing about more nasty harassment incidents, being charged with investigating certain cases and, as leaders, working to address broader causes of harassment among their employees.
The women said their personal experiences have shaped how they act toward harassment now.
“I’m not one of those people who separate who I am from my job. I am very open about that so I can’t say it doesn’t influence me,” West said in reference to her early experience with harassment.
Provencio said that after going through harassment cases herself, “I know it can happen and I’m watching for it.”
Lehnertz said sometimes it helps to tell people that she has gone through something similar.
“I have shared with individuals who have had those experiences to say you’re not alone and maybe there are more people who have experienced it than you know,” she said.
The fact that the agencies continue to be dogged by instances of harassment and hostile work environment, even as more women join the workforce, speaks to the fact that the causes of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment go beyond the Forest Service or the Park Service, Provencio and Collins said.
“I think it goes back to culture and how we were socialized,” Provencio said. “I'm talking more generally about power and where people see power sitting in the United States, with what gender. That's going to differ from family to family, but overall we have a generally male-dominated culture and many people are in that mindset.”
In addition to the gender breakdown of employees, Lehnertz thinks a lot about power as a factor in the harassment her park has experienced. She said the park “still has a ways to go” on its workplace culture. Having more women in positions of lesser power and more men in positions of greater power, “that equation results in more sexual harassment and a hostile work environment,” Lehnertz said. “Those are the kinds of things I'm looking at at Grand Canyon.”
She has a cheat sheet showing employee demographics and planned to spend the weekend going over a new draft of Park Service anti-harassment procedures. One statistic that has stuck with her is the fact that 58 percent of Park Service employees 25 or younger have experienced harassment.
A survey of all National Park Service employees released last month found nearly two in five experienced some form of harassment over a 12-month period.
For Grand Canyon in particular, Lehnertz recognizes the focus is on urgent, corrective actions since federal investigators in 2016 announced findings of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment in the park’s river district. But those actions alone aren’t enough, Lehnertz said. They will have to be partnered with longer term strategies aimed at things like gender and race in the workforce, she said.
People keep asking her if she has gotten out on the river yet and the answer is no, she hasn’t, Lehnertz said.
“That would be the most fun thing to do, but that can’t be my priority,” she said. “My job is to help the workforce here.”