JIS News

Story Highlights

  • In 1996, Marilyn Headley made history by becoming the first female Conservator of Forests in Jamaica and the Commonwealth.
  • “Being a female in the Forestry Department had always been like ‘who are you and what do you know’,” Ms. Headley says in an interview with JIS News.
  • Bolstered by her love for the outdoors, an innate passion for forests and a deep appreciation for the sector’s value to the environment, Ms. Headley has led the Department for 21 years, seeing it through many changes, most notably its transition to an executive agency in 2007.

In 1996, Marilyn Headley made history by becoming the first female Conservator of Forests in Jamaica and the Commonwealth.

“They used to say, you don’t look like a forester; so I would always say, how is a forester supposed to look?” she relates to JIS News.

The appointment as head of the Forestry Department – all the more meaningful, as she was returning to the agency, which kick-started her career – would set the forest sector on its current path to being foremost in the country’s drive towards sustained growth and development.

Her appointment might also have served as a catalyst for the addition of more female technical staff at the traditionally male-dominated Department.

“Being a female in the Forestry Department had always been like ‘who are you and what do you know’,” Ms. Headley says in an interview with JIS News.

Recalling her first stint at the Department in 1976, when she took a job as an Assistant to the then Deputy Director, having just completed her degree in Agriculture at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Ms. Headley says there were, at most, three females working in technical fields.

Over the course of eight years, she served as civil culturist, research officer and senior research officer at the agency.

Still, she was eager for more opportunities to grow professionally, and moved to the Jamaica National Investment Promotions Limited (now Jamaica Promotions Corporation), where she worked as an Agricultural Marketing Officer.

That agency transferred her to its Miami office, where, for eight years, she would work as the Agricultural Officer for the North American region.

Upon her return to the Forestry Department in 1996, however, she was disappointed to find that the female-to-male ratio had not seen much improvement over the years.

The gender gap would, however, begin to improve, following Ms. Headley’s appointment as Conservator. This, she says, was due in part to a Canadian-funded ‘Trees for Tomorrow’ project, which had a module focused on how gender was reflected at the organisation.

The Conservator makes it clear that while she made no direct effort to bring in more females, she made sure qualified women were equally considered for technical positions as men.

“I am not going to hire you just because you are female, but if you are qualified, gender should not hinder you from being considered,” she points out.

With the number of women leaving universities qualified in technical areas increasing, she is proud to note that the female cohort at the Forestry Department also increased exponentially.

Ms. Headley tells JIS News that some 40 per cent of technical positions at the Department are now filled by women, up from 1.5 per cent in the 1990s. She notes that several members of the senior management team are also female.

“That is what I call improvement, in that everybody can now feel like they too can be a Conservator. It is important for people to feel that when they come in, there is room for them to move up,” she points out.

Bolstered by her love for the outdoors, an innate passion for forests and a deep appreciation for the sector’s value to the environment, Ms. Headley has led the Department for 21 years, seeing it through many changes, most notably its transition to an executive agency in 2007.

She was appointed Chief Executive Officer and reinstated as Conservator of Forests following the shift, which she describes as an achievement of which she is particularly proud.

She is also happy to have been able to bring the forest sector to the forefront of public awareness, which she hopes will foster greater recognition of the importance of forests in mitigating climate change, protecting the country’s infrastructure from flooding and to overall safeguard the environment.

It was in the 2000s that she introduced the community participation initiative, where foresters were encouraged to get persons involved in protecting the resource. “Getting people involved, getting the stakeholders to meet, getting the views of the public – all this was new to the Forestry Department,” she points out.

She adds that the expansion of the agency, to include posts for lawyers, sociologists, public-awareness specialists, and others, was also significant in revolutionising the way the Department operates.

“This is very much in line with the global trend of how we must see forestry,” Ms. Headley says.

She expresses confidence in the team at the Forestry Department and its capability to take the agency forward, especially through the implementation of the National Conservation Forest Management Plan, now before the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation for approval.

“I think we are on a good track. We have here some bright young people… . I feel comfortable that this generation is ready to take the plan to 2026 and beyond,” she tells JIS News.

Reflecting on her contribution to the public sector, she expresses satisfaction with her journey.

“As a career civil servant, I find that I have been able to contribute in a lot of ways and to make a difference in the country and the sector,” she notes.

She says her motto for success, inspired by a teacher from her youth, has been to always aim high.

“Anything you are doing, always aim just a little beyond,” the CEO and Forest Conservator says.