Ambushing the gender gap: 18 stories of women breaking down barriers in Catalonia’s forests

A new photographic exhibition on the role of women working in the forests of Catalonia will be on display until 14 April in the gardens of Palau Robert in Barcelona, Spain.

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"Emboscades. Dones i Bosc" Photo Exhibition
Photo: Gerard Fernandez (EFIMED)

Emboscar is a Catalan verb that has two main definitions. From the more poetic and literary “to get lost and go deep into the vastness of a forest” to the more commonly used, specifically in the field of defence: “to be in a hidden place to surprise the enemy”. Someone who is emboscat / emboscada, therefore, is someone who gets lost in the woods and feels good about it but also someone who is ambushed.

It is no coincidence, then, that the photographic exhibition inaugurated in Barcelona on women working in forests in Catalonia, as part of International Women’s Day on 8 March, bears the title “Emboscades. Dones i Bosc“. A double-edged concept: the joy of working in a natural environment versus the challenges faced by women, who still struggle to break glass ceilings and feel trapped by different threats such as gender inequality, paternalism, sexism, and invisibility.

In “Emboscades. Dones i Bosc” the image vindicates, empowers, and sheds light on the work of women in a forgotten environment, the forest and the rural, to serve as an inspiration for future generations. The exhibition, created by American photographer Michele Curel and commissioned by the Director General of Forest Ecosystems of the Government of Catalonia, Anna Sanitjas, features the stories of 18 women who dedicate part of their daily lives to working in the forest (livestock farmers, firefighters, scientists, forest managers, woodworkers, natural park managers, among others).

The initiative was born in a technical workshop two years ago and has culminated in this audiovisual project that will run at Palau Robert in Barcelona until 14 April. The exhibition has received support from the Catalan Women’s Institute, which contributed to its curation by providing a feminist perspective on the day-to-day reality experienced by professional women in the forestry and rural world, focusing not only on the challenges arising from the natural, but also the social and labour, environments.

The women protagonists of the exhibition together with members of the organisation and representatives of the Catalan government. Photo: Gerard Fernández (EFIMED)

Claiming women’s presence in forest-related activities

Women have always worked in the forest. Their figure has traditionally been linked to tasks related to the care of the farmhouse, the family, the community, and the environment. By contrast, the photographs in “Emboscades. Dones i Bosc” emphasise tasks, which have been traditionally more socially recognised, that break with gender stereotypes. The photographs show women with skills in leadership, cooperation, team building, use of machinery or managing projects, farms, or research tasks. These are abilities that have traditionally been associated with men and which the exhibition refutes with a series of inspiring pictures and testimonials.

The exhibition also shows some facts and figures that make the visitor realise that there is still a long way to go. For example, two-thirds of Catalonia’s surface area is woodland, but currently, only 9% of the people who work there are women. Likewise, in the Catalan forestry sector, the representation of women is limited to 23% in senior positions, far below the 40% that exists in the rest of the Catalan business landscape.

Despite the discouraging data, this initiative not only aims to celebrate the women who are already breaking barriers in difficult environments but also to jolt consciences and inspire many other women, especially younger generations.

The exhibition will be open to the public in the gardens of the Palau Robert in Barcelona until 14 April, after which it will be touring. Photo: Gerard Fernández (EFIMED)

A thousand ways to feel “emboscades”

The play on words in Catalan that gives the exhibition its title allows the visitor to understand the two sides of the same coin. Working and living in the forest is a privilege for our protagonists, but it also presents daily challenges. Emboscar-se is feeling oneself as part of nature, as stated by Sandra Torras, one of the exhibition voices who works as a forest engineer in the Catalan Forest Defence Groups (ADFs). It also means rolling up your sleeves, getting down to work and feeling empowered to pursue new goals, according to Montse Codina, president of the Mountain Fishing Association in Organyà.

Étel Arilla has also felt emboscada by wildfires and the difficulties they cause in forest management, but it was precisely the same love she feels for forests that made her become a forest firefighter. While Mireia Banqué, a researcher at CREAF, gets herself emboscada when she looks for answers to the extent of losing sight of the world, like a wayfarer entering a dense forest.

However, beyond these reflections, feeling emboscada can also mean feeling discriminated against, as happened to Rosa Marsol, director of the Bagà-Pont de Suert Mountain fish farm, when she began her career as a young woman in a male-dominant sector. Or even being ignored by male forest owners for simply being a woman, as Torras recalls.

There are grounds for optimism as well. Marta Casas, forestry worker and co-founder of Evolució Forest, observes a change in trend: more women are joining the sector, training in forest and land management and becoming interested in working in nature. She sees mechanisation in forestry as an ally because it opens up more opportunities for equal gender representation in more physical jobs.

The range of inspiring stories compiled in “Emboscades. Dones i Bosc” may perhaps lead us to think that there is less reason for women to feel ambushed, but it also forces us as a society to defy the undergrowth and continue to blaze the trail in a forest full of obstacles for them. After visiting the exhibition, one is left with the feeling that it is up to all of us to turn the term emboscada into a synonym for empowered.

Associated activities

Within the framework of the exhibition, a series of side activities open to the public will be offered at the Palau Robert in Barcelona:

  • A photo tour led by the exhibition photographer, Michele Curel. 14th March (18h)
  • A technical conference on drought and forest management. 21st March (8:45h–13:30h)
  • A presentation of the book ‘El bosc a taula’ by the chef Carme Ruscalleda. 6th April (11h).
  • A film forum in which all the interviews with the 18 women featured in the exhibition will be presented, followed by a round table discussion. 11th April (18h – 20h).

More information and registration

Exhibition videos (in Catalan)

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Gerard Fernández
Communications Officer at the European Forest Institute. Responsible for the dissemination of research, activities and projects developed at the EFI's Mediterranean Facility (EFIMED) and its regional network. Based in Barcelona.