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First until the end

Forest Service scientist showed grace and compassion while working her way to the top

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Women's History Month
Barbara Weber

Barbara C. Weber
(Photo courtesy Barbara C. Weber)

 

Posted by Sherri Eng, Pacific Southwest Research Station, U.S. Forest Service


As the oldest of 11 children, Barbara C. Weber is accustomed to being the “first.” With top family ranking comes responsibility, and Weber had plenty of it.


Growing up on her family’s 160-acre dairy farm in Bloomington, Wis., Weber, along with her siblings, helped clean the barn, pick up eggs, herd the cows and take care of the sheep, pigs and chickens. Taking a break from her chores, Weber enjoyed exploring the critters—snails, turtles and fish—that lived in the pond and creek on the farm’s back pasture. Her innate curiosity and connection to nature led to her love of science.


She was the first in her family to go to college, graduating from Viterbo College, a women’s school in LaCrosse, Wis., with a degree in biology. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in entomology at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and a doctorate in zoology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.

 

Although Eloise B. Gerry became the first female scientist hired by the Forest Service in 1910, there were still few women among the agency’s scientific ranks when Weber joined in 1975. She became the first woman scientist at the North Central Research Station—which merged with the Northeastern Research Station to form the Northern Research Station—in Carbondale, Ill. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the agency finally allowed women to be firefighters, smokejumpers and law enforcement officers.


But being first had its challenges.


“I think there was a lot of skepticism about me and what I was qualified to do,” said Weber, a research entomologist who studied the ambrosia beetle and its effect on black walnut plantations.

 

Barbara Weber

Weber receives a certificate from then U.S. Forest Service Chief
Michael Dombeck in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy Barbara C. Weber)

Ironically, it was other women—not the men—in the office who questioned Weber’s presence. She recalls getting sideways glances and hearing murmurs from the women secretaries at the research station when Weber went to coffee with her male counterparts. When she traveled with her male technicians to her research projects, she remembers their wives expressing disapproval.

 

“It was tougher for the women to accept me than the men, at least on the surface,” Weber said.


In 1978, Jackie Robertson, a research entomologist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station became the first to head a research project. Five years later, Weber followed suit, leading research on culture, genetics, and protection of black walnut, white oak, and white ash plantations for the North Central Research Station.


But even as she gathered more experience and prestige in her career as a scientist, Weber was often reminded in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways that she was a woman in a man’s world. She recalls one incident where she arrived with colleagues to a meeting with collaborators from other agencies to discuss a research project that she was spearheading. She was the only woman in the group. While the men mixed and mingled, no one paid any attention to Weber.


“They assumed that I was along for the ride, or that I was someone’s wife,” Weber said.

Barbara Weber

Barbara C. Weber in 1993 as
director of the U.S.
Forest Service’s Pacific
Southwest Research Station.
(Photo courtesy Barbara C. Weber)


An embarrassed hush fell over the group when she announced that she was the project leader.


“It was fun for me to see their reaction,” Weber said.

 

And while Weber managed to keep a lighthearted attitude most of the time, she did admit that at times, the unequal treatment—a snub here, an inappropriate comment there—occasionally wore on her.

 

“There were a lot of tears,” Weber said. “Sometimes if we were on a business trip, at the end of the day, I would go to my room and cry. I would never do that in public, though.”


But Weber never gave up and through her professionalism proved to be a promising leader. She would go on to work at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. as a legislative resources specialist, and later staff assistant for planning in the Office of the Deputy Chief for Research.


Given all of her “firsts,” it was only fitting that Weber become the Forest Service’s first female director of a research station. She headed west to California to lead the Pacific Southwest Research Station in 1991.  While there, Weber was well-liked by station staff and highly respected for her ability to build consensus.


“She was a compassionate leader who listened and was extremely accessible,” said research ecologist Connie Millar.


During her tenure, Weber ensured the station’s involvement in the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, a 1993 Congressionally-mandated study of the entire Sierra Nevada ecosystem. Results of the scientific review helped guide Congress and others in making important policy decisions for future land management.

 

Beyond the science, Weber was instrumental in improving workplace diversity. A 1981 consent decree, which specified hiring goals and affirmative action requirements for Region 5 and the Pacific Southwest Research Station, helped pave the way for more women to join the Forest Service in California.  Under Weber’s leadership, the research station received the Chief’s Multicultural Award in 1994. Today, about a third of the Forest Service’s 498 research scientists are women.


“When I entered the Forest Service in the 1980s, women were expected to act more male-like in order to be successful,” said Millar. “Barbara was gentle and compassionate, yet strong. She showed me that you don’t have to be like someone else to succeed, and that it was okay to be myself.”


In 1994, Weber returned to Forest Service headquarters in Washington D.C. to become the associate deputy chief of Research, a position she held until her retirement in 2005.


“Barbara broke new ground in everything she did,” said Northern Research Station Assistant Director Hao Tran, who worked with Weber from 1997-2004. “Someone had to pave the way—and she did, in a very elegant and understated way.”

 

Women pioneers blaze trail of firsts

1910

Eloise B. Gerry, scientist, Forest Products Laboratory

1913

Hallie M. Daggett, forest fire lookout, Klamath National Forest

1957 Joanne G. McElfresh, forester, Deerlodge National Forest
1957 Janie V. Smith, forest administrative officer, Rogue River National Forest
1977 Deanne Shulman, smokejumper
1978 Jackie Robertson, research project leader, Pacific Southwest Station
1978 Janet Arling, special agent
1979 Wendy Milner Herrett, district ranger, Blanco Ranger District, White River National Forest
1985 Geri B. Larson-Bergen, forest supervisor, Tahoe National Forest
1991 Barbara C. Weber, research station director, Pacific Southwest Station
1992 Elizabeth Estill, regional forester, Rocky Mountain Region 2
1999 Hilda Diaz-Soltero, associate chief for Natural Resources, Forest Service
2002 Sally Collins, chief operating officer/associate chief, Forest Service
2007 Abigail Kimbell, U.S. Forest Service Chief
2010

Betty White, honorary forest ranger

 

 

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