Is landscaping men’s work?

The ‘home arts’ like cooking and gardening, for example, have historically been the domain of women.

But when those family duties moved away from the home, suddenly men became the experts.

And when the work includes heavy machinery, large budgets and corporate expectations, men are usually seen as the ‘go-to’ professionals.

When I was working on a front garden installation three or four years ago, I had asked a couple of my gardening friends and associates to come along and help out.  There we were, three women, sweaty and heaving soil, plants and mulch around on a sunny summer day.

No word of a lie, people passing by (walking AND driving) stopped and marvelled.  Women?  No guys?  Landscaping?  Never seen it before.  But when I saw this post examining gender in the world of landscaping, I thought it was worth further examination; it is in the provocative blog called Thinkin Gardens at www.thinkingardens.co.uk:

In the end though, I think it comes down to money, financial risk and the masculine culture of the building trade. At the bigger end of the garden design industry and in show gardening the sums can be huge and the price of failure great.  Big landscaping projects are usually big building projects and, as I explored earlier, relatively few women have the experience of planning and managing building projects, of knowing the hints and wrinkles involved through having done the job themselves.

Instinctively therefore, clients and show garden sponsors feel more confident putting big budgets in the hands of men – even ones who have never wielded a pointing trowel.  And women, ever our own worst enemies in the equality arena, are hesitant about asking for the big bucks even when we do know what we are doing, because of our infuriating and persistent collective sense of lower worth.

Is this true?  Women’s “infuriating and persistent collective sense of lower worth”?  We do it to ourselves?  No doubt this was the case maybe thirty years ago, but today?  Are women still fighting the fight?

When I trained as a horticultural technician about twenty years ago,  there were about as many women learning the trade as men.  When it came to identifying plants and working with our hands, women were all over it.  But when it came to using tools and operating the machinery, men were all over it.

Several years ago when I was working on a garden and needed to take down a small tree with a large trunk in the midst of a mixed bed, I asked the fellow who had been pruning the mature trees on the property if he could do it before he left.  He swung by and asked if he could use my saw.  I said, “Sure” and handed him my folding pruning saw.  He looked at it like it was a butter knife and said, “I thought you said you had a saw?”

Of course, he meant “chain saw”…

 Is this the difference then?  Men love machines, women, not so much.  I don’t think so.  I would *love* to operate a Bobcat or a backhoe and I think  I’d be pretty good at it.  But I fear it would take me away from the thing I love more — that is, being in direct contact with plants.  Plus to be able to work with those machines I’d have to have a much bigger company where earth-moving on a large scale would be the norm and it would make financial sense to put out that kind of money for equipment.

Photo courtesy: GEHL COMPANY

In 2009 Rod McDonald, who owned and operated a sucessful landscape business in Regina for 28 years, wrote this article for Landscape Ontario’s Landscape Trades magazine:

I found that women were more often detail oriented, ensuring that the flower beds were raked and that the walks were swept. Heather used to ride the guys about cleaning the site after we planted, and she did not hesitate to hand the broom to the least-busy person. Keep in mind, this was at a time when a landscaper in our area openly bragged that he did not own a broom. He would tell his customers, if they wanted a clean walk, it was their responsibility to clean up after he installed their sod. I know this is hard to imagine today. Many landscapers failed to realize they were in the beauty business, that they had an obligation to clean up after themselves.

And in terms of clients’ perceptions of the first woman on his crew (Heather) he says:

I received phone calls from customers, both men and women, asking me if I knew that Heather is a girl? I would say yes, and leave it at that, waiting for them to respond. No one ever did. The most I got was an “Oh,” and then they would change the subject. It took people a while to adapt but by the third year, no one was surprised. They would phone and say, “I want to book Heather for some spring pruning,” or, “Ask Heather what I should be planting in the flower bed by the pool.”

And he makes another distinction between the sexes:

When I speak at a conference, many of the faces are now female, something that would have been unusual 30 years ago. Women ask better questions than men do at conferences and seminars. Men want others to assume they know everything. They allow macho pride to prevent them from asking questions. If women want to know an answer, they will ask.

So tidy, detail-oriented, willing to learn, inquisitive — all great characteristics but it all still seems a bit lop-sided to me –because these qualities are often seen as descriptive of the so-called  ‘gentler sex’.  Is it perhaps because this distinction is seen being seen through the eyes of a man where the old gender stereotypes continue to lie just under the surface?

What about a woman’s point of view from within the landscaping industry?  The issue was taken up in a recent article by Kelly Moore called ‘A Woman’s Touch’:

…some female landscapers do report that gender issues remain. Seamans (Lauren Seamans, a project foreman for Ames, Iowa-based Country Landscapes (www.countrylandscapes.com), typically runs up against prejudice when working with new people. “I don’t get too hung up worrying about new personnel’s opinions of whether I’m qualified for the job or how subcontracted guys at commercial job sites view me. They’ll find out soon enough, and there are far more important things for me to be concerned with.”

D’Antonio (Valerie D’Antonio designs gardens and landscapes, supervises installations for a local landscape construction firm and coaches new gardeners as owner of D’Antonio Landscape Designs ) says men often have a hard time executing her recommendations. “The challenge is getting the males to accept my ideas and instruction. Many times they just say ‘OK’ and do whatever they choose.”

Women landscapers report that perceived physical limitations are far less challenging than one might think. In fact, Seamans believes it can be an advantage. “I’m used to being viewed with skepticism initially due to my 5-foot, 100-pound stature,” she says. “Guys can be uncomfortable with a girl out-lifting or out-wheelbarrowing them. So, in that regard, my hard work is a great motivational tool for them.

And in terms of landscape architecture (admittedly, a more off-site, less physical, career), women have been making steady inroads in the last twenty years.  Now, they represent the majority of graduates in that program (as evidenced below).

According to census data, women held approximately 48% of the jobs in this occupation in 2006, a percentage that has tripled since 1991 (15%). This percentage should still increase over the next few years, because on average 60% of the university landscape architecture graduates are women. 

I have found that the surprise of seeing a woman landscaper/landscape crew is usually confined to the general public rather than others in the landscape trade.  In my years designing gardens, buying plants, ordering product, sub-contracting or coordinating with other landscape professionals, I have never felt like a second class citizen.  But I think no one in the business today can afford to discriminate.  Besides, women have long since proven their worth in this and many other male-dominated trades.

I think the only stumbling block exists during the first stages of beginning a career in horticulture, landscaping or garden design; it is just as easy to be a man uncertain of his skills as it is to be a woman uncertain of hers.  But it occurs to me that if you’re confident enough to start your own business, built on the desire to make a difference in peoples’ gardens and outdoor environments, and have acquired the tools you’ll need to excel, then your biggest battles are behind you.

So if we’re still fighting the fight, it’s essentially in our own heads.

7 thoughts on “Is landscaping men’s work?”

  1. Thank you for this blog post. You are spot on. I am a 2nd year apprentice landscape gardener (construction) and a female. I doubt myself everyday and some days I am just hanging on. I have to actively think about why I wanted to do this in the first place to keep my mind on track.
    Your last paragraph really hit home and I try my hardest everyday to not listen to the part of my mind that says “you can’t do this.”
    It’s a hard game, that’s for sure!

    1. P.S sidenote- what makes this job even harder is that I don’t have another female, just like me, to talk to. Women in trades need a support group where we can pick each other up when we’re down! 🙂

  2. Sea.Ess,
    I am so sorry that you are having a hard time of it in the industry but so glad that you found my post and that in some small way it spoke to you. You certainly have a place here to get support ;c) because I know that being a landscape contractor can be challenging, whether you’re a woman or a man! Please feel free to email me if you’d like an ear or like to be picked up!

  3. It was so nice to stumble on your post! I own a lawn care and landscaping business with my husband. Our customers, if anything, are happy to see a woman show up to work. Many times they will ask if I’m with the crew that day because they want to ask me about their flowers or what they should plant in their garden.You are right, its just as easy for a man to be uncertain of his skills as a woman. I think this industry is just like any other, there will be times when others make you feel inadequate. But we all have strengths and skills we can bring to the table.

    1. Great to hear from you Shanna! Yes, it is difficult being in a trade that is predominantly male but I choose to look upon it as an opportunity. It sounds as though you have a great audience there for your flowering plant and design skills; grab it! I think the difference is women often let their insecurities paralyze them, while men just push them aside and battle through. We can learn a lot from that while still retaining our openness with clients so we can cultivate relationships as well as gardens.

  4. I have been in the landscape trade since 16 and I have worked my way through a large hard landscape company in the UK to become a Foreman, and to then continue to set up my own company with the guy who trained me up 12 years on. I have never had a problem and allways been equally respected by fellow colleagues and prospective clients and the fact that im female has even worked in my favour with more elderly vulnerable women as they feel alot more comfortable. If the is any potential female landscapers out there. Then if you have the passion then go for it show everyone what you can do and respect will follow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s