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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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Women and trees

Author:  Lisa Sanderson
  01/03/2018
Last Updated:  25/03/2019

As a teacher, I love questions. Here are a few I have recently been asked:

  • Are women underrepresented in arboriculture?
  • If so, why?
  • What has made the successful women of arboriculture successful?
  • How do we attract more females into arboriculture and do we need to?

Are women underrepresented in arboriculture?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) household census does not include 'arborist' as a category, making precise gender statistics difficult to generate. However, women account for small proportions of total workers in related fields which are listed in the labour force survey1 (ONS 2014):

Occupation Total number employed Total number of women Women as a percentage of the workforce
Managers and proprietors in forestry, fishing and related services 8,000 * **
Managers and proprietors in agriculture and horticulture 32,000 7,000 22%,/td>
Forestry workers 10,000 * **
Conservation professionals 45,000 5,000 11%
Environmental professionals 32,000 14,000 44%
Horticultural trades 15,000 7,000 47%
Fishing and other elementary agriculture occupations n.e.c. *** 27,000 * **

Table 1, Employment by status, occupation and sex, based on ONS, 2014.

Table Notes:

* Sample size too small for reliable estimate1
** Percentages not calculated due to such low numbers
*** n.e.c = not elsewhere classified

If women are underrepresented in arboriculture, why?

If 'arborist' is not on the census, what are we ticking? Are there more women in arboriculture but we tick other boxes? As an aside, why is 'arborist' not included? ONS says a review is due by 2020 but they require sufficient evidence of skill sets and adequate numbers of people employed. ONS explained that arborists should be ticking agriculture and fishing trades instead of forestry, due to higher skill requirements (personal communication by email, 1 June 2015).

Statistics show women form a small percentage of the land-based workforce (ONS 2014). Some sectors (including forestry and fishing) have sample sizes of women workers too small for reliable estimates,1 making it impossible to generate percentages for this article.

LANTRA conducted its own survey that looked at the 'hidden' workforce ('hidden' being not included in strictly tree- and timber-related businesses, e.g. councils): 'Importantly, inclusion of the hidden workforce improves the gender balance in the industry, increasing the number of women in trees and timber occupations to 19% compared to 7% identified through official statistics' (LANTRA 2011: 2).2

However, according to this study, the following figures show the total number of workers within trees and timber organisations but not necessarily employees working in trees and timber roles (e.g. the figures include administrators).

Country Male Female
England 85% 15%
Scotland 76% 24%
Wales 90% 10%
Total 81% 19%

Table 2 Workforce gender breakdown (LANTRA 2011: 20).

The ARB Magazine (2014: 16) reports that 2014 conference delegates comprised 25% women, significantly up from 2013 (15%).3

In June, Forestry Commission Scotland announced it is earmarking £300,000 more to address forestry’s gender imbalance.4

I’m not saying we need to even the scale 50 /50. Statistics are fraught with intricacies, subtext and backgrounds not always apparent, which can skew views on reality. In addition, 50/50 is difficult to achieve and to maintain - and is unnecessary.

I’m not saying we need to recruit more women regardless of abilities or suitability to particular roles.

I’m not saying all women want to be arborists.

What am I saying? Or more to the point, what am I asking?

  • How do we ensure career paths are presented to both young males and females?
  • How do we provide support networks for young females who are unsure about entering a male-dominated profession or progressing within it?
  • How do we tackle any gender issues such as sexism, whether real or perceived?

So, is gender a problem for women in arboriculture?

Why even question it? Some female arborists have reported discrimination and harassment whilst others feel supported and enjoy their roles. Personally, I have experienced both significantly - but in many areas of life and around the world, not exclusively in UK arboriculture.

Is it possible some unlucky women entering arboriculture experience gender-related harassment or discrimination from colleagues and because they feel isolated at work or have limited exposure to wider arboricultural communities, they have an overall impression of a sexist industry?

Alternatively, how many female arborists have heard 'Surely you’re not going to be lifting/climbing/cutting that?!' Sometimes harassment and discrimination at work come from clientele and the wider community. Simply by association, it may alter their perceptions.

So, sexism is experienced by female arborists, but it is not exclusive to arboriculture and nor, in my experience, is it widespread or always necessarily coming from other arborists.

When sexism or any kind of discrimination occurs, particularly without a support network, it can be demoralising, exhausting, bad for health and bad for business. If it is distracting enough, it could potentially cause serious health and safety issues and it is of course illegal.

However, over the years I have found some male colleagues to be incredibly inspiring and overwhelmingly helpful and I feel I owe my successes in part to their support and guidance. A few of the many examples include Clive Parker, my first manager after graduating (for teaching me that hard work achieves results no matter who you are, to never give up and that not all important plants are trees); Tim Errington, a tree officer colleague abroad (for teaching me to laugh in the face of adversity, whether it be discrimination, tree-related injustices or political red tape); Jack Kenyon, my teaching mentor (for sharing his inexhaustible knowledge, unbending humour and determination, and for making me believe there were no barriers); and Jago and Ian Keen, my current employers (for encouraging everyone to strive for excellence, for being a living example of continual progression and for celebrating diversity).

What has made successful women of arboriculture successful?

To help answer this question, 'Women and Trees' will be a series of interviews with successful female arboriculturists. Sourcing the secrets of their success, we aim to develop support networks for women who are considering joining our industry or are on the ground working their way up.

Rebecca Barnes SRT Ascent in Brisbane

There are a number of international arboricultural groups for women including Women in Arboriculture (founded under the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Australia Chapter in 1999) and the Facebook page Women in Trees developed by Rebecca Barnes (Queensland). In my personal experience, the 170-members-and-growing Facebook page has been amusing, supportive and relevant for female-only issues. Not only a tree surgeon and international competitor, Rebecca has the drive to develop a valuable support tool for female arborists.

Do we need our own groups? Are we causing more problems than we are solving by segregating genders? There are issues specific to female arborists, e.g. wearing men’s PPE and dealing with gender-related discrimination and harassment. Many do not feel comfortable talking about this in front of male colleagues, so it is reassuring to have somewhere to go for constructive advice. Newcomers need support and inspiration. If women require this from female peers, then these wider support networks provide a valuable service and increase professionalism by instilling confidence, motivation and diversity.

How do we attract more females into arboriculture? Do we need to?

For women looking for a way in or to progress existing careers who may have funding issues, Futures for Women (FfW)5 aims to help improve career prospects through training and further education. It provides a limited number of interest-free loans for a proportion of course fees, which are repayable at realistic rates once the grantee is in work.2 There is much competition for these loans but FfW is happy to accept applications from any women undertaking training or study to improve their employment prospects. On the flipside, as a charitable organisation it is always on the lookout for benefactors and relies on donations.

Rebecca Barnes Asian Open Tree Climbing Competition

In response to my recent correspondence with the Minister for Women and Equalities' office, Department for Culture, Media & Sport (personal communication by email, 28 May 2015) a spokesperson said:

'Too often the issue is that young women lack advice and support to get into these careers and have too few female role models in these sectors to help challenge stereotypes.'

They point to guidance such as the Education and Employers Taskforce (EET), the 'Inspiring Women' campaign and the Women’s Business Council.

Well, things are improving, but does more need to be done?

To be fair, we need to be putting a positive spin on arboriculture for both young men and young women. Dedicated professionals internationally offer talks and displays in schools to encourage the next generation into arboriculture. It is about recruiting the right people into the right environments and not about the right gender.

So, we have fabulously successful female role models (see my article in the next ARB Magazine), industry-led support groups, Facebook for females, government campaigns, some opportunities for financial support, as well as some talented and supportive colleagues and leaders. What’s stopping us?

Teachers love questions (and answers). Lisa Sanderson is a Training Developer and Lecturer for The Training Tree and an Arboricultural Consultant for Ian Keen Ltd.


References

1 ONS (13 August 2014) EMP04 Labour Force Survey - Employment Status by Occupation [online]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-force-survey-employment-status-by-occupation/index.html [accessed April 2015].

2 LANTRA (2011), R .Sutcliffe, R. Pounds, H. Albrow, C. Binnie, I. Nockolds. The Trees and Timber Industry in Great Britain, Size, Structure and Skills. Stoneleigh Park: LANTRA.

3 Arboricultural Association (2014). 48th Annual Conference. The ARB Magazine. Winter, Issue 167: 16.

4 McEwan, G. (2015) Commission to spend £300,000 more to address forestry’s gender imbalance [online]. Available from: