Today is International Women’s Day and I feel compelled to ask: are women gardeners valued as much as their male counterparts?
I have a particular reason for this question. I am a woman and a freelance gardener but my self-employed horticultural activities are recent. I’ve usually been employed by organisations. The last company I worked for acted, in the past lustrum, as if women aren’t worthy gardeners. Since the latest head gardener started (as second-in-command to begin with, then as manager) all members of gardening staff employed have been male. This included apprentices, maternity cover and supposedly qualified full-timers. The woman who took time off to have a baby didn’t return as a gardener and, by the time I left a year ago, I was the only woman on the team apart from office workers. Totting up the amount of new horticultural staff, including those who left after a short period of time, that’s twelve men in the space of five years!
When I raised the issue after five or six blokes had joined us, I was told “Oh, we wanted to balance up the team but the girls [who had applied for the apprenticeships] didn’t turn up for their second interview.” How interesting that this same excuse was wheeled out again in the past month. (I have a friend who still works there and he relayed this info to me.) Not long before I resigned, I asked why I was the only woman gardener there. The answer? “No woman applied” for the new position which had just been filled by yet another man. I piped up I found this very difficult to believe given that most of the students on my RHS courses were women. Of course, in the interest of open-mindedness, perhaps these excuses were genuine; I wasn’t part of the recruitment process, so what do I know? But surely these reasons weren’t applicable to every post. This company is supposedly an ‘equal opportunities’ employer, so where are the women gardeners? In the words of the Suffragettes of old: “Deeds not words!”
You may be wondering if I’m arguing for positive discrimination. Well.. I’m not sure. Part of me thinks if that’s what it takes to redress the balance, then yes! Another part of me counters that surely discrimination is wrong in whatever form. Maybe you think that the best people for the job should be, and were, recruited. Er.. not from my observation. My new colleagues were supposedly raising standards yet, for example, I’d seen them prune with hedge-trimmers. And lately, an external expert had been brought in to teach the team how to prune! I would’ve thought that pruning is a basic skill required by qualified members of staff, and that the responsibility for teaching junior staff belonged to the Team Leader and two Senior Gardeners. Incidentally, these elevated roles didn’t even exist before the new manager, and hardly seems necessary when the remainder of the staff equals only seven. It all smacks of funny handshakes and an Old Boy’s Club mentality to me. Certainly not appropriate for the 21st century.
Since I’ve left that department, more gardeners have been taken on; all men. So I would say to any young woman who believes feminism isn’t relevant, think again! For all that changes, there are still engrained sexist attitudes out there, and the situation can quickly revert to ‘boys only’ under the pretense of ‘best person for the job’. I would be interested to hear the experiences of other women gardeners.