On women, landscaping and show gardening by Sue Beesley

March 21, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

In this piece Sue Beesley revisits gender issues in the garden world, considering the implications of working at the physical end of gardens. (see also)

Anne Wareham editor

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Sue Beesley:

Historically the structural world has been built almost exclusively by the physical labour of men. Buildings, walls, roads, paving, bridges, you name it, men built it. Look around any city and you see the strain of muscle and sinew of men in the fabric of our world.  Of course, women have laboured equally hard too, in fields, mills, factories and the domestic world. But the world of work creates its own culture and those centuries of construction and the collective expertise thus acquired and shared have naturally produced a masculine culture in the building trade. Today, women are rightly pressing for recognition in the boardroom and in the design lab. They should equally be pressing for greater access to the workshop floor and the building site, in my view, but it doesn’t seem to appeal.

I happen to like physical work and expect to pull my weight and a bit more.  Unless it is actually beyond my strength, there’s nothing I can’t or won’t do.  Some of my female friends find this inclination towards sweat and dirt a bit perplexing, but amongst my female gardening friends it’s perfectly understood.  I can barely recall a single instance of a man seeming ill at ease working alongside me. Mostly they seem more than happy to share the load with any willing pair of hands.  When it comes to brain power, things are definitely trickier. In first-time conversations with a man on any technical matter, I generally sidle in gently, conscious that the right to contribute on equal terms may have to be earned, again.  It’s an easily won right, but must be won carefully, without point-scoring or humiliation, through questions and discussion. But is that really a gender issue, or just a matter of good handling of people?

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I’m grateful that I learned much about the practical trades from my father, who ran a hardware shop which I helped in. Less helpfully, he warned me that ‘no-one likes a clever girl’, advice which still haunts me a little. I might agree that ‘no-one likes a show-off’, but isn’t that also true of anyone, male or female?

So if men are perfectly content for women to do the hard work and to share the decision making if she knows know what she’s doing, where exactly does the gender problem lie in the landscaping world?

Partly it lies with some women’s economic expectations.   I know a good female garden designer who spends endless hours on beautiful design drawings and research.  I’m sure she’d expect her finished work to stand up against any man’s. But she’ll never earn an income that will pay the mortgage at her work rate – and fortunately she doesn’t have to. Should she consider her work equal to that of a primary breadwinner who must do the work in less than half the time? Are her designs more art than work?

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Partly it’s confidence. On my RHS courses, all of the men were working and charging for their time, learning on the job.  Almost all of the women were studying in order to gain the confidence to charge – and expected to charge less than the men at the end of it.

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.

Sue Beesley  Blog and Nursery website

Research supports this article. The same job was advertised twice. Same wording. Same job title. One change – the wage. More men applied for the job when it was advertised at the higher wage level and guess what? More women applied when it was at the lower wage bracket.

Felicity Waters.

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