Here’s a ‘Hort Truth’ for you: We have a women in horticulture problem

Having enough women in the room is no longer the issue — it’s a matter of access and adequate representation at the highest levels of our industry.

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We have a women in horticulture problem. The problem isn’t that we don’t have plenty of women working in the horticulture industry — we do. The problem is one of access to power and adequate representation.

Power, accessing and creating it, is the focus of my Cultivate ‘21 Women in Horticulture keynote presentation – or rather motivational moment as I prefer to characterize it. There are many ways to define power, but I think academic and author Carolyn Heilbrun did a good job of it when she wrote “power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter.” Power is action; taking one’s rightful place in a meaningful way that matters is how we manifest our agency.

Perspectives on power

There’s no need for me to go into all the external obstacles women still face when it comes to gaining power. I wouldn’t be telling you anything you don’t already know. I do, however, recommend we — men and women alike — consider how our attitudes about power could be self-limiting or limiting those around us. Those with power are often reluctant to share it, thinking doing so will mean less for themselves. Women often shy away from power or are uncomfortable wielding it. I suspect this happens because of how power is defined or modeled for each of us, both individually and collectively. Power may equate to domination, abuse, or hypocrisy, or some other equally unseemly condition. Power can seem negative or distasteful, and sadly, women who seek power are often characterized as such.

As a career woman myself, I can attest to feeling forced to exercise power in constructs and ways that did not make me feel comfortable or authentic. I’ve certainly also had power exercised over me in totally toxic and inappropriate ways. This is one of the reasons I started my own company; so that I could make my own definition of power (and the rules about power) and better shape the actions I took with my power, both for the benefit of myself and those working for and with me.

Voice youR power

One of the ways in which women can access and yield more power in the horticulture industry is to become more visible and vocal. Put yourself and your voice out into the public sphere. You don’t have to own your own company to be seen and get your voice heard. There are many ways to get louder, such as offering to write for your company newsletter or industry publication, taking an organization board position (better yet, take that president slot), being more vocal on industry social media platforms, and doing some public speaking in any capacity (even if it seems scary). Most importantly, share your opinions and ask for what you want and need. Ultimately, it’s about being willing to stick your neck out, in whatever capacity you’re able.

Yes, getting more visible and vocal will most likely garner you more scrutiny and criticism. But unless you’re willing to risk being criticized — and rejected from time to time — you’ll never get your voice heard or influence change. In the grand scheme of things when you, as a woman, decide to become more vocal and “opinionated” it really doesn’t take anything controversial to ruffle feathers. Like Jane Goodall said, “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.” So, don’t worry about potential push back and just speak up.

On the subject of public speaking, one issue that comes up regularly is the lack of women speakers at major industry events and conferences. Often the reason cited for this omission is the inability to find qualified women speakers. But let me challenge the industry on this point; what specific factors put most male speakers in the “qualified” camp…is it that they are all highly proficient and proven public orators? Or is it more often simply that they hold positions of perceived power and authority? I’d say the latter. The challenge isn’t that there aren’t enough women in the horticulture industry who can give a great talk. It’s that there aren’t enough women in positions perceived as powerful or commanding enough to consider adding them to the speaker lineup. At least, that’s my take.

Power-up your network

Building strong industry relationships and networks is also key for women looking to grow in their business or career. My friend and Garden Media Group President Katie Dubow heartily agrees. “As a new business owner, I had to get comfortable — fast — with the pursuit of power. Standing up for myself, my business, my employees, and my peers.” says Dubow. “They say there is power in numbers. Career advancement often depends on relationships. Women can be uncomfortable building networks or asking for advice. Believe me when I say, asking works.”

Lisa Fiore, CEO & co-founder of LandscapeHub offers similar advice. “As a female entrepreneur, in a heavily male-dominated industry, I have found it critical to invest, and perhaps, overly compensate, when it comes to building my professional network,” says Fiore. “It’s about introducing one’s self and asking for an opportunity to connect. Sometimes it’s necessary to put yourself out there and make a connection happen. Being bold, although it can be uncomfortable, will bring you positive results.”

Share your power

Sharing power is also crucial for all of us working in the industry. Powerhouse Katie Elzer-Peters, owner of The Garden of Words, can attest to gaining more success the minute she “let go” and began sharing more of her knowledge with others. “I have found that the most effective way to be a powerful force within the industry — especially power to effect change — is to share power.” Now, do not misinterpret any of us by thinking sharing power means giving yourself and your work away for free. It does not. Knowing your value is always your first priority.

If you are a business owner, run an industry organization, or manage or lead people in any capacity, now is the time to scrutinize how you may be limiting women — explicitly and implicitly — in your company from accessing power or exercising the power they already possess.

Being power-adjacent has never been good enough for me. I want, as most women do, to be power-possessive in my life, career, and the industry in which I’ve invested so much time and effort. The great thing about power is that it isn’t pie. There is no such thing as a limited number of slices; you may have and share as many as you’d like. Gaining power for yourself doesn’t mean you are taking it from someone else. Each of us is imbued with our own natural knowledge and talents from which we can generate our own limitless power. When women access and create power, we all rise together, as does the horticulture industry.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.

July 2021
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