RHS Harlow Carr

There are brilliant women in gardening: why don’t we see more of them?

Designer Charlotte Harris responds to the lack of women in the garden industry today and asks: what can we do about it?

At a conference on biosecurity recently, there was talk of how diversity strengthens ecosystems. And yet I was frustrated to see one middle-aged white male speaker after another take to the podium. Of eight keynote speakers, not one was a woman.

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Vita Sackville-West
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

I felt the same frustration reading the RHS Young Designer of the Year shortlist. I do not want to take anything away from those achievements, but am I the only one to raise an eyebrow that just one of the five finalists is a woman? It’s a pattern repeated over the past few years – one in four last year; one in five in 2018. In 2017, two of three were women – but that seems a blip rather than a trend.

This is not about the RHS – under-representation of women pervades our sector and society. Pro Landscaper Magazine’s 30 Under 30 awards initiative has a brilliant ethos at its heart, but also exhibits a lack of diversity. I am sure we all have other examples. You could be forgiven for thinking that women just don’t have it in them to win through to the big awards, the big moments. Are we not trying hard enough?

Of course not. None of us would say that men are more talented than women in our sector – but this is exactly what these figures subliminally communicate. Organisations say that women just don’t put themselves forward, but this stance represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. It is part of a bigger, more pervasive issue. The oft-cited internal Hewlett Packard report concluded that a man will apply for a job even if he can only fill 60 per cent of the requirements, but a woman won’t unless she has 100 per cent of the requirements. A recent McKinsey report found that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential; women for their experience and track record.

Wouldn’t it be inspirational if our industry could act boldly?

Of all the forces that hold women back, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs. How boys and girls are raised; the discrepancy of language; socialisation to follow the rules; and behaviours that are encouraged or frowned upon. However we individually treat our children, those cultural messages become ingrained in us.

Women think we need to be almost perfect; men just think: ‘Yes! I’ll give it a go’. A study by University of California, Berkeley showed that people who are more confident in a group will rise to the top, even if they are less competent. Not blustering, but a genuine confidence – a skill that is just as valid as competence.

The meritocracy myth – if we work hard enough, we will get there – disadvantages women. Yes, people who work hard deserve to be rewarded, but it is naive to imply they’re the most qualified: we can’t pretend merit exists in a separate world to circumstance. To break this fiction, we must all work harder to level the playing field, whether we are individuals, design practices, organisations, or publications, and recognise that meritocracy as currently defined is subjective, socially constructed and innately gendered.

Wouldn’t it be inspirational if our industry could act boldly? This may cause discomfort, but we can make our wonderful world all the richer, bringing in new faces and relevant role models. Every single conference I attend we bemoan the lack of new faces to the green industry. We need to show young people that everyone of every background can be seen here, and that everyone can succeed at every level.

A message to women reading this: You have nothing to lose.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about only middle class white women. If our feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s not feminism. Comfort is not a base-level entitlement. For many of us, real equality will feel uncomfortable, as it means examining and addressing so much that has advantaged us, but the outcome will be so much greater.

Finally, a message to women reading this who may be hesitating on that next step (and let’s be clear, I’m not holding us responsible for sorting out millennia of the patriarchy on our own). Take confidence in the facts laid out in the Hewlett Packard research, and go for it. You have nothing to lose. Apply for that young designer sponsorship next year. Put your work in for that award. Go for that job. Push for Chelsea’s Main Avenue. Know that fortune favours the bold.

And when you get there, help others get up there with you. Collectively, our individual actions and mindsets can bring change. In the words of Megan Rapinoe: “Share that platform. Throw your ladders down… We have such an incredible opportunity to redefine what power and influence and success looks like.”

Charlotte Harris
© Christa Holka
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Charlotte Harris is co-director of Harris Bugg Studio