Catherine StewartWhere are Australia’s women gardening stars?

More promotional material has crossed my desk for another Australian garden show and yet again I see with disappointment an almost exclusively all-male lineup of gardening ‘stars’ being promoted as the headline presenters for the show. I mean no disrespect to any of these extremely knowledgeable and very nice men, but is there really such a paucity of female gardening talent in this country that of the nine “key industry figures” only two are women, and they’re both known as foodies rather than gardeners?

Women in horticultureI’m reminded of a recent ‘Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians’ public panel that discussed the topic of women in politics. Each of our main political parties (Liberal, Labor, Greens and the Nationals) had a representative on the panel of five. All of the five were men. I wish I could see it as irony rather than a reason to despair.

When you go to a public event which is largely about gardening, the majority of the crowd will be women. When I studied at TAFE 20 years ago, more women graduated with diplomas in landscape design than men. I know that even among GardenDrum readers there are more women than men. At the Australian Garden Show Sydney last year, when the Horticultural Media Association of which I am a member fielded its own presenters on its own stage (ie not selected by an event company), there were more women than men, and very popular and successful they were too. This is not predominantly a ‘male’ industry. So why is my gender so under-represented when it comes to high-profile presenters on gardening TV, and as headline drawcards at public gardening events?

‘Gardening Australia’ TV has only two women out of nine regular presenters and has never had a female host. Better Homes and Gardens TV has two gardening presenters, both men. Of course, the BBC’s ‘Gardeners World’ is no better, with eight out of its eight hosts since 1968 all men, although its ‘assistant’ presenters run closer to 50-50. In Australian gardening radio, the proportion is also much better, with about 50% female presenters. Maybe success is dependent on women being heard, but not seen…

hitting the grass ceiling

Hitting the horticultural grass ceiling

For many years, TV show executives were convinced that we wouldn’t take a female newsreader seriously, but now we have many talented and highly respected women reading our news, and engaging in fierce head-to-head combat with our wily politicians on our current affairs shows. But it seems that there’s a horticultural ‘grass ceiling‘ that female horticulturists and garden designers will have to break through before they will be accepted as having sufficient public standing, or popularity, or ticket-selling power to be invited to be a headline act at a gardening show, or heavens forbid, host a TV gardening program.

I think that part of this gender disparity lies in the view that if a woman makes something well with her hands, it’s ‘craft’, but if a man makes the same thing well with his, then it’s ‘art’.

Edna Walling, Millie Gibson & Olive Mellor: Photos courtesy SLV

Edna Walling, Millie Gibson & Olive Mellor: Photos courtesy SLV

Our gardening history holds many female role models who were seen as the gardening voices and ‘stars’ of their era – Edna Walling, Olive Mellor, Millie Gibson, Jocelyn Brown, Betty Maloney and Jean Walker, Kitty Henry, and Jean Galbraith.

And in 21st century Australia we can find just as many – landscape designers/architects like Fiona Brockhoff, Janine Mendell, Joanne Green, Sue Barnsley, Lisa Ellis and Kate Cullity; prominent women in the nursery industry like Amanda McKinnon, Sonja Cameron, Teena Crawford and Di Larkman; garden historians such as Anne Vale, Katie Holmes, Colleen Morris; garden travel experts like Trisha Dixon and Judy Vanrenen; and gardeners and gardening media women like Sophie Thompson, Helen Young, Linda Ross, Melissa King, Anne Latreille, Robin Powell, Annette McFarlane, Pam Vardy, Gwen Elliot, Marianne Cannon, Kim Woods Rabbidge, Judy Horton, Jennifer Stackhouse, Claire Bickle, Jane Edmanson, Sabrina Hahn, Deryn Thorpe, Denise Gadd, Marion Blackwell, and Holly Kerr Forsyth. And loads more. There’s a list of over 30 to choose from, and each of them highly capable presenters, and able to bring an audience with her. But maybe they were all busy….

Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014 Ambassadors

Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014 Ambassadors – Burke was missing so, one woman out of six.

This isn’t any sour grapes on my part about ‘not being invited to the ball’. I don’t promote myself as a public presenter; I am a creative and, primarily, an (opinionated) wordsmith. And this new garden show is only marginally worse in its selection of women gardening stars than most of the other garden shows we’ve had over recent years, where, by my count, women average just under 15% of the ‘centre stage’ or ‘headline act’ positions.

But it’s a loss to all gardeners, just like too few female CEOs diminish our economy and a dearth of powerful female politicians impoverish our governments. We need to hear women gardener’s voices, learn from their knowledge, hear about their ideas and opinions, and see their leadership. I want to enjoy their different sense of humour, and perspectives on everything from garden design to choosing a potting mix. And I want our next generation of gardeners to see that women can be garden stars too.

I think there is a perception, mostly among younger women, that there’s no need for feminism in the 21st century; that all the battles have been fought and won and that the free market will rectify any lingering inequalities. Maybe in some parts of the workplace things are better, where systemic discrimination was tackled by strong equal employment policies and laws during the 1980s. But, given the fine pool of women ready, willing and able to perform at this ‘headline’ level, it’s obvious that systemic discrimination is still alive and well in the horticultural media.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

39 thoughts on “Where are Australia’s women gardening stars?

  1. Good question and definitely worth raising. It’s something those of us of the other sex should raise too when asked to be involved in such events (as I might be in the one you allude to…). We all share this responsibility and will all gain from having a better gender mix.

    It’s easy to get complacent and when doing Talking Plants on RN it was easy to drift into predominantly male panels. (I’m glad to say some on your list were in there, but not enough.)

    Keep it front of mind. Thanks.

    Tim Entwisle

    • Tim, I think it would be a great thing if all presenters who were asked to part of a live gardening show, or gardening TV or radio, asked that question. A bit like being an ethical investor.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly. ….Gardening Australia’s Sophie Thomson is celebrating 10yrs on the show at the moment and as a devoted follower of hers on TV and social media your comments would definitely resonate with other devoted fans!

  3. A great article, as always, Catherine. However, I do seek to differ. I have been cold called numerous times by television production companies looking for horticultural/designer presenters, so I don’t, personally, believe it is a systemic issue. The fact of the matter is, they want you to produce video clips, they tell you you’ll need to live in a hotel x nights a month and the whole thing becomes unappealing to me. That’s not to say that I would have been chosen, but I do think men (generally) put themselves up for these types of roles more often. Across all three careers I have had, I have always felt that if anything, I’ve been positively discriminated towards as a woman…but maybe I’ve just been lucky. Regardless, it’s always a fascinating topic; I remember opting to write an assignment about it at university, many, many years ago!

    • Janna – what you describe as an unappealing career lifestyle is exactly the sort systemic discrimination I’m talking about. Requiring reporters to be regularly on the road would, I agree, be a turnoff for many women. I know that Gardening Australia doesn’t require that of its presenters, so it’s obviously possible to manage things differently. To then have it as a generic prerequisite for being a TV presenter on other shows is a perfect example of an unnecessary ‘system’ that discriminates against women.

  4. Catherine,

    And a very good point you make. I know when I have been asked to take part in Garden Design Fest that they lament the lack of female landscape designers showing and want to address the balance. What about the Landscape conference where generally there are only 1-2 female presenters yet undoubtedly an audience which is at least 50/50 if not balanced towards women. Is it that women just don’t put themselves forward as readily? Or they’re busy with what’s already on their plates – which may include a full home life as well as a professional one. Not saying blokes don’t have busy home lives, but just saying…

    • From my experience in organising the HMA sponsored stage at last year’s Australian Garden Show Sydney where we had plenty of great gardening women, including several from interstate like Kath Bafile from Perth, I don’t think it’s a lack of women wanting to put themselves forward when they have the opportunity to do so. But when people are individually invited, rather than able to send an expression of interest, men get most of the invitations.

  5. I believe it is not a sexist issue here. The organisers of events and/or TV shows make the decision who they want – for whatever reason.
    Hopefully they select the ‘talent’ who is the best expert for the topic, irrespective of gender.
    Do we need more females on Gardening Australia television – YES!
    Do all states have both a male and female presenter – NO!
    ABC should first look at evening up that score a bit.
    I will nominate ABC garden writer Annette McFarlane as the best option for presenter in Qld. It will then be up to producers to make their decision and then for the ‘talent’ to decide it they want the media exposure that is paid ‘pittance’.

    • Although I’m sure it’s not consciously so, the ‘whatever reason’ is clearly gender discrimination as those invited and chosen are so unrepresentative of who is able and available. And yes! Annette McFarlane would be brilliant. However my guess is that she would be chosen to ‘replace’ one of the other women if they leave (even though she’s in a completely different climate zone) rather than making the male-female numbers more even. That’s what has happened in the past – the gender imbalance has been preserved for 25 years.

  6. I could be wrong but when you say that the ABC Gardening Show has never had a female host, what about Mary Moody? Personally she is one of my favourites……….and sorry, I’ve never been one to “bang my own drum” but Beth Stokes and I are incredibly proud of having founded and run the Collectors’ Plant Fair – “Australia’s Treasured Gardening Event” for 10 years. The AIH awarded us Joint Horticulturists of the Year in 2005, something we are very proud of. We made sure that we included some excellent female speakers in our line-up and they were always much appreciated. Someone once said about me, “Peta is totally unaware of her own importance”…..I love that, but occasionally I feel the need to raise my head!

    • Yes, Mary Moody was a presenter on GA TV, but not a host. GA was hosted by Peter Cundall from 1990 to 2008. And you’re right, the Collectors’ Plant Fair speakers have been much more evenly male-female than elsewhere. But given your awards and knowledge, have you yourself been invited to be a headline presenter at a major gardening show?

  7. A fabulous article outlining the lack of amazing woman on our TV screens! I too am a speaker within the horticulture industry and have heard on many occasions that more woman are needed on TV to inspire other woman.
    Most of my clients are woman, and the majority of participants at my workshops and events are also woman. So I wonder who is inspiring them to garden?
    I think it’s the same old belief that males dominate many industries….just look at the ‘celebrity’ chefs. Let us girls unite and support the wonderful work being done off mainstream TV!!

  8. Oh, yes Catherine, I totally agree, we need more women to show their creations. And as for feminism, there is still a long way to go though it is better than those 35 years ago when I came to this country. I remember the bank manager talked to my husband who by the way did not have a job at that time and not me. I was working in research for a well known university in WA. I just wanted a small loan for our first house LOL.

    • Haha yes. And I remember being told by my bank in 1982 that I would just have to change my last name to my husband’s, as they couldn’t create a joint account in separate names. I naively thought, way back then, that I’d live to see true gender equality in my lifetime. Such optimism!

  9. As a total cynic, could I suggest that the ‘decision makers’ stereotype gardeners as middle aged women and therefore believe that they prefer good looking young male presenters (not that I mind looking at these provided they know what they are talking about)

      • I’ve just looked up Dale Vine, the young heavily-tattooed landscaper from Melbourne just announced as a headline presenter at the new Brisbane International Garden Show, and now having seen his online portfolio at I can only say that you must be correct. He’s on TV’s The Block which means he’s famous and therefore of course gets an invite ahead of the many, many much more talented women landscape designers around Australia.
        Do gardeners really want to pay money to hear what he has to say? He summarises his approach as “LOVE EXPRESSING CREATIVITY, I WORK UNTIL IT’S DONE AND I TELL IT LIKE IT IS”. Should be fascinating.

  10. Good on you for raising this issue Catherine and let’s take it further as personally I think there should also be a greater diversity of people in general to better reflect the Australian gardening and horticultural population. We are a multicultural society and many of those cultures have brought some amazing horticultural experience to the country. I am proud to have played my part in this process where I have seen opportunity and talent in the past and will continue to do so in future. Keep raising these issues Catherine!

    • While I agree that we need more ethnic diversity of presenters on our live garden shows and gardening TV (and, especially some Asian presenters) Gardening Australia TV, for example, is already doing better on that front that it is with gender balance. Assuming Tino and Costa come from non-English speaking backgrounds, if you add Clarence Slocklee, that’s one third, which is not far off that of the wider Australian population. But only 2 women out of 9 regulars is less than half what it should be.

  11. Excellent article, the other issue in the print media is that you are employed as contractors and basically have no job/income security and dropped at a moments notice. The price per word is appalling and you aren’t entitled to any royalities if the article is ever reprinted. The publishing companies also take forever to pay you and you can be months out of pocket. You also aren’t able to contact the publishing companies directly, you need to go through the editor. When I worked at ABC TV Gardening Australia all the men I worked with were employed as full time workers, but as soon as christmas came around, 95% of the women were put off until February. Again, where is the job security? I think the media and horticultural industry need to treat their employees with more respect. It is the same now for teaching in TAFE – no job security. Makes earning a living difficult, especially if you are the breadwinner.
    Better put my name to this Sandi Pullman, it is my experience in two industries.

  12. Great topic Catherine, and I suspect that Liz is right about the ‘hot’ young men being seen as the best for tv. All the more credit to Jane Edmanson who has been on Gardening Australia since the beginning and is still so well loved. Love the way you always look at things from such a questioning point of view.

  13. Interesting comment Catherine and undoubtedly correct. It’s interesting to see that parts of the nursery industry are perhaps leading the way with Garden Centres of Australia having a female President, Karen Moad, and the International Association IGCA having a female President too, Rachel Doyle from Arboretum in Ireland. Maybe garden centres see women differently as they are constantly communicating with them as customers and staff.l

  14. Good article Catherine. Sometimes we become complacent and just accept the status quo – but if we keep the conversation going the status quo can change.
    It’s heartening when women like you are so generously supportive of others in the industry.

  15. Hi Catherine, after reading your article, I did a count of the authors of the gardening books on my shelves. they were evenly divided between female/male, so thankfully we are not short of knowledgable experts of either sex. As a home gardener I look forward to having access to these people at garden shows for all the obvious reasons. Given the results of my authors count, show organisers should be seeking to encourage more of our female experts to come along share their knowledge. this can be done for example by inviting them as subject matter experts, presenting informative sessions rather then being part of the (so called) headline group .

    while I am at it , Sydney seems to be the only east coast city that does not have its own gardening expo. shame , shame

    • Yes, I think my books are similarly split 50-50 male-female authors. Although increasing women’s participation in any way at these gardening shows would be a positive, I wouldn’t like to see women relegated to a second tier role. The ‘headline’ group is where both the attention and the money is paid and the many women in the horticulture industry need, and deserve, to be an equal part of that.
      Re Sydney missing out on a gardening expo, there is still hope that the Australian Garden Show Sydney can return in 2016. It’s missing in 2015 because of the huge losses suffered by the event company from the 2014 show, when it rained solidly for 2 weeks and so nobody came. It was a terrible shame, as it was a very good show. So Sydney could have a garden show – as long as its gardeners support it come rain or shine!

  16. It would be nice to think that there’d been equal offering of such roles. Then that would lead to the question of how many of the knowledgeable and inspiring females you list would be (or would have been) prepared to submit to the dumbing down that commercial TV (and perhaps our own ABC) requires.

  17. Great article Catherine. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I had genuinely not noticed the lack of female presenters at garden shows despite being involved in shows for 20 years. The honest truth is I have never thought about it as I just assumed that in today’s age it should be a given.

    I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be a more even gender mix, and I know without a doubt that there are many female gardening personalities in the industry that I love to hear what they have to say.

    Should I be asked to speak at garden shows in the future, I will definitely be asking the organizers what their gender percentages are, and will do what I can to encourage a much more equal balance.

    Keep up the amazing work you do.

    • Thanks Ian. I’m hoping that you, and many more men invited to present at these garden shows, will start asking that question. We are missing half the story and our knowledge and understanding of gardening will always be the poorer for it. I had honestly thought, as a young woman in the 1980s, that I would live to see true gender equality in Australia. It’s dispiriting that we’ve still got such a long way to go.

      • We should talk about same sex marriage next!. Lets accept that it just isn’t good enough to sit back anymore and assume that change is going to happen without the need of people speaking up. Therefore I will look forward to hearing and reading more in the future.

        • Yes, Australians like to think of themselves as having the quintessential land of equality, opportunity and the ‘fair go’ but, if you look at the stats and our legislative record, sadly we are way behind the international pack on so many issues of social justice. Those who enjoy power and dominance over others don’t willingly give it up. As individuals and communities we need to keep up the pressure for change.

  18. quite incensed about this for a long time. sometimes, I wonder if the reason is because men are better than women at portraying the hardscaping bits so well, No, that doesn’t tick boxes in too many instances. Modern women gardeners are as bold and daring as Edna Walling of yesteryear. There are undoubtedly, many differences in which women design differently from men, but surely that makes for greater interest. No- there’s no excuse.

    • Yes, I agree Clara. There’s no excuse. I have had it put to me by one show organiser that they are simply choosing the high profile people that they think will bring crowds through the gate. Which seems to equate to ‘if you’re not on TV now, you’re not famous enough’ which is, of course, systemic discrimination that perpetuates the male domination of presenting at garden shows, as TV programs already discriminate in favour of men. I don’t think that shows much knowledge about gardeners, who know lots of their gardening ‘stars’ from radio, from books and magazines, and as bloggers.
      It also misses an opportunity to make stars out of high quality but less well-known women presenters. If you bill them as headliners, then people will start to notice them and think of them as headliners.

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