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Gardening

Where are Australia’s women gardening stars?

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

July 20, 2015

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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Julia Thomas
8 years ago

Amen to that Catherine!

Paul Plant
8 years ago

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’.

tentwisle
8 years ago

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

Julie
Julie
8 years ago

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!

jannaschreier
8 years ago

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!

Kate Seddon
8 years ago

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…

Peta Trahar
8 years ago

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!

Peta Trahar
8 years ago

………No. Head down now Catherine.

Peta Trahar
8 years ago

Oh, PS Catherine, whilst I was gardening (!!!), I thought maybe many of the women successful in horticulture are too busy to appear on TV or gardening shows.,,,they’re out there designing, writing, blogging, travelling, reaching for the stars………their fees are HIGH!!!! Go girls!

Cath Manuel
8 years ago

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!!

Barbara
Barbara
8 years ago

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.

Liz Chappell
8 years ago

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)

Sarah Ryan
8 years ago
Reply to  Liz Chappell

Liz, I hate to say it too, but that’s exactly what I was thinking.

Angus Stewart
8 years ago

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!

Sandra Pullman
8 years ago

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.

Judy Horton
Judy Horton
8 years ago

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.

Leigh Siebler
8 years ago

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

Kim Woods Rabbidge
8 years ago

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.

paul johnson
paul johnson
8 years ago

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

Michael McCoy
Michael McCoy
8 years ago

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.

jannaschreier
8 years ago
Reply to  Michael McCoy

Ah, you see, us women just can’t compete with you men. Because give him time, and Mr McCoy will always come up with the wittiest, most intelligent thought of all.

Sandra Pullman
8 years ago

And what happened to the presenter in the Northern Territory of Gardening Australia? She was great?

Ian
Ian
8 years ago

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.

Ian
Ian
8 years ago

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.

clarabushbabe
8 years ago

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.

Eva Erhardt
3 years ago

I believe the perception of the public is that expert horticulturist and gardeners are men, as most garden maintenance businesses and landscapers are operated by men.
Over the 10 years as a garden designer and landscaper in North Queensland every-now-and-then male clients would ‘question’ my expertise and become overbearing. While their wife’s were cringing with embarrassment, I diplomatically had to remind the male client that they paid me good money for being the content expert.
Unfortunately many of the ‘lawnmower’ business have no plant skills of horticulture knowledge, giving the horticulture profession a bad reputation.
My aim for 2021 is to provide women with training to enter the horticulture world with professional business training relevant to our sector.