Several years ago, I noticed enrollment of women in the landscape contracting program at Penn State was declining. The thought of these young women entering our industry without a solid base of female peers was concerning.
Personally, I was blessed to graduate alongside several incredible women at PSU. After graduation, many of us were the sole female representation at our respective workplaces. We quickly realized how hard it is to talk with your male boss about bathrooms and basic feminine needs. Tackling bigger issues was even tougher. Without female leadership or coworkers, we often felt uncomfortable or even invisible at work. In these moments, I leaned on my fellow grads.
I decided to extend a helping hand to our industry’s next generation of female leaders. I connected with two of my fellow grads, and with the faculty’s blessing, we held roundtable mentoring chats over the next three years.
The sessions were well received, and I’m grateful to have been a part of it. I hope by sharing some details here, you might be inspired to implement a similar program in your area.
Keys to Success
First, serve good food! We experimented with different venues and menus, from a full lunch buffet at the Nittany Lion Inn to pizzas delivered to a classroom after hours. The menu varied, but the fellowship was the same. In our case, the landscape department covered all the costs.
Second, drop the formalities. At this meeting, we aren’t employers, and we certainly aren’t recruiters; we’re just a bunch of ladies chatting about work, sharing stories and making space for each other to feel seen and heard.
Third, establish ground rules. We set boundaries on what the meeting was not. It was not a forum for man-bashing or whining. Beyond that, no topic was taboo.
Topics for Discussion
We touched on feminine hygiene, lack of bathroom facilities and advocating for your own basic needs. We answered questions on family planning and pregnancy, and the challenges of being a parent in an industry designed by men. We normalized their concerns and spoke truth to the many issues surrounding being a woman in this industry.
We explored the many diplomatic tightropes women walk in the workplace. All of us agreed the men in our industry are generally welcoming, but we brainstormed on how to identify and handle true harassment, discrimination or disempowerment, just in case.
We urged them to avoid self-sabotaging behaviors like competitiveness, perfectionism or aggression. We encouraged personal growth by suggesting great books and steering them toward industry groups.
We shared our stories and asked to hear theirs. We listened. We laughed. We even cried a little. At the heart of all this, is connection.
Currently, a couple dozen women are shouldering their way through the industry, and hopefully they’re using some of the tools they learned us to carve out successful career paths. ‘A couple dozen’ might not seem like much, but even on this micro-level, it is impactful.
What if we all implemented a similar program at our local universities, colleges, career and technical schools, or even high schools? We could take it a step farther by inviting these young women into our networking circles after graduation and beyond.
Perhaps our small-scale, grass-roots mentoring could have a national impact and move the needle toward gender parity in the landscape industry.