Bridging The Great Divide: Men and Women Helping Each Other in Tree Care

“In reality, so many women are kicking butt in our industry. It’s a matter of overcoming the fears or the self-doubt more than anything,” says Katie Breukers, shown above, owner of Tangled Trees Arboriculture in London, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Katie Breukers

Let’s face it – when it comes to tree care, men still dominate the industry, both in company ownership and employee numbers. The general consensus among those interviewed for this article is that women who are trying to break into arboriculture often find themselves ignored, underestimated or even outright intimidated. But, thankfully – although slowly – that is mostly changing, according to a group of women who joined a chat group during TCIA’s recent Virtual Summit, along with a few men who joined the conversation with a unique perspective of their own.

According to ISA Certified Arborist Rebecca Johnson, owner of Arborholic, LLC, in Austin, Texas, and a moderator of the chat group, getting women in tree care to be taken seriously is an ongoing struggle. “I feel like it’s a battle I fight so much,” she says, “as in, shouldn’t this be settled by now?”

Rebecca Johnson, left, says “There’s a problem with some employers losing patience with women sooner than they do with men,” spending more time with men to teach similar skills. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Johnson.

Johnson started Arborholic, a consulting company with a focus on outreach and education, five years ago after receiving a degree in forestry in 1995. “Back then, job notices were by word of mouth and through your university,” she explains. “After realizing that forestry jobs were by and large seasonal temp jobs, and that few women were ever hired as permanents, I went into the legal field and volunteered with nonprofits to keep my tree experience fresh. In 2008, I sat for and passed the Certified Arborist exam, but my years of office legal jobs made companies concerned that I’d be unhappy in an outdoor physical job, and I mostly heard, ‘We just don’t think you’ll stick it out.’ So in 2013, I transitioned to working for a tree nonprofit, and then, in 2016, I started my own company.”

As a consultant and “tree coach,” Johnson spends a lot of time on calls with potential clients and has had her fair share of inappropriate comments. “Just recently on a consultation, the conversation turned to CBD (cannabidiol) and THC,” she notes. “I stated I’d never used either, and the client told me they make sex even better. I laugh that stuff off, but it’s something that brings home the fact that you’re alone on someone else’s property.”

Another thing Johnson notes is that she’s often the subject of skepticism. “One class I taught, several students outright challenged one of my statements. In that case, I had copies of published research, but they had let similar statements pass when a male teacher had said them.” 

This disparity between genders is one thing addressed by Blake Duval, CTSP, operations manager for the Meredith, New Hampshire, branch of Chippers, Inc., an accredited, 22-year TCIA member company based in Woodstock, Vermont. “There is no gender bias here,” he says. “It’s one big family, with no one treating anyone differently. ‘One team, one mission,’ as our VP says. Everyone is treated with fairness and respect.”

As a woman-owned business – Chippers is owned by Mundy Wilson Piper, who until last month served as chair of TCIA’s board of directors – Duval says the company culture is “absolutely female friendly.” However, he says, that hasn’t been his experience in previous jobs, especially in the utility end of things. “It was very biased,” he notes. “It was pretty well known that if you were a woman, you were just going to drag brush. There were not a lot of opportunities presented (to women). They were pretty much hiring women just to fill trucks.

“From my perspective, if you show up and are motivated to work and learn, I’m going to do everything I can to help you grow,” Duval adds, noting that that goes for males in the company as well. “I think tree care is an industry not a lot of people are aware of, so that’s one reason there aren’t more women.

“My advice is, give everyone the same opportunities,” he continues. “They need help not just because they’re women, but because they need help. One of the most motivated and hardest workers I’ve seen is Alliyie Shults, who’s been here about six months. She’s not afraid to give input and ask questions. That’s important – you see something, you say something. Having an open line of communication (with women) is extremely important. You need to figure out how to do things in different ways to fit everyone’s needs.”

Alliyie Shults, a climber with the Meredith, New Hampshire, office of Chippers Inc., works with co-worker Garrett Korytko to maneuver a crane-picked piece into the chipper. TCIA staff photo by Tchukki Andersen.

According to Duvall, having Shults on board as a climber “has taught me something about how to be a better trainer. She has an awesome attitude and a great perspective. Women just think a little differently, and she wants to know the perfect way (to climb), the right technique. Guys let their egos get in the way and just muscle through it.”

Patrick O’Meara, owner of High Country Landscape, a four-year TCIA member company based in Highlands Ranch, Colorado – a one-man operation – has the same opinion on men and women as climbers. “I climb with Aneesa Winn (a trainer with Crux Climbing, Rigging and Training based in Portland, Oregon, a contract climber and owner of Tree Chic, LLC, in Denver, Colo.),” he says, “and her choices in the tree are exact. She pre-plans her climb. It’s physical, but it’s not just relying on that brute strength. I see guys just muscle their way up the tree, like, ‘I’m going to prune the sh__ out of this tree!’ I now have to up my game when I work with women.”

Jacque Fink, Certified Arborist, is owner of Integrity Tree Care, LLC, a training, consulting and contracting business in Colorado and elsewhere. Photo courtesy of Patrick O’Meara.

O’Meara, who is current president of ISA’s Rocky Mountain Chapter, says he is just getting over a recent knee-replacement surgery and recently needed to hire 11 arborists on a temp basis for a big HOA project. “The majority of the group was male, but my friend, Paul Shuker, (owner of Academy Arborist in Denver), brought his 18-year-old daughter, Brē, and a friend of hers with him. So when Brē shows up in chain-saw pants and can tell me correctly about the reactive forces of cutting branches under load, you’re darn right she’s going to use the chain saw that day.

“I saw her and her friend incorrectly feeding the chipper, so I said, ‘Never feed a chipper like that, do it this way,’” O’Meara continues. “They listened, they got it right the first time and then they did it right the rest of the day. If you told a man that, they’d say, ‘The heck with that, I’m doing it my way!’ I recognized both these women that day with a $20 safety bonus, in front of everyone.”

From left, Jacque Fink, Aneesa Winn and Jackie Salas were the top three women at the 2018 ISA Rocky Mountain Chapter Tree Climbing Championship in Fort Collins, Colorado. All three have worked as contract climbers with Patrick O’Meara at High Country Landscape, who shared this photo.

O’Meara has this advice for men in tree care who work with women. “Stop putting them down. Not once have I been put down by a woman because I asked for help. I have terrible knees, and when I’ve needed help, women will ask, ‘Which end of the log do you want me to carry?’ Women are into teamwork.”

He also says he has little patience for men who use derogatory language about women. “I was at an event where this one guy was very graphic in his question (relating to women in tree care), which was a legitimate question, but it was couched in derogatory terms relating to a woman’s cycle. I had to speak up, I couldn’t just let that go. We need to call other men out on stuff like that in defense of women.”

Another way O’Meara hopes to build respect for women in tree care is by involving them in training events. “I volunteered in the Arborist Corner of last year’s ProGreen Expo in Denver, and I made sure to have a couple of women there – not as token females, but as women showing mostly men some new techniques and gear. It made the men sit up and take notice, that these women were showing them a better way to do things.”

Women in tree care have very clear ideas on how men can help them in the industry, as demonstrated in the Virtual Summit chat group. Rebecca Johnson recalls a time when she was training in a new skill. “There’s a problem with some employers losing patience with women sooner than they do with men,” she says. “For instance, when I was learning to back a trailer, I tried for five minutes and they made me get out so they could do it, but they spent literally over an hour with the man, because ‘you need to learn this.’”

Certified Arborist Katie Breukers, owner of Tangled Trees Arboriculture in London, Ontario, Canada, says, “I totally agree that some employers have less patience with women. I find it’s necessary to speak up rather than fall silent in those situations, and if they push back, there are bigger concerns regarding that employer than just their opinion of women.

“Creating the opportunity for yourself is just as important as working for a company that is willing to invest in you as an employee,” says Katie Breukers. Photo courtesy of Katie Breukers.

“I see more women holding back because they are nervous or fear not being on the same level (as men),” she continues. “Creating the opportunity for yourself is just as important as working for a company that is willing to invest in you as an employee. I feel this is something that really is holding women back from growing. In reality, so many women are kicking butt in our industry. It’s a matter of overcoming the fears or the self-doubt more than anything.”

When it comes to the nuances of language used in the workplace, Johnson weighs in. “I know a lot of women don’t like to talk about the language used, but research is pretty clear that if you’re in an environment that uses gendered words, it will affect your confidence,” she explains. “For instance, if men are described with feminized words when they’re perceived as weak, our brains absorb that message even when we actively fight against it. It’s why changing the language is so very important.”

David White, TCIA president and CEO, joined the chat group with a male perspective. “If I may, this sounds like we should both find ways to help women feel more confident about speaking up.”

“Very true, David,” says Johnson. “And we need other men to speak up with us. I had one man say, ‘Well, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to undermine you,’ which I appreciate, but at the same time I was a lone voice and therefore easier to ignore.” Johnson adds that when someone uses offensive or gendered language around her, her reply is non-confrontational. “I like the low-key ‘Dude, that’s not cool,’ and then moving on.”

“Research is pretty clear that if you’re in an environment that uses gendered words, it will affect your confidence,” says Rebecca Johnson, shown above. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Johnson.

White recalls a time when he was not quite as sensitive to gender language. “I’ll be honest, and this is a little embarrassing, but it took me a while to stop saying ‘guys’ and ‘girls.’ I had a female boss who did a pretty good job of getting that out of me. I spent a couple of years in another trade association, and I cannot tell you how many times I had to say, ‘Dude, not cool,’ when someone referred to ‘the girls in the office.’”

Johnson replies, “I’m working on embracing my Southern upbringing and always using ‘y’all.’ It has the benefit of also being warm in tone.”

For Certified Arborist and CTSP Rob Gillies, senior arborist with Keiling Tree Care, a 10-year TCIA member company based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, the difference in attitude toward female arborists in Canada compared to the U.S. is noteworthy. “When I worked in Toronto, I noticed the difference in companies with women,” he says. “In fact, a friend of mine had an all-women staff, and he loved their work ethic. It wasn’t so much, ‘I need a job,’ or, ‘I lift things up, I put them down.’ These were people who really loved the work and wanted to be there.

“Women come into this with the knowledge that they’re walking into a traditionally male role, and that they’ll need to perform better and prove themselves more,” Gillies notes. “In fact, regardless of your gender, when you enter a male-dominated field, you’re going to find a pecking order, sort of that macho approach. It’s all about maintaining that pecking order. So I’d advise women, don’t be intimidated. Don’t react to men’s comments, don’t take it personally and don’t be afraid to carry on and do whatever needs to be done.

“Develop your strength and your strategies,” he continues. “Figure out how to make your size work if you’re small. Men power their way up a tree, while women work more strategically. They climb more as they should, with correct technique.”

Gillies adds, “We have enough problems hiring, we don’t need this old-boy attitude anymore. Men need to get past their stereotype notions and work with the people who are showing an interest in this field and are willing to learn. We need to recognize that there’s 50% of the population out there (who are women), and the more women show up and demonstrate their skills, the better off we’ll be. It’s more about the muscle between your ears than those in your arms.”

Gillies imparts a final piece of advice for women looking to start out as arborists. “Take advantage of climbing schools taught by women. Look for those role models and those mentors. Also, find out something about the company you’re looking at, so you know how you would fit there. And then present yourself as someone they can’t afford not to take a look at.”

When it comes to men helping women thrive in the tree care industry, it seems both sides have strong feelings about what that should look like. And both seem to agree that the time for change is long overdue.

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