Humans in Tree Care: A Few Thoughts on the Women in Tree Care Forum

A round-table discussion held during the Women in Tree Care Forum, held during TCI EXPO ’21. Photo by Richard May.

I realize this article may be slightly controversial, but I think this magazine needs that right now, especially after how the Women in Tree Care Forum at TCI EXPO blew up. People are ready for it. This is my opinion.

If I had to title it, I would call it, “Women in Tree Care: Humans in Tree Care”

After speaking at the Women in Tree Care Workshop pre-conference event, held in conjunction with TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis last November, I attended the free Women in Tree Care (WITC) Forum the next day. We had some nice table discussions surrounding various topics of women in tree care. One particular topic started to go down a rabbit hole, and one man sitting at the table – who just so happened to be a male employee of mine – bravely asked, “How do women want to be treated?”

The initial responses from the women at that table were along the lines of, “Just like everyone else.”

But then we dug deeper, and we started to get into the details, where finally we landed in a much more nuanced place of, “Women just want to be treated as individuals.” And doesn’t everyone? I think this shines a light on what is so often broken in our industry (and in many other blue-collar industries). People just want to be seen as human beings, and not just as workers who are a means to an end.

Today’s workforce demands more than a paycheck. Employees need emotionally intelligent leadership and visionaries who remind them of their organization’s purpose when the going gets tough. And this work is tough. Passionate individuals who can truly contribute to moving an organization forward toward its vision are being driven out. And let me tell you – I have never seen a room so filled with passion.

I suspect that nearly every woman in that room has had to fight hard to get to where they are. But they aren’t just fighting men, they are fighting fear – fear stemming from the bias that only men can hold high production value in this field. Business owners fearing the loss of their livelihood over a matter of principle and being inclusive. This, of course, is a bias. I see that fear in my own husband, who founded our company 16 years ago. Some of you who attended the forum may remember him. He’s the one who displayed massive courage by coming forward – to step into the arena – and admitting his bias that he could not “see women in trees.”

Whew. Take a deep breath. Don’t walk away.

I could have jumped to his defense. “He means well!” I could have actually jumped on him, because I was a little embarrassed and maybe even a bit angry (what did he even mean by that?!). But I didn’t. I sat quietly and listened to it all unfold (maybe “blow up” is the better term?). Isn’t it amazing that he felt safe enough in that forum to speak his truth? That he was even open to being proven wrong? And gosh, was he proven wrong!

Thank you to the incredible people in that room who saw this as an opportunity to build a bridge – not burn it. Most of the responses he received were a beautiful display of courage, vulnerability and maturity. To quote the ever-amazing Brene Brown, “When I see people stand fully in their truth, or when I see someone fall down, get back up, and say, ‘Damn, that really hurt, but this is important to me and I’m going in again’ – my gut reaction is, ‘What a badass.’”

I have a love-hate relationship with the term, “The future is female,” because, while I do believe women are underrepresented in so many industries, and that women are positively magic, I think it misses the mark in that we’re discounting the value of men, many of whom have been pioneers in the tree care industry. It takes all kinds. The future is human.

What’s needed most in this industry cannot be solved by simply inviting more women into the circle. What’s really going to turn this giant ship around is a willingness for leaders to “do the work.” Be willing to speak your truth and be willing to stand corrected in pursuit of the greater cause: Building deeper connections with your people and understanding their true worth.

Leaders: Devote time to your own development, emotional intelligence and recognition of your biases so you can overcome them. Read a book. Hire a coach. See a therapist. Open your eyes (as one person at the forum actually challenged my husband to do). Summon the courage to have difficult conversations with your people and be open to criticism. You’ll only be better for it if you can develop a stomach for being shown your blind spots. This is “the work,” and I’d argue it’s much harder than tree work.

And for those of you who are fighting to be heard and understood and given a chance: Recognize that men and women – and everyone in between – are living life through a unique lens through which you will never be able to see. We all have biases. If you are lucky enough to encounter someone brave enough to step onto that bridge to overcome their biases (like “not seeing women in tree care”), do not meet their outstretched hand with judgment and contempt. Reach out, listen, empathize and let the conversation begin.

Amy Grewe, Certified Arborist, is vice president and owner of Arbor Aesthetics Tree Service, an accredited, nine-year TCIA member company based in Omaha, Nebraska.

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