My First Arb Show – A Stunned Woman in Arboriculture

Treewoman hired a car and went to Westonbirt

This was my first ever Arb show. 23 years working with trees, 12 years running my own Trees and Development Consultancy, hundreds of clients, hundreds of Planning Consents and thousands of successfully retained trees. But I became a Professional Member of the Arb Association only last January, on the basis of my portfolio. Working way up here in the north of Scotland can be an isolating experience. I wanted to make some professional links further afield.

Don’t know exactly what I was expecting then, when my flight took off from the airport at Dalcross and banked to head south for an hour at 30,000 ft. Probably the weather was uppermost in my thoughts – spring‘s a long time coming in the Highlands but Westonbirt, situated as it is in south gloucestershire, was apparently warming up nicely.

A very short flight, a hire-car and an airbnb later, on a warm but windy friday 12th May, I parked up in a cloud of gravel dust, grabbed my rucksack and made for the showground.

First impressions? Perplexing if I’m honest. It all felt a bit like a Wildlife Park hosting a marketing event for abbatoir hardware. A nationally cherished arboreatum temporarily becoming a showcase for the mechanised felling and disposal of trees. Bright orange STIHL banners proliferating backed by a soundtrack of revving 2-stroke engines. Huge-funneled chippers yawning ready to devour brushwood side-by-side with forwarders, the newest, most efficient chainsaws and all the climbing gear one would ever need to access, and remove, the tallest of trees.

Amid the inevitable sea of masculinity this machinery-based event was bound to attract, a single young female marshalling a small child on a bike passed me on her way out of the ground. “Let’s go somewhere quieter eh?” I heard her tell her son. Once they’d passed by (and this is the absolute truth) there was not a single female in view, in any direction. I actually stopped walking in astonishment. I’d heard the Arb Association felt it was time to form a Women in Arboriculture Working Group. My ovaries and I stood quietly bewildered beside a beer tent full of beards, while the enormity of the existing gender imbalance struck me like a falling branch. I was stunned.

Finding my way to the small Ancient Tree Forum stand, I met a lady who worked for BugLife and shared some bleak astonishment. Then I moved on to the Arb Association tent and found a couple more women. The (Lack of) Women in Arboriculture Working Group was due to meet the following lunchtime, they told me. There was, it seemed, plenty of time to explore the rest of the show. But I didn’t. Passing a display of engine oil calling itself ‘Sexy Oil’ with a bikini clad tottie pictured on every container, I threw in the towel and went back to my airbnb to read a book.

Saturday lunchtime was better. Well, it couldn’t be any worse, could it? A few more women were evident across the showground though the majority appeared to be the partners of visiting arborists, male ones, and a good many had children in tow.

Tree Top Walkway at the Arboretum

In the Arb Association tent, a small group of professional females had assembled, there were about 11 of us, and Emma delivered a call-to-arms introduction to the issue – an astonishing 89% of Arb Association membership is male, and that includes the many ordinary members. So far, actual figures defining the ratio of male to female professional membership have not reached me up here in the far north, but it’s not looking good. The imbalance then, as evidenced across the showground, is of mind-blowing proportions. It’s going to be challenging to address – and that’s putting it so, so nicely.

In my own, very humble opinion, and having recently immersed myself in the Arb Show’s testosterone-heavy atmosphere, there‘s no mystery about why women aren’t flocking to be involved. In general (and always with some noteable exceptions) women are considerably less interested in heavy machinery, ‘Sexy Oil’ and mechanically rendering timber into mulch, than they are in matters of environmental and social significance and building relationships to better effect peaceful change. It would appear that the ‘image’ of arboriculture is currently built on the former rather than the latter.

Trees though, are at the heart of the most important global concerns of our time. We really could do with getting this across.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers survey 2017 found the top 3 concerns of 31,000 18 to 31 year olds across 186 countries were as follows:

1 climate change/destruction of nature (48.8%)

2 large scale conflict/wars (38.9%)

3 inequality (income/discrimination) (30.8%)

A recent study mapping tree density at a global scale using more than 400,000 ground sourced measurements estimates that there are about 3 trillion trees on earth – more trees than there are stars in the milky way. Still, we’ve lost 1.3 million sq kilometers of forest since 1990, an area larger than South Africa. (2016 edition of World Development Indicators (open data)).

These issues along with many others are of huge significance to us all and, for those of us with a professional interest in trees, should push our thinking well beyond the practicalities of timber extraction. Opportunities surely exist to encourage participation by reaching out to anyone concerned with the environmental legacy we leave for future generations, and the crucial role trees have in safeguarding this.

Having been the support act for a tree surgery outfit for over a decade during my 30s and early 40s, I have the highest regard for the skills of the arborist. Today I work frequently and productively with local arborists, as well as with many other professional people from civil engineers to Planning officials. Their combined expertise is essential in caring for, retaining and protecting high quality tree presence across the Highlands. Sure, there’s an important place in arboriculture for individual tree-management skills, for the timber-dismantlers, the brushwood-processors and their machines (and, by-the-way, there’s no reason more women shouldn’t join their ranks). But single-aspect over-dominance is never a good sign, especially when it serves to alienate an entire gender.

If it can broaden the scope of the arboricultural realm, it’s clear to me the embryonic Women in Arb Working Group has a potentially pivotal role to play in re-balancing the efforts of the Association, the priorities of the Industry and the gender ratios in arboriculture, on and across The Board.

If you’ve formed the impression I had a bad time at the Arb Show, I didn’t. I got educated. And I’ve come back to Inverness a long way from pessimistic. It looks like Change has finally stood herself up and smelled the engine oil.