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Strength in numbers

By Ruth Slavid

Ruth Slavid

Almost every article in this issue of the journal has been written by a woman. There is a short piece from Paul Shaffer of CIRIA about the new SuDS manual, and there is honorary editor Tim Waterman’s customary and much-loved column ‘A word’. And that’s it for the men.

The women are a diverse bunch. Apart from the pieces that I have written, everything comes from members of the profession. The most distinguished is Sue Illman, former president of the LI, writing about flooding from her special experience with water. In contrast, Lesley Perez, who writes about the Brentford: Making the Connection project is at the start of her career, studying at the University of Greenwich.

Other authors are somewhere in between with, for example, Bridget Snaith sharing the learning from her relatively recent PhD looking at the different attitudes to landscape of different ethnic groups, while Michelle Bolger imparts some of her wealth of experience as an expert witness. There was no deliberate decision to make this a ‘women’s issue’ but it is interesting that it has happened this way following the session at the LI conference in March looking at the role of women in landscape. Michelle Bolger was one of the speakers at that event, and she talked in particular about the paucity of women at board level in the major practices.

That observation, coupled with the fact that very few women are commanding the highest salaries, is an indication that there is still a ‘women problem’ in the landscape profession. One could easily be lulled into a false sense of security by the near parity in numbers studying the subject and the fact that, certainly compared to other built environment professions, the situation on the surface looks good.

But the lively discussion that took place at the conference (with both men and women taking part) showed that there are still issues to address. These include the difficulties that women still encounter when working on site, problems with negotiating salaries and, most importantly of all, the problems that women encounter when trying to combine work with a family – and, in particular, to work part time.

Several women in the audience talked about how successfully they had set up practice on their own. As well as this giving them the flexibility that they want, many appreciate the ability to undertake any task that they like themselves, rather than having to parcel them out for business efficiency. And some women are working with networks of other independent or freelance professionals, often at a distance. While this is admirable for those who want to work this way, it does not compensate for the fact that women are failing to thrive in larger organisations.

The session at the conference was not just a series of complaints – there were constructive conversations about how to make things better, for instance by improving recruiting techniques. The issue is important not only because women are not getting a fair deal but also because by not doing the best by both women and ethnic minorities, the profession is missing out on talent which it needs when, as now, there is a shortage of good people. And as a profession that is working to make places better for all the public, the more representative it can be the better a job it is likely to do. Without saying crudely that women have a different approach, one can assert that the wider the range of abilities that can be brought into the profession, from as wide and diverse a gathering of people as possible, the better it will perform.

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