Women in the Turfgrass Industry

By Devon Carroll and Carrie Stephens, Ph.D.

A look at most athletic fields before a game rarely reveals a woman working to prepare the playing surface. The turfgrass industry is estimated to support more 800,000 jobs in the United States. However, despite comprising 51% of the U.S. population and 47% of the overall labor force, women certainly do not represent nearly half of the labor force in the industry. Although female groundskeepers have recently gained attention in media, their numbers are few. As of February 2020, only 100 of the more than 2,500 members in the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) were women, making up just 4% of total membership. Surprisingly, this number is slightly higher than the 2% female membership reported for women working in golf turf by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and Canadian Golf Superintendents Association. 

The low percentage of women in turfgrass classifies such work as a non-traditional job, defined by the United States Department of Labor as an occupation with 25% or less female employment. Other non-traditional labor sectors with similar percentages of female employment to turfgrass include welding, construction, plumbing and electricity (2.2 to 5.3% women). The low engagement of women in turfgrass is a problem as the industry faces labor concerns. In recent years, a decline in the U.S. unemployment rate and immigrant and blue-collar worker availability has affected hiring. In the past 12 months, the effects of COVID-19 have exacerbated the labor issue. As the industry struggles to fill positions,  recognizing the under-utilization of women could be a solution. Can increased recruitment of women to the turfgrass industry close the labor gap?

Imagine if the percentage of women working in sports turf rose from 4% to 10%. Based  on current STMA membership, this relatively small  increase would result in an additional 150 women seeking employment. Now imagine if the percentage changed to 20% or 30% women. Refining recruitment methods to attract women to the industry could ease labor concerns and result in a more diverse workforce. Barriers faced uniquely by women may be limiting the number of women entering and remaining in the industry. In other agricultural fields, research has been conducted to identify challenges and opportunities for women in order to increase their recruitment. This information is of value to the turfgrass industry to improve recruitment and retention strategies for women and to ease labor concerns.

Female journeys to leadership

Researchers at the University of Tennessee in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications took a scientific approach to determine barriers and opportunities for women in the turfgrass industry by interviewing female leaders to explore their lived experiences. Thirteen female leaders participated in the study and represented diverse backgrounds including 6 to 30-plus years of experience working in turfgrass; geographic locations in three countries and comprised of nine U.S. states and three Canadian provinces; and job titles ranging from athletic field manager to assistant athletic field manager to graduate student to golf course superintendent and assistant golf course superintendent. Five of the women work in sports field management and eight in golf. Female leaders participated in 30- to 90-minute interviews conducted remotely via Zoom. Interviews were semi-structured and posed the central research question, “What lived experiences have shaped your career in the turfgrass industry.” Transcriptions of interviews were used to develop themes intended to encompass the experiences and views of all 13 participating women. Responses from female leaders established themes of career paths, challenges and opportunities. 

Opportunities for change

Understanding the journeys to leadership of women currently working in turfgrass can inform recruitment efforts seeking to involve women who may have a predisposition to find work in turfgrass interesting and rewarding. Despite their diverse backgrounds, women interviewed in this study had similar childhood upbringings and influences on their career choices. Women described their childhoods as involving time spent outdoors through farming, playing sports, and engaging in other outdoor activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing. These activities were noted to stimulate choices to work in an outdoor, hands-on environment later in life. Additionally, all of the women placed emphasis on the importance of education in their journeys to leadership. Twelve of the interviewed women hold degrees in turfgrass or closely related fields. Women felt this education was essential to their ability to garner respect and grow within the industry. 

Women also expressed their leadership styles were key components to successful professional development. The most common self-identified leadership style among participants was open leadership. This leadership style encompasses hands-on leaders and emphasizes communication, relationship building and teaching. Female leaders with this style described the importance of working alongside their crews in order to prove themselves and build connections. Women felt fostering relationships with their crew members allowed them to better communicate why tasks were important, which was noted to empower employees through education. Participants in this study believed their leadership styles differed from those common to male counterparts primarily due to their focus on the emotional aspects of leadership such as keeping staff happy. Female leaders engaging in open leadership experienced positive responses from employees, and felt this leadership style aided in their leadership success.

Although women in leadership roles in turfgrass were generally positive about their experiences working in the industry, women cited many challenges to their success and happiness. Challenges fit into three main sub-themes including building a family, experiencing sexual harassment, and overcoming stereotypes. For example, women described their disappointment in being mistaken for someone’s wife or an hourly crew member rather than the field manager. Additionally, women expressed their discomfort in being pursued romantically at conferences, at work and on social media. Women were hopeful sharing these experiences would provide comfort to other women in similar situations and bring light to the need for change in the current industry culture. 

Study participants indicated females working in turfgrass and the industry itself can take steps to improve the experience for current and future women. Women can create space for themselves in the industry personally and professionally. Emphasis was placed on the need for women in turfgrass to build camaraderie with other women to overcome challenges. Women were also encouraged to work on maintaining a positive mindset, recognizing and improving strengths and weaknesses, and pursuing opportunities. Educational, leadership and mentorship  opportunities are available to women through participating in “Women in Turf” events, serving on local or national association boards, and attending conferences. 

Interviewed women described that the industry can support women by continuing to fund these events and encouraging female counterparts to engage. Women also discussed how men in the industry can provide support through acceptance, mentorship and advocacy. Many women relied on male friends and mentors on their journeys to leadership. Women were hopeful more men would fill these roles by speaking out when misconduct is observed, encouraging women to pursue growth, and believing in their abilities. 

Moving forward

Results of this study revealed women in turfgrass are successful leaders, and their experiences can shape future female recruitment. While 12 women in this study had turfgrass degrees, 10 of the 12 started in careers other than turf. This finding indicates few women are entering the industry immediately after high school. In order to increase recruitment, women and men need to be informed of opportunities in the turfgrass industry in middle and early high school to promote turfgrass as an immediate career. Given that all 13 women in this study described their upbringing as one involving outdoor activities, focusing recruiting efforts on students who play sports or are involved in agriculture will likely yield greater interest in turfgrass. Increasing female visibility on athletic fields and through social media may also foster interest by showing young females that career opportunities in the turfgrass industry are possible and rewarding for women. 

In order to retain women currently working in turfgrass, the industry should continue to fund and participate in “Women in Turf” events. Participants described these events as essential to fostering a spirit of community and initiating change. Additionally, mentorship provided individually or through formal mentoring programs is needed and was found to promote professional development and leadership growth. 

Women interviewed in this study were hopeful sharing their experiences would provide insight on improving recruitment strategies and industry culture for women. Recruiting a diverse workforce with more women will likely lead to innovation and may ease employment concerns as the labor force grows. 

Devon Carroll is a Ph.D. student in Plant, Soil and Environmental Science concentrated in turfgrass weed science at the University of Tennessee. She can be reached at dcarro17@vols.utk.edu or on Twitter @turfgirl24.

Carrie Stephens, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications in the Herbert College of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee. She can be reached at cfritz@utk.edu or on Twitter @Carebearsvoice.