This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub. Story and photos by Madi Kirkman.
Nicole Benjamin was drawn to arboriculture through a Facebook advertisement that said, “Get paid to climb trees.”
Growing up, she loved climbing trees. As an adult, she might have been more cautious entering the industry, considering that forestry is one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S., with the highest death rate per 100,000 workers, according to the National Safety Council.
“I mean, there’s times where I’m nervous for various reasons, but for the most part, once I’m up in a tree, all the other stress that’s going on fades, almost disappears really, so it feels like a weird meditation or a flow state,” she said. “It just feels comfortable, it feels like that’s where I belong.”
This ad led to her entering the multi-billion dollar tree care industry, an industry that involves the cultivation of trees and other woody plants—and one in which women are significantly underrepresented.
Benjamin and women like her make up only 7.4 percent of total female arborists nationwide, but their experiences climbing trees offer a unique perspective into a dangerous and exciting male-dominated industry.
Sosha Rockwood became part of this 7.4 percent when she was looking for a career that would keep her outside working with plants.
When she first found an arboriculture job, she expressed doubts about entering the profession. However, she was willing to give it a shot, and she quickly disproved her self-doubt and the doubts of others.
“I definitely worked my ass off to prove that I deserved a spot on the crew early on,” Rockwood said.
Although she had to prove herself, she doesn’t think that’s just because of her gender. Part of the culture involves pressure on newcomers to pull their weight and mesh well with the crew.
However, one gender difference became clear to Rockwood about five years ago.
“It was impossible to find gear that fit correctly,” she said. “I remember modifying a pair of spikes to get them short enough.”
Erin Demers addresses issues like these that women in arboriculture face through her role managing the Women in Tree Care network for the Tree Care Industry Association. The network provides resources for member tree care companies, including training and education. It started as an informal forum for women to get together and talk about issues they faced in the industry.
“It’s important because the women are building relationships and they have this community where you can share struggles you have or challenges or situations and lean on each other and see other women have similar experiences and how they handled it,” she said.
Alison Lancaster is a current member of the Women in Arboriculture committee, which aims to empower women in the tree care industry. She said when she first entered the industry, she was always the only woman in the room at conferences or other educational events. However, in the last seven years, she said there has been a steady increase in the number of women.
“It’s hard to envision yourself doing work that you don’t see other women doing,” Lancaster said. “If all you ever see is a man in a tree, it’s hard to imagine a woman in a tree.”
Lancaster said she thinks one of the most prohibitive aspects for women entering the industry is feeling like they’re going to be compared to men.
“That’s why our committee does these women’s tree climbing workshops,” Lancaster said. “So that there is a space where women can come and feel safe in her body, like she’s not going to be judged, gain a little more confidence, not worry about being outshined or overstepped, overshadowed or whatever by men, not have to — I hate to say it — but not have to worry about being mansplained.”
After her entrance into the industry and her struggle to find proper equipment, Rockwood started her own company in Chapel Hill called Lubbers and Sons Tree Care, where she does everything from secretarial office work to big-picture innovating.
“Nowadays, my favorite thrill comes from being up in the tippy tops of tree canopies when I’m setting crane straps on big removal jobs, and getting to see the whole neighborhood or beyond,” Rockwood said. “Sometimes you get a really incredible view from up there that nobody else on the crew gets to have.”
Rockwood said for her company, being a woman helps her come off as unintimidating to other women looking for an arborist.
“There are a lot of great men in the industry as well, but I think there’s something really special about being able to have another female service provider come and talk to you about things on your property,” she said.
Benjamin, who became one of these female service providers after an arboriculture Facebook advertisement, co-owns 2 Dog Crew LLCin Charlotte. She applied to an arborist hiring post because she had enjoyed climbing trees throughout her childhood.
She said any nerves she feels in trees are typically due to the health of a tree. Last fall, for example, a company she was contracting with had an actively failing tree that was cracked at the base. She had to climb 60 feet up the tree to remove the top of it, and had to get it done that day because a hurricane was coming.
“I was just really hoping that nothing catastrophic would happen,” she said.
Although Benjamin isn’t afraid of heights, she said she knows many tree climbers who are.
“So then a lot of times for them it is learning to completely trust the climbing systems that we use,” she said. “I totally trust the systems we use, but I guess also I’m overly optimistic in that I think trees know we’re there and if we respect them, then they’ll respect us.”
Benjamin also competes in tree-climbing competitions and is the International Society of Arboriculture’s southern chapter female tree-climbing champion. At these competitions, arborists compete and showcase their professional and safety skills in front of judges.
“It seems like every year there are more and more women, which is awesome,” she said. “I’m hoping that’s because there are not only more women in the industry, but also because we’re feeling confident enough to go out and compete.”
However, Benjamin isn’t immune to what she described as “micro-comments” related to her gender.
“The one thing that hurt my soul was finding out that one time there was a customer that wouldn’t let me on her property because I was a woman,” she said.
She also described how meaningful the support of men in the industry is.
One time, a customer asked her older male coworker, “Why on earth are you making her climb that tree?”
And her coworker just looked at him and said, “Well, that’s just what she does.”
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