Sense of belonging

Features - Turfheads Take Over

The golf industry shouldn’t be an unwelcome place. Leasha Schwab offers suggestions for making a career in turf a more inviting option for women.

December 7, 2017

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The issue of diversity within the golf industry is a complex topic. Why is there a lack of women in golf? Why aren’t there more women in leadership roles in golf? And, finally, how do we give women the opportunity to excel in this industry?

This fall, I attended an event for Women in Golf at the Toronto Ladies Club hosted by Bayer. As I was chatting with these successful, driven women, I started thinking that maybe diversity within golf was fine, maybe I was being a bit dramatic. All these women were excelling in their careers. But then we started talking about women they knew who had left the industry or the hurdles they had been forced to overcome. The reality is those women at that table are the ones who persevered despite obstacles they encountered in their career path. They are the women who were fortunate to have a mentor genuinely interested in their success. On the other hand, they are the women who don’t want to rock the boat. They got to where they are, and they want to stay there. If there wasn’t an issue with lack of diversity, then we wouldn’t have a lack of diversity. It’s pretty simple. This gave me the inspiration to try and rock that boat. This article is the first step.

This is not about taking a jab at the well-educated, hard-working men who hold most of the jobs in this industry. It’s not about making a switch to 50 percent women as employees and managers. It’s about how do we get the women with talent – and with turf as their passion – the opportunities to excel and make turf their lifelong career aspiration. How do we break down the barriers and make the golf business a place that attracts the best of the best? Some would say a woman needs to be feisty, she needs to be persistent, put her career before everything, work harder than any man and prove herself. But isn’t that the problem? She may immediately put herself in a place where everybody, including herself, thinks she needs to prove that she is as good as any man out there by being overly assertive and dominant. This may cause her to be perceived as difficult to work with or pushy, whereas many men with these attributes are considered hard working and driven.

“Working in a male-dominated field does have its challenges,” says Marie Thorne, senior turf specialist at Syngenta Canada. “Women that know their stuff, exude self-confidence (not aggressiveness), earn trust from their male counterparts and get involved in the industry are very likely to succeed. At times you do need thick skin, and I’ve been very blessed to have mentors throughout my career to provide guidance.”

Look within

There’s also the issue of general managers concerned that employees within their establishment won’t be able to “accept” or “handle” having a women leader. They may be concerned about having to deal with any potential sexual harassment or power struggle issues, therefore they may choose to avoid these issues rather than taking them head on. If we want this industry to not only survive but thrive, it is imperative not to shy away from these subjects. If there is concern about a crew not accepting a woman, it’s time to delve into the present dynamic of your work force and ascertain why this may be. If there’s a concern about sexual harassment, ask yourself why you’re worried and go from there. The fear of sexual harassment should never be a factor in whether anybody is passed over for a position.

We as women need to not compromise our leadership role while at the same time being strong and unwilling to waiver in our morals. Dealing with harassment is something I’ve known all too well in this industry and part of me is ashamed to say that after 15 years last year was the first time I stood up for myself. Even then, my biggest fear was that my peers would view me as somebody who can’t “hang with the guys” or that they need to watch what they say around me. I am very fortunate to have great mentors who believed in me and helped me overcome these fears. I have a deep concern for women new to the industry without mentors – or ones that feel secluded – and I wonder how they would persevere. Any man who messages a woman superintendent to let her know how “hot” she looks in her profile picture (yes, this happens), asks if she’s single, attends a trade show and asks whose wife she is, and thinks twice about hiring a woman as a manager because you’re worried about the men is 100 percent part of the problem.

Superintendent Leasha Schwab has created a welcoming environment for her team at Pheasant Run Golf Course.

Many in the golf industry can agree that sometimes we can all get caught up in our jobs. When we were younger and new to this industry, it was driven into us that you should be working at least 12-hour days and, if not, it meant you didn’t have the passion for the business. I believe that sometimes men can see long working hours as a challenge, whereas women wonder how they can sustain this work ethic, especially if there is any thought of starting a family. So, instead, they bow out. Women are still more likely to be the stay at home parent, so where does being a golf course superintendent fit in? Some would say it seems impossible, and I used to think that. But it’s not. It’s about planning, acceptance and working together. It’s about general managers trusting the person they hired to do what’s right for the golf course when that time comes. It is completely possible to do both. You don’t need to work 12-hour days every day to be a driven, motivated superintendent.

“With my husband and I both being in the industry, we knew having a family would be challenging,” says Jasmine Halk, assistant superintendent at the Briars Golf Course and wife of The Donalda Golf Club superintendent Paul Halk. “With the support of our employers, colleagues and family, we were able to adjust our schedules to accommodate for daycare and strike a good work-life balance.”

In my opinion, a lot of these issues, including moving forward in this industry, come down to the same couple of questions. What are your goals in the turf industry? How do you want to change this industry in a positive and progressive way? Many of us got to where we are by working hard and sometimes it’s difficult to step away from that and peer into the future. My goal is to hire and encourage people who have a passion for this industry, irrespective of gender. In doing so, you will attract and retain women because the “right person” has no gender bias. That could come in many forms. Maybe I don’t have many women on my crew because I don’t get resumes from women, but what can I do to attract women into the turf industry? Perhaps I could go to high schools and talk about the profession to young women as motivation for them to pursue higher education in a turf related field. As with anything in life, it comes down to the people within an industry to make it what they want. So, once again as a turf professional, how do you want to see our industry evolve?

Offer support

I can attest that the most important thing when I was starting into my career was support, support, support. I had a few really good mentors who made me feel like I could do anything. I had a group of superintendents who took me under their wing and went out of their way to wave me over at a trade show to sit with them. They made me feel like part of the team, were always happy to answer my questions (and still are) and didn’t make me feel like they were just being nice because I was the token female. These men are leaders and I can’t thank them enough. I was 19 years old and absolutely terrified when I got my first assistant superintendent job. I went to my first conference and no matter how you split it, being the only women in a room full of men is intimidating. Support and mentorship gives you the strength to overcome when a guy that’s worked at your golf course walks out the day you take over, somebody writes a letter to the owners saying they won’t work for you, somebody makes a pass at you at your first trade show or insinuates that you haven’t become successful “authentically.” Do I need to spell this out? To anybody thinking, “I can’t make a difference with diversity in this huge industry,” yes, you absolutely can.

We each have the ability to encourage women in this industry and to show them that it can be a viable and rewarding career path. Don’t pigeonhole them by immediately placing them on garden duty because that’s perceived to be more of a woman’s role. It’s quite conceivable that she could be interested in much more than that, given the opportunity. If there is a young woman at a turf educational conference or leading a course close to you, reach out and give her your support. Introduce yourself and encourage her to network and become involved in industry events. You may find the role of mentor as one of the most rewarding roles in your life. When I was unsure about a situation on my own golf course, I often asked my peers what they would do, and they are generally very happy and supportive to share their thoughts and experiences in similar situations. That gave me the courage to continue to ask questions and learn. You could be the difference between a young woman feeling very isolated in a male-dominated industry or feeling like she 100 percent belongs there.

Leasha Schwab is the superintendent at Pheasant Run Golf Course in Sharon, Ontario.