I’m proud to know that I’m making a difference for the women coming up in the field
In honor of International Women’s Day, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is sharing stories about women in the arboriculture profession throughout the month of March to honor their contributions to the industry.
Rebecca Johnson’s arboriculture career began in high school when she was a member of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization, an extracurricular student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership.
“In high school, I was in FFA and was a member of the Nursery Landscape judging team,” Johnson said. “This sparked an interest in trees and human spaces. I didn’t know about arboriculture at the time, so I decided to study forestry. I grew up in a fairly rural area and general tree care wasn’t something I ever saw anyone doing, other than folks doing their own pruning.”
Johnson studied forestry at a local community college, Eastern Oklahoma State College. After completing her associate’s, she transferred to Oklahoma State University where she continued her education in forestry.
Today, Johnson is a consulting arborist who focuses on outreach and education, and she is the owner of Arborholic, LLC. Johnson also leads trainings such as the Austin Certified Arborist exam prep course and provides community outreach regarding trees and tree care.
In addition to being an ISA Certified Arborist®, Johnson serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas Chapter of ISA and she has brought the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop to Texas. Additionally, she regularly hosts educational opportunities for fellow arborists and the general public while also hosting Women in Arboriculture sessions.
Hosting the Women in Arboriculture sessions is something Johnson began after her ISA chapter began doing virtual breakout meetings for industry sectors, “I thought it was a great idea and asked if we could do one that would be inclusive of women and minorities,” she said.
The Texas Chapter thought it was a great idea, but was unable to immediately support the events. At the same time, ISA held its annual conference and many participants of the Women in Arboriculture networking event expressed how much they enjoyed talking. So Johnson decided to host the sessions herself using a Zoom account she utilized for her business.
“I put [the Women in Arboriculture sessions] out to my network and had a positive response,” she said. “We had 16 women the first meeting and we talked for two and a half hours.”
Now Johnson said the meetings average about 20 people and she has a hard time cutting the conversation off at two hours.
In their sessions, Johnson said the group discusses a multitude of topics, “I've left it open for women to discuss what's affecting them at the time. I always have a couple of ‘seed’ topics, but so far we've not needed them. At one point, I realized we were partly a support group. We all have stories to tell—some we feel we handled well, some we regret, and some that worked in the moment and place and we'd do again, but are open to hearing better ways to handle it.”
Johnson said the group also discusses career topics such as pay scale, areas of the industry (utility, production, consulting) and the paths into each, the fact that arboriculture is often seen as "unskilled" work which makes it harder for women and minorities to enter the field and move up the career ladder.
“We share job opportunities, training opportunities, and cool projects we're working on,” she said. “There's advice on dealing with harassment, finding good allies in the field, men and women, and how to deal with the pandemic and trying to balance kids and school at home with working and how that has mostly fallen on the women. I leave each meeting feeling humbled to be a part of such an amazing group of women, inspired to try to make our industry better and more inclusive, and with new thoughts and ideas to work on and figure out.”
Throughout her career, Johnson said her what she’s most proud of is her advocacy for women in arboriculture.
“I dropped out of the field for several years because the sexism made it too hard to find a good, steady job, especially with a spouse also in the field,” she said. “I’m proud to know that I’m making a difference for the women coming up in the field.”
Even with the challenges Johnson said that women play an important role and continue to advance the industry despite the lack of role models.
“For too long we’ve seen the industry as being about brute strength,” she said. “Women help show that working smarter, not harder, reduces the injury rate. In addition, we talk about the lack of women in the STEM fields and ignore that many girls start out studying STEM but falter when they face criticism and can’t find role models that look like them.”
Johnson said that it is exciting to see women continue to earn positions of leadership in the arboricultural industry.
“Seeing all the women on the ISA board gives me a thrill,” Johnson said. “While it’s easy to focus on what we still need to fix, we’re making great strides. Having women in leadership ensures that the image people “see” when they think “arborist” is no longer necessarily default male.”
Johnson hosts the Women in Arboriculture sessions every second Tuesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. Central Time.
Check out the other Women in Arboriculture profiles.