Girl power, girl flower and plant power

Maddalena Vietti Niclot.

In the ornamental horticulture industry, there are few companies managed and run exclusively by women. For International Women’s Day this year, FloraCulture International travelled down to Pistoia, Italy, to meet four women who have worked hard to shatter the glass ceiling.

The participation and promotion of the role of women in agriculture over the last 20 years has had a fluctuating evolution, susceptible to different interpretations, above all due to the growing stance of public opinion on issues about equal opportunities.

The number of women employed in horticulture

In 2020, in Italy, women employed in agriculture numbered 823,000—around 30 per cent of the total number of people employed in agriculture—down from 2010, when they accounted for 36.8 per cent.

Within agricultural companies, there has been a slight increase in the participation of women in managerial roles, as also shown by other surveys. Female managers in 2020 were 31.5 per cent (30.7 per cent in 2010).

In Italy, the last three agricultural censuses show that over the last 20 years, there has been a consolidation of the role of female entrepreneurs in agricultural businesses. The growth in the percentage of female agricultural managers continues but has slowed down in the last decade.

Percentage of agricultural businesses run by women

In the face of this decreasing and slowing trend, in order to encourage female entrepreneurship in agriculture, Italy’s 2022 Budget Law has provided for a simplification of facilitation measures and has increased the fund for female-run businesses by five million euro, with the prospect of being able to enhance the skills, sensitivity and intuition of women in this field.

Since there are no specific statistics for the horticultural field, I have to rely solely on my personal perception and knowledge of the sector, but I feel I can reliably confirm and declare the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat) figure of 30/31 per cent for the presence of women at the helm of green companies in this sector too.

Women on top

In light of these figures, it was worth hearing directly from some of these managers about what they thought of their work and how they value it.

FCI magazine sat down with Gianna Masetti of Vivaio Masetti Sabino in Pistoia, Patrizia Fasano of Vivaio Terraalta in Albenga, Susanna Livi of Vivai Piante Biagini di Società Agricola San Giovanni di Pistoia; and Maddalena Vietti Niclot of Anthemis Environment S.r.l. in Turin.

Gianna Masetti is a graduate with a master’s degree in landscaping, is married, and has two children. She has been running the company founded by her father, Sabino, for more than ten years, with the assistance of her brother Daniele in production.

Patrizia Fasano of Vivaio Terraalta in Albenga is a university graduate. She has been running the company founded by her husband since his death, assisted by her daughter Giulia, who has embarked on a new career in this field.

Susanna Livi of Vivai Piante Biagini di Società Agricola San Giovanni di Pistoia is a graduate, married with two grown-up children who have pursued other careers. Susanna has been running the company started by her late father-in-law.

Maddalena Vietti Niclot of Anthemis Environment S.r.l. in Turin is a university graduate and is in a relationship. She co-founded the company with a friend who oversees its administration, organisation, and training.

To guide our discussion, we asked each of them three questions.

Did your family encourage you to become a nurseryman?

Gianna Masetti.

Gianna: “I was born and raised in a ‘nursery’ family, but my father, a farsighted person, never pushed me to do this job. Actually, he wanted me to become a doctor! My passion developed on its own, although my father’s influence certainly played a big part. I went to university to study agricultural sciences of my own accord, and it was also by my own choice that I decided to stay with the company; of course, the family was happy, but there was no pressure.”

Patrizia: “I don’t come from a family of nurserymen, but I was born and raised in the mountains and the countryside, and this influenced my existential expectations and perspectives. The intellectual freedom I was brought up with allowed me to make choices that are different or seemingly unrelated to the studies I undertook.”

Susanna: “Let’s say that circumstances somehow obliged me.”

Maddalena: “The family left me freedom of choice and independence, but also the challenge of ‘making do’.”

Do you feel discriminated against as a woman in this sector?

Gianna: “In this sector, women are quite rare, although, in recent years, there has been a substantial increase in the presence of women in all roles, from the more operational to the more managerial.

“In my experience, I must say that I have never felt discriminated against except when I was unprepared about something. In that particular case, it was basically my own fault. I consider discrimination to be a mindset, so if you are well-prepared, you can easily prove that you are perfectly at ease even in a role that is not strictly female.

“Let me explain: I work with my brother, and it has happened that on occasions when we were introduced to colleagues who did not know us, they would start talking about production only with him, but as soon as they realised that I was also perfectly aware of the situation, they would turn to me as well, making me part of the discussion.

“More and more women are at the helm of nursery companies, women who, in my opinion, have simply not been intimidated by the role. Frankly, to me, this whole gender discrimination issue is rather tiresome: I see it as an excuse to use when you don’t get where you want to go.”

Patricia Fasano.

Patrizia: “There are discriminating aspects and areas even in our sector, partially deriving from the agricultural and rural world and the cultural tradition that this entails, and partly common to the specific prejudices of society in general.”

Susanna: “The world of nursery gardening is definitely a world dominated by men, but as nursery gardening has deep roots in traditional agriculture, let’s say that the female component is relatively present and, if you like, inspiring. So, I have never felt particularly discriminated against. If anything, it may be limited by the physical commitments that certain types of work require. But certainly not on an entrepreneurial level.”

Maddalena: “I am not directly involved in the nursery world but in a related sector (green design). However, I’ll try to answer you… I don’t feel discriminated against any more than in other sectors; the lower number of women is physiological. In the entrepreneurial sector in general, there are fewer women because it requires a lot of time and is not compatible with other activities.”

How would you like to see the nursery stock industry evolve in the future?

Gianna: “For the future in this job, I would like us to be able to give more dignity to what we do: for years, this sector has operated mostly in the shadows, fearful of being watched too closely by prying eyes.

“Now, I would like the pride of being a key player in the rebirth of our world. After all, we only produce raw materials for the development and renewal of the ecosystem: plants! How do we do this? I believe that this will be very difficult as long as we do not have a single voice to represent us. For now, it would already be a lot to let our government know that we exist with respectable numbers, turnovers, employees, and exports. Yes, it is true; perhaps they already know these figures in Rome, but is anyone really able to translate all this work into image, respect and pride? Italians are proud of their wine, fashion, and the art that our country produces. Can they ever be as proud of commercial plant production?”

Patrizia: “For the future of nurseries — not mine but everyone’s — I would like to see a revolution! I want the government to recognise the importance of plants and trees for the economic and sustainable development of our country in a pragmatic and prompt manner, free from shameful bureaucratic hurdles. I want an efficient and controlled water system; I would like new arrangements for work in the fields that give dignity and flexibility in the organisation of work, with coordinated benefits and controls that are the same throughout Italy. I want horticulture to be the spearhead of Italy, like manufacturing, wine, fashion, lifestyle.”

Susanna Livi

Susanna: “I would like nursery gardening to be considered, to all intents and purposes, an important reality for the economy of this country and especially the green economy. This is why I hope that the legislative, economic and social incentives that affect the country’s energy policies from now on can be diverted to a large extent to this sector, which is still too technologically backward.”

Maddalena: “As for other sectors, albeit of excellence, nursery gardening and also my direct sector of green designers, need organisation for greater competitiveness: companies that are larger, structured and technological.”

In conclusion

I would say that the answers of these businesswomen, who act and operate directly in the field of ‘greenery’, reveal their pride and awareness of being involved in a fundamental sector of collective wellbeing, functional to solving atmospheric pollution, important for the physical and psychological health of each one of us, which we can all enjoy walking in a park, growing plants on a terrace or when we benefit from the shade of a tree, cooling ourselves without consuming energy, while in the meantime carbon dioxide is absorbed, and stored, putting precious oxygen back into our environment.

We all hope that their wishes for the nursery’s future become a reality.

This article was first published in the March 2024 issue of FloraCulture International.

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