Women in Horticulture: Millie Ross

We chat to Millie Ross about her journey in horticulture, the barriers she has overcome to become a hort-hero and tips for women in the industry.

What drew you to horticulture initially? 

It happened a little by accident, but I think I was always looking for some way to make my life in nature.  I’ve never been inside for long.  When I discovered horticulture, it was like I was learning a language I already spoke.  I studied in Gippsland TAFE after moving bush, deferring my teaching degree in the city.  I never looked back.

What pathway did you take to get there?

 I studied an introductory Certificate II in Landscaping and followed up with a Cert IV (Diploma) the next year at Gippsland TAFE.  It was a great learning environment, very hands on, we were installing all the infrastructure for the new campus!  From there I went into retail to extend my plant and horticultural knowledge.  Every day you get asked a new question and you need to find the answer.  It taught me a very useful skill – don’t need to know everything; you just need to know where to start looking!

What obstacles have you encountered along the way?

 That is a blunt question for a very complex and long-standing issue!  I think like lots of women, I operate a little outside the norm.  I don’t really fit a stereotype which has allowed me access to some conversations but made me confusing or confronting in others.  I remember once being asked at an industry function why I wasn’t married with kids.  The former president of the association did this loudly, in front of a table full of people to ensure I knew I was different.  I did.

Only a few months ago someone approached me to say someone might call me about something as they needed a woman, I can’t tell you who or what, as he didn’t introduce himself.  He went on to explain that they had targets on their backs.  I would say I was speechless, but I wasn’t.  I reminded him that he did not have a target on his back but instead power and responsibility in his hands.   I try to speak my mind when these things happen but like so many, I am fatigued of it. It is not our job!  But also, it’s impossible for women to change such a deep-rooted problem.  I suspect this fellow walked away hearing only the rebuttal, not the opportunity, and I suspect that this will mean I won’t be asked to participate as a result!

Increasingly, instead of explaining it myself, I remind one of those allies in the industry that they need to help – there are many.  They can ask to see the speakers list before they commit to an event, educate themselves about those unconscious bias’, and they can help to grow positive change.  And sometimes, they just might need to get out of the way! 

Who were your mentors?

 I always admire people with the foresight to have a formal mentor, I think I would have benefited from one!  My first nursery manager was incredibly influential, teaching me so much about plant quality and customer service.  I will be forever indebted.   I’ve worked with a lot of incredible women across so many roles since then, in horticulture, production and life.  I learn a little from all, I think. 

What does an average day look like for you?

I wear two hats for Gardening Australia, the larger being my role as Head of Research.  I work with a team of horticulturists to identify and develop the content for the program, as well as scheduling content for individual episodes and the overall season.  I could be doing anything from writing or editing a story, speaking to potential talent, writing scripts or meeting with ABC collaborators about a new garden initiative.  It’s been an amazing time watching the growth in gardening interest, within the ABC but also the wider community. 

On filming days, I am up before sunrise to prep, usually lighting the outdoor fire to keep the crew warm between takes. It is always a very fun but full day trying to get it all shot.  The rest of my hours are spent in my own garden!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

 In the garden, of course.

What are your 3 most worthwhile tips for women coming up through the industry?

  • Try anything, the more you do the more you learn. And you can always change your mind! 
  • Be yourself; everyone has something unique to offer.
  • If the space is there, take it. Speak up, share your perspective, never forget that what you think and do counts. 

What would you say are your favourite plants?

Most of them.  Except Lemon balm.  I hate lemon balm.

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