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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Education, support key to helping promote careers for women, minorities

Nikki Gatch definitely is a glass-half-full person. And that is a personality trait that comes in handy as the membership coordinator for the Southern California PGA.

031419diverse2.jpgSo when Gatch pointed out during the Ladies Leading Turf event at this year's Golf Industry Show that the overwhelming majority of members of two of the largest professional associations in the golf industry are men, she chose to look at that as a chance to effect change, not an obstacle to success.

As a former collegiate golfer and the daughter of a golf pro, Gatch has spent virtually her entire life around the game.

"It was simple, I wanted to be like dad," she said. "I didn't want to be a golfer necessarily. I just wanted to be like dad."

As she spent more and more time around the golf course, Gatch noticed early on that there were not a lot of women in the golf business. They might have been selling merchandise in the pro shop or working in the office, but they were not the face of the business. Not like men, anyway.

"They certainly weren't a golf pro," she said.

They weren't mowing greens either.

According to statistics Gatch presented at GIS, 4.4 percent of the PGA's 29,000 members and 1.5 percent of the 18,000-member GCSAA are women. 

The number of female superintendents is even lower than what Gatch reported. According to the GCSAA, 112 female superintendents are members of GCSAA, only 61 of which are head superintendents.

"Let's look at this as an opportunity," Gatch said during the Syngenta-sponsored event at GIS. "What can we do to close that gap? 

"Maybe (girls and women) just don't know what we do every day. We have to educate them on that."

Let's look at this as an opportunity. What can we do to close that gap?

In its second year, the Ladies Leading Turf event was organized by Leasha Schwab, superintendent at Pheasant Run Golf Club in Ontario. Unlike Gatch, who played competitively at Oklahoma State University, Schwab did not grow up around the game and doesn't really play it, either.

"I grew up on a farm. I never golfed, I just wanted a job where I would be outside," Schwab said at GIS. "I think it's just a matter of educating women that this is even a thing and then mentoring and helping those who get into it."

There are many benefits to diversity in the workplace, which include new ways of thinking, new ideas and new solutions to old problems. 

Gender diversity is just one slice of that pie. 

Hispanic laborers make up the backbone of the golf maintenance business in much of the country, yet few seem to make the transition to head superintendent. 

Access to golf and education have made career development a challenge for many Hispanics. Jorge Croda, a native of Mexico and the co-winner of the 2017 TurfNet Superintendent of the Year Award, who now runs his own consulting business, says just educating fellow Hispanics that they can become a superintendent and helping them along the way is critical. He points to newly minted GCSAA president Rafael Barajas as an example for others to follow.

031419rafael.jpg"I'm so proud of him," Croda said. "I tell my workers 'You can do that.' We need more exposure to the game. In Mexico, you need a degree to be a superintendent. Here, you can have a two-year degree. Being a superintendent is a real opportunity for people who come to the United States."

It's not always that simple.

At the annual Syngenta Business Institute, a three-day professional development program developed in conjunction with the Wake Forest University School of Business, WFU professor Amy Wallis, Ph.D., discusses gender, generational and cultural differences in the workplace. She also points out how some Hispanics shy away from promotions and title changes because they don't want to be a boss among their peers.

Jesus Romero is a native of Mexico and an assistant superintendent at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He is a former superintendent at Sailfish Point in nearby Sewall's Point and knows first hand the challenges associated with elevating the careers of his workforce.

"Some Spanish people take advantage of other Spanish people," Romero said.

"We don't trust. You have to gain that trust. Spanish people, in the beginning, don't trust supervisors. It's worse if it's an Hispanic supervisor. First, you have to gain their trust. 

"They will believe an American boss. But when they see a Spanish boss, they see somebody who they think is going to take advantage of them."

Barajas came to the U.S. with his family when he was 14, started working on a golf course two years later when his brother hired him at Sunset Hills in Thousand Oaks, California, and hasn't looked back since. He's been in the business for 40 years, the last 36 as a superintendent.

Although Hispanic workers comprise a large sector of the golf course labor market, many do not see a path to becoming a superintendent as a realistic option for them, and that is something that has to change.

I know I play a bigger role because of who I am and that I touch the Hispanic community more than any other past president because of my background and heritage.

"The percentage of Hispanic superintendents is low. How do we change that?" Barajas said. "We just have to go out and encourage those in the industry to participate. We have to show them that this is an inclusive industry. I'm here."

Barajas (pictured above) places heavy emphasis on the word "inclusive" when discussing his profession and his new role as GCSAA president.

"I have been looked at through a large magnifying glass, and a lot of people want me to succeed. And there are some who don't," Barajas said.

"I happen to be Hispanic. I have a great responsibility to continue to make sure that professional development is available, relevant and affordable. That is our responsibility and our mission. . . . I know I play a bigger role because of who I am and that I touch the Hispanic community more than any other past president because of my background and heritage. But it's not as much about Hispanics as it is everybody. We have to include everybody. This industry is inclusive. We include everybody. It's just how do we motivate some people. How am I going to motivate them? Just be being who I am. That's part of motivating Hispanics, but I do it for everybody."

Schwab has become a self-appointed champion for other women in the field. Opening the door to women and minorities means not only educating people about turf maintenance as a career option. It also means current superintendents must be willing to mentor them. 

"I know women who have gotten into this, and have been too intimidated and decided to leave the business because they didn't see anyone who looked like them," she said.

"I did not have any women as mentors, but I was lucky I had some very good mentors who were men."

Being a resource for others is a big reason why she created the Ladies Leading Turf event.

"I wanted a place for women where they could network and talk with other women in the field, because I didn't know of anything else like this," she said. "I know nothing is going to change overnight, but it's a start."