A “Pattern Language” for Women in Permaculture


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This article by Karryn Olson-Ramanujan was published in the “Permaculture Activist” magazine in August of 2013. This version is edited slightly, with longer captions, more pictures, and hyperlinks.

Click here for a pdf version of the article.

Also, you can listen to an interview about this topic on the Permaculture Podcast–look for the April 23, 2014 episode.

Also, after writing this article, I started compiling Best Practices to Support Women in Permaculture. Check them out–and you are invited to contribute to these living documents!


Though women receive the majority of all college degrees in the U.S., and are well represented in the work force, they are very under-represented in positions of high-level leadership. Most of the women I’ve encountered in permaculture note analogous patterns: often, women constitute 50% or more of the participants in PDCs, yet occupy disproportionately few of the positions of leadership and prominence in lucrative roles, such as designers, teachers, authors, speakers, or “permaculture superstars.”

To address this situation, this article drafts “A Pattern Language for Women in Permaculture.” Each pattern can be applied in many ways and names a core solution to a problem that undermines women’s full participation and leadership. Just as words connect to form a language, one can connect these patterns to form a language that describes good social design practices.

This approach is modeled after the book, A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al, in which the authors write, ”Each pattern may be looked upon as a hypothesis… and are therefore all tentative, all free to evolve under the impact of new experience and observation.” Using the same analogy, I invite your input to help craft this new language.

Pattern 1: Shift “mental models”

What are mental models? They are deeply ingrained generalizations that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. The problem with mental models arises when we are unaware of them–so they remain unexamined, yet govern our behavior.

Dr. Virginia Valian, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Hunter College and Co-Director of its “Gender Equity Project,” studies “gender schemas”–our unaware assumptions about what it means to be male or female in our society, and the “accumulation of advantage.“

Valian shows that women leaders are measured against “masculine” characteristics for leadership, competence, and assertiveness. As a result, both men and women consistently overrate men’s performance, while women are underrated. “Whatever emphasizes a man’s gender gives him a small advantage, a plus mark. Whatever accentuates a woman’s gender results in a small loss for her, a minus mark,” states Valian in her book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.

Accumulation of small disadvantages for women stalls or slows their path to leadership and undermines their earning potential. To illustrate this, Valian cites research in which a computer simulation begins with equal numbers of new male and female employees. A tiny bias–only 1% of the variability in promotion–in favor of men is programmed into many iterations of simulated opportunities for promotion. In the end, men occupied 65% of the highest positions in the organization.

We can see this dynamic in the US. According to the White House Project, in their “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership” report, women receive the majority of all college degrees, make up almost half of the workforce, and are well represented in entry- and mid-level positions in most sectors of the economy. However, women occupy on average only 18% of top leadership positions (and numbers are lower among women of color). Further, the wage gap for women means that they make 78.7 cents for every dollar earned by men, and that gap widens with age.

This makes little sense, especially when studies show that “…of the various qualities of leadership, women were rated far, far ahead of men on being honest, intelligent, compassionate, outgoing, and creative, and were considered just as hardworking, and ambitious as men. Men were perceived as excelling only in being decisive,” according to studies cited by Linda Tarr-Whelan in Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. Indeed, although most Americans agree that women are more likely to have the qualities needed to make a good leader, they often still opt for a man in charge.

In permaculture circles, the women I interviewed expressed universal frustration over the low number of women in traditional roles of leadership. At the same time, they also expressed dismay that other roles in which women are at or above parity (such as organizers, homesteaders, farmers, or other related fields) are often not valued as leadership.

Stella Strega with one of her lambs, a traditional Canary Island breed. These relatively rare Herrenian sheep provide wool, milk, excellent meat, and invaluable environmental services - they are rotated on the ecovillage farm she is designing as an integrated forest gardens system with multiple animal species designed to maximize food yields & carbon capture in soils.

Stella Strega with one of her lambs, a traditional Canary Island breed. These relatively rare Herrenian sheep provide wool, milk, excellent meat, and invaluable environmental services – they are rotated on the ecovillage farm she is designing as an integrated forest gardens system with multiple animal species designed to maximize food yields & carbon capture in soils.

“It seems very ironic to me that it is often the organizer types who get over-looked as designers, when they are, in fact, very skilled at the much harder ‘invisible structures’ design that is so essential in making anything happen,” said Stella Strega, permaculture teacher and designer in the Canary Islands. Organizer designers, for example, focus on people-care aspects: bringing people together; organizing events, course schedules, book publication, and even entire permaculture networks. “They do the very complex ‘weaving’ work without which we would never hear about permaculture or any of the illustrious teachers in the first place. When permaculture projects fail, it is because they didn’t have enough of those skilled kinds of designers, not because the trees or plants failed to grow.”

So, how do we shift mental models?

First, one can commit to educating oneself about them and dialoging about their impact on us and on our organizations.

Second, we can counter gender schemas and other forms of “unconscious bias” by learning to be an allies who co-create equitable environments (see Pattern 8).

Third, we can build habits of giving “micro-affirmations”?which not only block inequities, but also can reverse their negative effects. This modeling of small, appreciative acts also invites others to replicate them, thus creating a snowball effect. Finally, we can value the work of people quietly doing the work of organizing and implementing permaculture on the land. For example, although value isn’t measured only by money, several women organizers are developing business models for events to ensure that their work doesn’t have to remain unpaid.

Pattern 2: Understand and advocate for the “30% Solution” as an vital step toward parity

Valian’s studies also relate to numbers of women in the workplace: “…being a minority increases a woman’s likelihood of being judged in terms of her difference from the male majority, rather than in terms of her actual performance. Her minority status highlights her gender and, accordingly, makes her seem less appropriate for the job, which seems more masculine because of the large number of men filling it.”

However, the impact of gender schemas is reduced or eliminated when women are more numerous in a group: “…researchers found that women’s performance ratings were more negative than men’s when women were only 1-10% of a work group; somewhat less negative when women constituted 11-20%, and shifted to more positive when women were 50% or more of a group.”

Along these lines, Linda Tarr-Whelan shows when 30% of the people at power tables are women, organizations reach a tipping point. Women can then change agendas, inform goals, allocate resources, and impact the style in which goals are achieved. Cultural stereotypes are altered so that women are no longer seen as women, but as professionals.

Serving as a classic example of win-win solutions, a critical mass of women at top levels not only benefits individual women, but also leads to better government and better business outcomes. The “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership” report states, “A growing body of research demonstrates that women’s ‘risk-smart’ leadership is perfectly suited to what our nation needs to get on the right track.” Further, “…women tend to include diverse viewpoints in decision making, have a broader conception of public policy, and are also more likely to work through differences to form coalitions, complete objectives, and bring disenfranchised communities to the table.”

Tarr-Whelan challenges all of us to look at our organizations, and if we notice that women are in less than 30% of leadership positions, to start a conversation about the benefits of women’s leadership. We can ask, “What is the landscape for women in permaculture in our circles?” If not at parity, we can set policy to have 30% of our boards, teaching teams, speakers lists, etc., occupied by qualified women. They are out there, and we can find them by replacing the question, “Who do I know?” with “Who don’t I know?”

Pattern 3: Value diversity

This permaculture design principle is true for both natural and human systems. Diverse groups perform better than homogenous groups when it comes to decision making, not only because of input from the minority group, but also, in the case of ethnic diversity, because white participants improved the quality of their participation, according to a 2008 Tufts University study. Another 2012 study shows that heterogeneous groups are more apt to make ethical decisions. Other studies reveal that “diverse groups almost always outperform homogenous groups, even if the people in a homogenous group are more capable.” This reveals a pattern for optimizing human organizations.

Starhawk, an expert on Goddess religion, earth based spirituality and activism, offers Earth Activist Trainings (EAT). EAT has developed a two-pronged approach to capacity building: 1) by building long-standing relationships to support communities with unmet needs; and 2) by reinvesting surplus funds into diversity scholarships, which in this case, were offered for people of color. “It was tremendously successful–we went from 1-2% of our course being people of color to perhaps 40%.” Starhawk emphasized that inviting more than one person of color to the course ensures that they have support and avoids tokenism, shifts the whole dynamic of the course and is very enriching. It is also important for teachers to have training in the factors that create barriers to full participation and to be prepared to facilitate the stuff that may come up when we become a diverse group. “For permaculture to succeed in changing the world, it has got to move beyond the usual suspects and embrace the wide diversity of the world we live in.”

Pattern 4: Intersecting Identities

This article cannot speak for all women in permaculture–the women I was able to contact for interviews through electronic social media on rather short notice were mostly of European descent, from industrialized nations. All of the women I interviewed voiced concerns about permaculture presently being accessible to mostly white, middle class folks in their regions. Moreover, we know that women are active in permaculture elsewhere in the world and we want to create better networks with those women, as the “women in permaculture” movement must include multiple perspectives informed by diversity of age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, geographic area, class, physical ability, educational level, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Indeed, the women of color in the feminist movement of the 60s added a new dimension by pointing out that the experiences of women are not homogenous, but that the intersection of identities and discriminations forms experiences and perspectives that are critical to humanity’s understanding of oppression.

Similarly, Pandora Thomas, a rising permaculture leader in the San Francisco Bay Area says, “There hasn’t been enough work done around permaculture principles translating them for the people care ethic, so now there’s this misconception that permaculture is about farming and gardening, which it isn’t–it’s mostly about relationships. It’s about looking at systemic problems and finding relationship-based whole system solutions?and one of most vital systemic issues, along with the status of women, is cultural and racial inequity.” Thomas believes the phrase “women in permaculture” fails to acknowledge that there are many types of women who are treated in such divergent ways, with black women often finding themselves invisible in conversations about women in permaculture. At the same time, many women from diverse backgrounds are engaged in and taking leadership around permaculture design, she said.

Pandora Thomas showing her great niece the “three sisters:” corn, squash and beans in her hometown in Pennsylvania

Pandora Thomas showing her great niece the “three sisters:” corn, squash and beans in her hometown in Pennsylvania

“I can name ten African or African American women in the U.S. who have been trained or are using a permaculture design approach, but often times they are linking it to broader social movements as well and naming these solutions so they are relevant for our community. For example, in Chicago, Naomi Davis has started the Green Village Model that is based on ethics and solutions that are similar to permaculture. We can’t just talk about being a woman in permaculture, for African American females, because our entire communities are suffering…it is about survival! A lot of us are trying to figure out how to save our sons as well as our daughters.” Thomas said. She also made a point to acknowledge that many white women in the U.S. and abroad are making these connections between permaculture and social justice.

Alex Kruger sharing soil testing skills with women on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa

Alex Kruger sharing soil testing skills with women on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa

In South Africa, ecovillager and permaculture teacher/designer Alex Kruger shared that after Bill Mollison’s lecture tour in 1991, the permaculture movement started very slowly and was “terribly middle class and quite pale” for some time because the entrenched economic disparities from the apartheid era still form barriers to participation. Indeed, two of the biggest permaculture NGOs (which were founded by women) have found traction by addressing issues highly relevant for local citizens: Jeunesse Park started “Food and Trees for Africa” to address sustainable development through food security and food systems, educational efforts, and climate change action. Leigh Brown’s organization, SEED, incorporates permaculture into school curricula and building outdoor classrooms. SEED is also developing urban models of permaculture in lower income areas of Cape Town.

Pattern 5: Mentoring is key to building women’s leadership

Abrah Dresdale (l) worked with permaculture designer and teacher Lisa DePiano (r) on the Abrah Dresdale (l) worked with permaculture designer and teacher Lisa DePiano (r) on the Feed Northampton food security report. Later, DePiano mentored Dresdale in becoming a permaculture teacher. Dresdale now works as a permaculture professional coordinating the Farm and Food System Associates Degree Program at Greenfield Community College

Abrah Dresdale (l) worked with permaculture designer and teacher Lisa DePiano (r) on the Abrah Dresdale (l) worked with permaculture designer and teacher Lisa DePiano (r) on the Feed Northampton food security report. Later, DePiano mentored Dresdale in becoming a permaculture teacher. Dresdale now works as a permaculture professional coordinating the Farm and Food System Associates Degree Program at Greenfield Community College

Some of the women interviewed talked about finding great satisfaction in learning and teaching the “hard skills” for permaculture. Some mentioned that it would have been easier if they had female mentors to facilitate their mastery of these skills. Many said that mentoring other women is a part of their present work. They universally agreed that women mentoring women is vital for building professional leadership skills.

Lisa DePiano, a permaculture designer and teacher in the Northeastern US, feels called to mentor other women. “I’m offering teaching apprenticeships, and design/install apprenticeships. There’s a demand for it, and it strengthens our networks,” she said.

Lesley Byrne, a permaculturist working internationally with children and rural subsistence farmers through educational gardens, sums it up this way: “Part of leadership is setting an example for others to follow in your path, mentoring, forward thinking, being a pioneer and taking risks. Younger women come to me for advice on how to navigate through the male dominance of permaculture and younger people come to me for guidance whether it be in the field of international aid or striking out on their own.”

Pattern 6: Value archetypically “feminine” ways of leading

The women I interviewed agreed that although some qualities are considered archetypically “masculine,” and others archetypically “feminine,” they are qualities available to all humans and not necessarily tied to gender. We need to value the archetypically “feminine” qualities.

“I’ve been sitting with the question of how deeply ingrained cultural dynamics of patriarchy are, and the reality that they are so deep that they become invisible. We fall into a trap of defining leadership in a very masculine way that reflects how we define what is of value, so starting from the first premise, we are flawed–because there are actually many ways leadership can look.” –Lindsay Dailey

“There often is a bias that the guys who work with big machines are the ones who really know, and the technical skills are most important. They are extremely valuable, but the social skills are often the real constraining factor in moving from the theory to the practice,” said Starhawk. “People often go off and set up a wonderful intentional community and the next thing you know they are all fighting and break up. Also, women are often constrained from traveling because of families, so they may not be in position to do big sexy international projects. A lot of women are working locally and are committed to working on their own home fronts and we need to learn to value those things more as well.”

Lesley Byrne in Afghanistan. While living alone in a tent for four months, the men she worked with were very respectful and even adopted puppies for her—unheard of in a Muslim country. Upon departure, all were in tears. “As a woman I had an advantage over Western men because I was not viewed as a threat, which allowed them to let their guards down and for me to make much more headway training the farmers in permaculture.”

Lesley Byrne in Afghanistan. While living alone in a tent for four months, the men she worked with were very respectful.  They even adopted puppies for her—unheard of in a Muslim country. Upon departure, all were in tears. “As a woman I had an advantage over Western men because I was not viewed as a threat, which allowed them to let their guards down and for me to make much more headway training the farmers in permaculture.”

“Although we talk about people care, I find that most men shy away from nutrition, medicinals, kitchen gardens, flowers, etc., as it is viewed as women’s work, ‘less than’ or too ‘soft’ in some ways.” Lesley Byrne said. She emphasized the need for these elements in parts of the world where poverty is greatest. “We talk about the power of patterns and observation, but we really don’t address cultures and families as we should. This is where women have their own strengths, and I think it’s about time we use that to our advantage and create something new within permaculture.”

Indeed, women are experimenting with financially sustainable models for permaculture education and organizing that enable mothers and families to attend. Jeanine Carlson, co-founder of the Women’s Permaculture Leadership Initiative, outlined a model where there is morning childcare, shared lunch, then hands-on learning that includes the children in the community. “Children aren’t just tolerated but welcomed, honored, and educated,” she said.

Children planting pumpkins. Photo by Jeanine Carlson

Children planting pumpkins.
Photo by Jeanine Carlson

“We include the cost of childcare in tuition as we feel it is everyone’s responsibility to foster the future generations and accept how to incorporate them in community education models.” This model ensures the children are cared for by established local, licensed caregivers who are paid a generous living wage, yet the costs for childcare remain low for families. “We want to make permaculture and permaculture-related education increasingly accessible for women with young families as a potential source of livelihood, or as we call it, thrivelihood, so we model the potential for doing so. Who, save the mothers raising children, are more invested in our future generations’ potential to thrive?” Carlson says.


Pattern 7: Nurture women’s leadership through women’s gatherings

“The women’s permaculture gatherings have been really wonderful, and I recommend to women to find ways to get together and connect. Because it gives us a chance to get to know each other, find ways to support each other, it gives the women teachers the chance to get some prominence, it’s one of the important ways we can build a culture of support for women.” –Starhawk.

Associate Director of the Wildlands Program at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, Lindsay Dailey is co-founder of Villa Sobrante: a permaculture and natural building community and demonstration site. She relates her positive experience from women’s gatherings, “As I’ve come to embrace my own feminine qualities of receptivity and intuition, I am trusting myself more and more and enjoy surrounding myself with women who are walking their path and tuning into their power.”

“Few, if any forces in human affairs are as powerful as shared vision,” says Peter Senge, a guru for learning organizations. At the upcoming Northeastern Women’s Permaculture Gathering in the fall of 2013, articulating goals for women in permaculture will be one suggested theme. As women organize in regions, their voices can then shape the movement at large.

Pattern 8: Be an Ally

Jenny Pell learning from a Mayan elder

Jenny Pell learning from a Mayan elder

Jenny Pell, a former tree planter, helicopter pilot, carpenter, and yurt builder who now manages her growing full-service design/build company, Permaculture Now!, says, “I’m working with some awesome men right now who are being inspired by my leadership. I believe there’s a great appreciation for strong female guidance at this juncture, and the fact that powerful guys are turning to women for leadership really speaks volumes.”

Jenny, like all the women I encounter in permaculture circles, echoes my firm conviction: We are members in the guild of humanity with men whom we also want to flourish. Almost all interviewees, who voiced strong frustrations, also shared their appreciation for the men in their lives that had acted as allies by mentoring them or supporting their leadership.

Men are invited into the circle to learn about the dynamics of oppression, how sexism hurts women and men, and how to move from privilege by building their skills as allies. The pamphlet “Privilege and Allyship” from the Multicultural Resource Center at Oberlin College defines an ally as “a member of the ‘dominant’ or ‘majority’ group who questions or rejects the dominant ideology and works against oppression through support of, and as an advocate, with or for, the oppressed population.”

Men can be allies to women in many ways, and are especially invited to take an active role in anti-harassment policies, because men do most sexual harassment of women. “Sexual harassment is handled badly in two ways: when we ignore it, and when we communicate policies in a way that is too heavy handed,” according to Starhawk. EAT has a policy against teachers getting romantically involved with students during courses. They also set a tone early in the course by discussing healthy boundaries with students, like “no means no, and yes means yes.” They also invite people who can function as allies to self-identify. This creates safe space, clarifies expectations, and builds community. Indeed, one can become an ally to any historically marginalized group. By doing so, we manifest the Fair Share ethic by “sharing” our privilege!


Let me conclude this article by expressing my gratitude for the many women and men who provided input, inspiration, and support. Some day, I’ll share the longer version, which outlines a systems thinking approach that undergirds my analysis of problems and informs the solutions that I presented here. It also includes more compelling anecdotes from interviewees.

I look forward to ongoing conversations and co-evolution of the ideas presented here. It is my hope that this process of women drafting a self-determined pattern language for our engagement in permaculture will serve as a template for other historically marginalized groups to do the same–so that together with our allies, we can design a language for a truly inclusive, empowering, and regenerative movement.

The first annual Women in Permaculture in the Northeastern U.S. was  hosted by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY on from Oct 20-22, 2013. Omega also hosted the first Women’s Permaculture Teacher Training in the summer of 2015, and it will happen again in 2016.



  1. Cecilia

    I admit to only reading the first part of this article as it does not represent my experience. Here in Australia the majority of teachers and leaders in permaculture (in my experience) are female. But then permaculture started in Tasmania so maybe we’ve just had longer to evolve!

    • Retto

      I am just learning this now, and didn’t know Australia was the frontier in permaculture. The before and after pictures are so inspiring.

  2. DeepGreenGreenie

    Permaculture design is only part of the way forward. It’s the tool. But if the hands holding the tool are only men, then it is likely that nothing will change. If we are to move forward and fulfill what permaculture offers, then we desperately need women in leadership roles, women in equal partnership roles, women in dominant roles. These roles must not be “women in men’s pants” roles.

  3. I think that there is a distinct lack of people care in permaculture as it is generally practiced and a relationship between that and the lack of women in leadership roles. In it’self that is some pretty clear feedback; if we really were practicing people care, this wouldn’t be an issue. This article is a great step forward and I look forward to seeing this aspect of permaculture developed as it will only increase the value of permaculture to the world.

    • I agree….. I’m doing the PDC at the moment and have been brought to tears through the lack of people care. I guess I should be grateful because my 9 year-old daughter has been allowed to be there.

  4. Karryn… Bless you for writing this. It was overdue!

  5. Larry Saltzman

    An excellent article. I too have been frustrated by the lack of feminine leadership in permaculture. The over emphasis on the big male stars of permaculture, and a lack of appreciation of the women and men who stay in a place and deeply connect to a bio-region and build community is a mistake. My line that I use a lot is that “food forests are easy, community is hard.” I think too much permaculture design is connected a patriarchal pioneer mentality that is an unfortunate heritage that particularly influences Australians and Americans who romanticize the pioneer model.

  6. This is marvelous!! Thanks so much for speaking truth here and pointing the ways forward. Until we include the archetypal feminine and “women’s ways of knowing” not only to earth care but people care, we cannot succeed.

  7. I’m sad to have missed the Women in Permaculture in Northeastern USA conference when I was in Ithaca, NY at the time! I was going to write a piece on these issues myself when a quick google search lead me to this great piece!

  8. Absolutely Wonderful. Great Article. PLEASE restore the PDF link, I would love love love to download this for further reading. Thank you!

  9. Thank you for raising awareness of this huge issue. I look forward to hearing more dialogue about this. When I did my PDC in the UK in 1999, Pippa Johns my teacher said that she became a teacher because someone said there weren’t enough female pc teachers. This stuck with me and motivated me to teach pc. Now when we do teacher training courses there are often more women then men, sometimes outnumbered by 13 to 1! And still pc can seem quite male dominated. Sometimes it seems like the women hold more of the space for peoplecare, and has been refered to as ‘soft permaculture’. When I wrote my book People and Permaculture I was very conscious of trying to achieve a balance of the pragmatic and the intuitive that would appeal to both genders. Peoplecare is important for all of us to take on board. Certainly the gender gap is a big issue in relation to fair shares and I welcome some open dialogue about how this can be more achieved within permaculture circles. thank you

  10. Thank you so much for putting this together. Addressing this issue substantively and proactively is vital for the permaculture community – and beyond! I’ve often felt turned off by permaculture as a movement because it can start to seem like a male power trip after a while. Thanks for inspiring me to want to be a part of it with your well-researched essay.

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