Ag leaders lean in to gender equity

Across the country, women and men are not only identifying remaining barriers to equity, but also finding ways to make agriculture a more welcoming industry for everyone

While some young women were busy with family or other commitments to join an ag organization, in some cases they also felt like they weren’t welcome in their community, says one consultant.

Despite the incredible strides made by Canadian women in agriculture over the past decades, challenges persist for many. You don’t have to dig far to find stories of women being disrespected by salespeople, having trouble securing loans, or fending off sexual harassment at agricultural events.

One challenge that often comes up in the Ag Women’s Network is succession planning, highlighting how traditional definitions of farmers and ranchers persist in some families.

“There’s still some barriers when it comes to mindset in terms of being able transition farms into daughters’ hands,” says Jen Christie, chair of Ag Women’s Network, a non-profit offering resources and networking for Canadian women in agriculture.

“Women having recognition for the work that they’re doing and being considered equal parties in those conversations, there’s still some work to happen there.”

Work-life balance is a frequent topic of discussion for both producers and those with agribusiness careers in the Ag Women’s Network.

Jen Christie. photo: Supplied

“For a lot of farm women, there’s a third shift. Many of them work off-farm, they’re the primary caregiver when it comes to kids or elders and then they also have farm work, so it’s a real balancing act,” says Christie.

This challenge has only intensified for many women during the pandemic. “A lot of women have had to figure out who’s going to look after the kids if or when schools have been closed and trying to figure out how do they do that in a safe way and get the farm work done,” says Christie.

“Some have stepped back from their careers as a result of that, but you can’t really step away from the farm.”

The gender equality gap

In a 2019 survey by AgCareers.com on gender equality in agribusiness in Canada and the U.S., 75 per cent of women surveyed said they believe gender inequality exists in agribusiness, compared to 50 per cent of men. Sixty-one per cent of women reported experiencing overt sexism in their workplace, a figured that’s increased by more than 10 per cent from its 2015 survey.

In examining the respondents’ current base salary, men in agribusiness tended to earn more than their female counterparts. While 54 per cent of women surveyed believed they would be paid better if they were male, 82 per cent of men surveyed believed they would have the same salary if they were female.

Although more than 90 per cent of both male and female respondents said they felt the overall attitude toward women in agriculture was improving, only 31 per cent of all women surveyed felt they are well represented in the industry, with just 11 percent of women of colour agreeing.

In the Supporting the Advancement of Women in Agriculture Needs Assessment, research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) identified several barriers to women advancing to leadership positions. This included not having advancement opportunities, biases in others’ perception of women’s ability, lack of confidence in pursuing career advancement, difficulty in moving into the “old boys club,” lack of female role models in senior positions and mentorship opportunities, dealing with double standards and work-life balance.

After reading an extended list of possible barriers to advancement, participants in this study were asked to identify any barriers they experienced or witnessed. All the listed barriers were witnessed or experienced by 95 per cent or more of female respondents, the needs assessment states, while there were some listed barriers that no men reported experiencing or witnessing.

Similar to senior positions in agribusiness, the CAHRC research found that more women now hold leadership positions on agricultural association boards, but there is still low female representation in general. Reasons for this suggested by respondents include outgoing board members recruiting their own replacements (who tended to be men), low rate of turnover on boards and not being able to picture themselves in these roles due to a lack of female role models.

Getting more women on boards

“What we found was sometimes we need to take time to reach out and ask someone to become part of a board or an organization and to understand that they likely would help if they were asked,” she explains. “For some of these young women — yes, they were busy, they had young families — but for some of them, they really weren’t made to feel welcome in their community.”

While Bulloch has seen an increase in the number of women sitting on agricultural boards in Manitoba throughout the last two decades, she believes there are many more women with the needed skills, experience and perspectives for these leadership positions.

Wendy Bulloch. photo: Supplied

“It’s about how welcoming are you and how can you encourage people to become involved in your organization,” she says. For example, she recommends telling someone why you think they would specifically add value and be an ideal fit when asking them to become involved in your association.

Bulloch points to an example of an agricultural organization that she’s worked with closely, which has a number of women sitting on the board. “This particular board actually invited students to come and sit on the board. They had no voting power, but they were there to learn,” she says.

After this experience, the students, both male and female, were asked to join the board themselves and served for a period of time. “They brought a lot of knowledge and a lot of input.”

Just as welcoming environments attract new volunteers, so does the opportunity to connect with others and share your experiences. Ag Women’s Network serves as a forum for women in agriculture to learn from others. For many participants just knowing they’re not alone is valuable.

“Sometimes it’s really just to find a shoulder that they can lean on and talk to somebody who’s maybe had a similar experience or has been in a similar situation and get some advice on how to handle that situation,” says Christie.

Learning how others faced similar experiences can be helpful in building confidence to tackle challenges, especially when those who speak up about issues still facing women are sometimes shamed by their peers for doing so.

“If you’re the only one in the room, it can be really hard for you to speak up and raise your voice,” Christie says.

Often, advice given to women centres around tools and skills they can use to deal with these challenges. However, some feel it’s time for the onus to be placed on changing the structures and mindsets to be more welcoming and inclusive, rather than on women changing themselves to be accepted.

“This conversation has been happening for a long time, and it seems to be that we ask women to try to fix themselves to be able to fit within the industry or within the world and society that we live in, and I feel like we’re at the point today where we really need men to be allies in this,” says Christie.

With many commodity groups looking for new people to become involved, she says, current board members and staff can ask themselves if they’re actively making their organization a welcoming place for women to bring their skills and experience.

“When we look traditionally at how some of these organizations have operated, we’ve asked women to come to the meetings to make the meals. We’ve asked women to take the notes,” she says. “Maybe we need to look at some of those things and say, ‘No, actually we want you at the table as an active, participating voice, and we’re going to make this a place where you can do that.’”

Beef Farmers of Ontario take a stand

Jordan and Kate Miller and family. photo: Supplied

“Personally, I felt convicted to do something but I didn’t know what that looked like,” says Miller, who raises cattle with his family on Manitoulin Island and is the Beef Farmers of Ontario’s northern director.

“I was a little bit disappointed by the lack of reaction from the commodity organizations in agriculture and ag in general. I felt that it was a situation which deserved a response, and there just didn’t seem to be one.”

Miller contacted fellow BFO director Joe Dickenson to discuss what they could do that might have a meaningful impact, then brought this topic to the next board meeting, where it received a positive reaction from the directors and staff.

“It’s one of those topics that’s very politicized and presented in a very binary format, so I think it makes people apprehensive because you don’t want to be controversial and you don’t want the perception to be that you’re drawing attention to yourself just for your own benefit,” Miller says.

With the help of their marketing agency and various stakeholders, BFO developed a statement on diversity, equity and inclusion, released earlier this year. Part of the statement reads: “BFO is committed to advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion within the beef industry and the broader agri-food sector, and fighting racism and discrimination in all of its forms.”

The member response to BFO’s statement was very positive, says Miller, though they did receive a little pushback, which was expected. However, several other commodity groups in Ontario and across the country praised BFO for its statement and expressed interest in creating something similar.

After releasing the statement, BFO’s board members began diversity, equity and inclusion training with Bloom, a Toronto-based workplace design consultancy. Other beef industry stakeholders and representatives from the Ontario Sheep Farmers and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture are taking part in the training with BFO.

“It’s very well done and we’re getting over 50 people per session, talking about what diversity, equity and inclusion looks like,” says Miller.

Taking these steps is a priority for BFO, Miller says, because of the necessity of connecting with consumers, as well as the value in making everyone involved with and interested in beef production feel welcome.

“To me, our membership is not the only aspect of our value chain which we need to be concerned about,” says Miller. The beef industry needs to be approachable to customers, he adds, whether they’re “from the most inner core of downtown Toronto to Nunavut to people in other countries as we export our beef.”

Miller is encouraged that this discussion and actions are taking place, even if it isn’t easy or comfortable.

“There’s going to be times where we make mistakes and we regret what we say. There’s going to be times where we’re going to need grace from other people,” he says. “But I think it’s important that the conversations are happening and that we keep pushing through the growing pains.”

Embrace the awkward

“If we’re truly serious about this and we want to see more new people involved in our organizations and volunteering to give up their time to help the leadership of the industry, we need to be willing to do things a little bit differently and accept that the way we’ve done things in the past might not be the best way to do them in the future,” says Christie.

In a study at Utah State University in 2020, lead researcher Erica Ramsey Louder suggests that organizations and businesses can remove these barriers and create more inclusive atmospheres by “(encouraging) leaders and employees to examine internally held bias, particularly relating to gender, by allowing training and discussions on the topic.”

She advises ensuring compensation is equal between male and female employees within the same pay grade, offering paid family leave policies for all employees and considering ability and experience when assigning tasks and facilitating mentorship opportunities.

Ramsey Louder also has recommendations for female leaders who want to foster environments where women have greater opportunities to advance. Those recommendations include supporting each other in professional settings, offering mentorship to others and making a conscious effort to reach out to women who would bring value to new initiatives.

As difficult as it may be, it’s necessary to call out sexism or disrespect, and “at a minimum, agree as a business team to not work with those who don’t respect everyone on the team,” as stated in Ag Women’s Network online resource for dealing with unconscious bias and sexism in agriculture. Other tips include being willing to recognize your own biases, not assuming what role someone plays in their family’s operation and speaking up for other women.

Above all, the willingness to listen to others can make a difference. “When someone has experienced bias and they share it with you, listen. Don’t try to minimize the event or find reason. Half the battle is accepting bias exists,” the Ag Women’s Network resource continues. “Talk about it and don’t shy away if the conversation becomes awkward. Awkward conversations can lead to the best understanding, because you are being vulnerable in those moments and open to learning.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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