What is All This Conversation About Women in Ag About Anyway?

There’s been a lot of talk about women in agriculture lately. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council recently launched the “Supporting the Advancement of Women in Agriculture” project, the Advancing Women Conference has attracted over 1400 women in less than 2 years and and Country Guide recently featured us in their article “Agriculture’s Glass Cieling“.

Some are likely wondering though, “Why are we talking about this?” Women have the right to do whatever job they choose in agriculture. Are we creating an issue where this is none? We’re promoting equality, but are we in fact achieving the opposite by focusing on women? Why isn’t there a “Men’s Ag Network”?

All good questions if you’ve never worked in an environment where you are the minority. While more women are entering agriculture all the time, the industry is still predominantly led by men and though hard to believe, women continue to face prejudice daily. The issue can be particularly bad on farms, where women are treated as something less than their male counterparts. Countless women have shared stories of sales reps (male and female) ignoring them, insisting on talking to their husband or father, and not talking their role on the farm seriously.

Admittedly, the situation is better for women working in agribusiness, where most clients trust their reps based on their knowledge not gender, yet it still happens. Our industry has perpetuated this mindset and if this wasn’t reason enough, there is the fact of the shockingly low number of women in leadership roles in Canadian agriculture. In fact, only 8 of 65 national and provincial agriculture associations are led by women, women are underrepresented on industry boards and in corporate management, even though more women are enrolled in and graduating from life sciences programs, including agriculture, than men.

This isn’t about “replacing men” with women either. It’s about transforming agriculture so our best and most talented people, regardless of gender, have the opportunity to excel and reach their full potential in this industry. This isn’t possible without a culture of support and empowerment. People are motivated to try harder and reach further when they feel valued. It’s also important people believe they can succeed, so the more women see of others achieving success in agriculture, the more likely they will try that much harder. With many industries facing this bias, agriculture stands to attract the best talent going forward if we can embrace the strengths women bring to the board table.

This also means allowing more women to be at the table. Just because there’s one, that doesn’t mean there can’t be more and sadly, women might be one of the biggest culprits of this mentality. Luckily, for every story I hear of a “queen bee” in agriculture, I hear many more of women leaders giving a boost to those coming up the ranks. These leaders recognize that high tides rise all boats, and providing support and encouragement to other young men and women only leads to further success for the whole industry. They believe there is value in sharing their experiences and ensuring others learn from their mistakes. Unfortunately, even with these female leaders keen to help, they may not always be easy to reach out too for young women starting out in their careers.

This is where the Ag Women’s Network comes in. Though still in our infancy, there is a real need in the agriculture industry today for women to have a safe forum to network, learn from one another and support each other’s ambitions. In doing so, women are empowering each other to not only face day-to-day challenges, but preparing themselves to possibly step up to tackle greater, industry-wide challenges. And although there are women’s professional groups and many agricultural organizations, none are serving the intersection of both.

One of the goals of the Ag Women’s Network is to organize events “closer to home” for women working in rural Ontario to network with each other first and meet leaders within our own industry. We also want to keep our events and discussion as  accessible as possible to any woman in the industry. High profile networking organizations, such as the Women’s Executive Network, provide amazing speakers, but their venue (downtown Toronto) and price tag (upwards of $100) can be prohibitive for young women in agriculture to attend.

Finally, I think there is also considerable opportunity for women in agriculture to engage in more conversation with those outside our industry. Empowering women to step forward might also mean more women telling agriculture’s story. Without question, that’s something the whole industry can benefit from.

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