Is Unconscious Bias Holding Agriculture Back?

Last week, I addressed a group of producers at a Dupont Pioneer dealer’s customer appreciation event. The objective of my presentation was to raise awareness of unconscious bias in agriculture and its impact on talent retention and social license.

At times, the presentation was uncomfortable, for those listening and for me. As women in a male-dominated field we are encouraged (often by ourselves) to not show weakness. We don’t share the encounters that make us uncomfortable or cause us to doubt our abilities because we don’t want to be perceived as complaining or unable to “hack it”.

However, if we truly love agriculture and desire to see it prosper, then few would disagree ensuring everyone within it, regardless of gender (or race, religion or sexuality) have equal opportunities to thrive. We also have to acknowledge the issue.

Enter unconscious bias. Even as I shared stories from women working in agriculture who have been subject to sexism and discrimination (from men and women), I made the mistake of directing a comment about the seed dealership to the male host, assuming he was the owner. As it turns out, he is an associate dealer and Laura is the primary. Shame on me.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 3.51.58 PMWe are so conditioned to expect men and women to fill certain roles on our farms, in our industry and in society we judge people and their competencies without even realizing it.

Often it’s harmless, like when the church ladies guffaw at choosing to be in the barn rather than the house or when a sales rep comes to the door asking for the boss.

Other times it’s downright discriminatory, like when hiring managers rule out women because they fear they will become pregnant and leave. And sadly, it can also be harassment as several women have shared stories of lewd remarks and inappropriate advances.

Luckily, it appears many of the horror stories from other industries aren’t present in agriculture. And a 2015 study by AgCareers.com found the percentage of people who felt gender inequality existed in agriculture was lower than that of business in general. Like many other studies on the topic though, there is a pronounced difference between the perception of its existence between  men and women.

Gender-inequality-in-agriculture
Although the cost of gender bias in agriculture hasn’t been explicitly quantified, one could easily argue it’s negatively impacted social license, talent retention and potentially even business results overall.

While moms and millennials have been identified as significant influencers of food trends (The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity), only 12% of major agricultural associations in Canada have female leadership (CAHRC). If “unconsciously, we tend to like people who look like us, think like us,” (Trang Chu) then there is reason to think the gender gap in agriculture leadership may be partially to blame for the current gap in understanding about modern farming practices.

Additionally, bias impacts people at a subconscious level, impacting their self-confidence and aspirations. Over time, negative bias will demotivate employees and even discourage them from striving for leadership opportunities. (See Companies Drain Women’s Ambition After 2 Years).

“When I was a feed rep, I got told by a farmer that my job was in the kitchen. Most things I took a grain of salt but made me realize I didn’t want to be part of the feed industry in that specific area and “changed” careers.”  Quote from a woman in ag.

With the current labour gap in agriculture (it’s estimated 59,000 positions are currently unfilled, costing the industry $1.5 billion in lost farm receipts), stories of women subjected to sexism deciding to leave the industry should be a hard pill to swallow. Add to this all the industry boards seeking volunteers to replace retiring directors and agriculture needs to attract new talent, not turn it away.

Finally, celebrating diversity and tapping into its innovative potential is what will make Canadian agriculture a global leader in the future. One only needs to look to the proven success of companies with women in leadership to see the opportunity which awaits the businesses and organizations in agriculture who make gender diversity and women’s leadership advancement a priority.

The challenge then is “how”? This is a topic we will explore in our next post, but it seems unanimous the first step is starting with awareness. Have you experienced bias in your workplace, sector or farm? Do you feel the agriculture industry is better or worse off than other industries when it comes to the existence of sexism and how its handled? Share your thoughts in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

-Jen C.

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One thought on “Is Unconscious Bias Holding Agriculture Back?

  1. Pingback: Can I talk to the man in charge? | Ag Women's Network

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