Is It Time Ag Boards Talk About Gender Quotas?

1-in-3-farmers-in-Canada-are-womenNoted as the “greatest progress women have made since gaining the right to vote”, Germany is the latest country to adopt mandatory quotas to increase gender diversity on their boards.  If public boards do not have at least 30% of seats held by women they are to be left vacant. If Canadian agriculture could achieve this, our boards would at least represent their members (approximately 30% of farmers in Canada are women).

Today, agriculture lags all industries in Canada, with the exception of construction and enterprise-management corporations, when it comes to women on our major corporations’ boards. That’s third last. Not exactly a position to be proud of nor one which we can expect will command a lot of respect as equality and leadership diversity are likely to become a greater focus going forward.

Are quotas the answer?

Board-diversity-quotasWhen I posed this question to our group, is sparked a rich discussion. Women shared  their experiences, debated the merits of a quota and began unpacking the current gender imbalance. The “Old Boys Club“is a common response to what’s preventing women from reaching leadership positions. It was cited most often in the Canadian Agricultural HR Council survey but what does that mean?

I don’t believe the men occupying the boardroom seats today are telling women they can’t be involved. Indeed, many women’s experience has been quite the opposite.

“I’ve never been discouraged to go on a board. Usually they’re happy to have someone step up.” – Karen Dallimore.

Talk of quotas also tends to lead to an assumption that merit no longer matters. Along with many other women, I believe it’s quite the opposite. Merit should always be the first hurdle before any other consideration is given. Women are always quick to point out they do not want to be selected based on gender over leadership.

I think we need to stop making this argument because it suggests there are those seeking promotion based only on gender, which is a ludicrous assumption. Then, it also discredits the work of every woman who has earned her seat at the table. I called this out in a large, agricultural publication’s article last month and with respect to Canada’s current female cabinet ministers, it bears repeating:

“…what’s to say the ones that are there aren’t as strong or stronger than their male counterparts? Just because there’s fewer, doesn’t mean they are any less qualified or deserving. Given the barriers they’ve likely overcome to win their seat, I don’t have an inkling of doubt they’re not up to the job or as fully qualified.”

Some maintain force is not the answer though, and it only promotes progress in the
metric being measured. During the recent World Economic Forum, Sheryl Sandberg addressed this on the Progress Towards Parity panel.

She cites Norway as an example where their quota has increased women’s participation on boards and in government, but it hasn’t helped increase the number of women in management or leadership positions in those organizations, which is equally important. For her, the motivation for diversity is a no-brainer due to the performance advantage diversity offers to companies and organizations


Is Agriculture Up to the Challenge?

One thing we can be certain of is that agriculture doesn’t like regulation. If mandatory quotas are not something you believe our industry should be entertaining, then it’s time you start looking at how you can increase diversity in your sector.

If you’re a woman interested in getting involved, but haven’t been brave enough yet to volunteer, then follow along with us this week. We will be sharing advice and inspiration from other women  who have been there. Tell us what you feel you need to feel prepared to
step forward, and we are committing to continuing to build on this conversation.


A screenshot from the Canadian Liberal Party’s campaign to recruit women to run for election. Source: Liberal Party of Canada

If you’re a man, then consider asking a woman to run for your organization’s board. “Invite her to run” was a successful campaign used by the Liberal Party of Canada to recruit women to run in the last election. They recognized women were 50% less likely to consider themselves a candidate for elected office, but encouragement from a friend could motivate them to consider.

Everything we know about how women tend to approach opportunities supports this could
work in agriculture. This HBR article goes into more detail examining the often quoted statistic: women will wait to apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the qualifications while men will apply if they meet only 60%. It also suggests more information overall about your organization’s nomination process could help increase recruitment.

The bright side is there is only one direction we can really move, and in the past few months we are proud to say many women in the Ag Women’s Network have stepped forward to help guide our industry forward. The question still remains whether we’re making progress fast enough or if we need a little push to make this a higher priority?

I’ve never supported quotas myself, but maybe it’s time we give them some serious consideration in agriculture. We often look to Germany for their leadership on technology in agriculture, perhaps it’s time we also consider their approach to leadership in general.

-Jen C.

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.