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.

Ag Hall of Fame – Where are all the Women At?


The OAC describes Laura Rose as “instrumental” in modernizing dairy. Photo source: Ontario Agricultural College

Today, the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame inducted five deserving men into their ranks. Among them, a man known as the “father of 4-H” in Canada, the late E. Ward Jones. Though 4-H started over 100 years ago as a Boys club, it quickly morphed into the Boys and Girls Clubs and today, Canadian 4-H membership boasts a slightly higher percentage of female participation over males.

Sadly, this level of equal representation is not yet the norm everywhere in agriculture and the Hall of Fame is no exception. The Mission of the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame is to “honour and celebrate Canadians for outstanding contributions to the Agriculture and Food Industry and to publicize the importance of their achievements to Canada.” Since its inception in 1960, no more than four women have been inducted:

All four have made formidable contributions to agriculture in the areas of animal breeding, journalism and home economics. One cannot help but wonder though why there aren’t more women’s portraits hanging on the gallery walls?

Just last year, the Ontario Agricultural College celebrated 140 years with a campaign called “140 Faces of OAC“. I distinctly recall many other women featured in this campaign who had made incredible and fascinating contributions to agriculture. Laura Rose, an expert “butter maker”, pioneer in modernizing dairy and the namesake for the Women’s Institute’s Rose program. Sarah Potter, who was not only an instructor but modelled over 900 fruits and vegetables from wax to be used as teaching aids (that in itself deserves recognition in my opinion).  Closer to my current home, there’s Susannah Isabella Steckle, who planted the first commercial orchard in Waterloo, after being the first female agriculture graduate from the OAC.

Where are these women among the Hall of Fame inductees?

We cannot fault the Hall of Fame alone. Their role is to select from the nominations received and nominations come from the industry. Two of the above women were nominated by the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario, but the responsibility should not rest solely with them. All agricultural associations and corporations should be stepping up to recognize the women who have made notable impacts on agriculture, lest they be forgotten.

Designing a company for working moms

Norah and I in May.

Norah and I in May.

The spring I took part in an essay contest that asked women to write about balancing family and their career, and what can be done to help. I took a lot of input from the events and comments from the Ag Women’s Network (thank you!), and I really enjoyed putting my experience in writing. I didn’t win, but I wanted to share my “so what” part of my essay with you, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

…”Even though all corporations hope to make money, not necessarily raise families, I don’t think it’s a lost cause. Just as Google is the gold standard for employees who value work-life balance, there is a ripe opportunity for employers to become the ‘Google’ for women with families. A smart company could make generous parental leave polices a selling feature to attract top talent.

If I could design such a forward-thinking company, it might look like this: Full top-up pay for the duration of maternity leave. Offer subsidized day care support, and flexible schedule options. Reduced travel demands on parents with young children, or shorten the length of out-of-town work trips.

This company would also support and encourage fathers to take more active parenting roles, and offer a matching parental leave for dads. Managers would encourage and pay for employees to attend networking events and professional development courses while on leave.

Ideally, young men and women would be given multiple opportunities to learn about their maternity and parental leave options. Employees would be encouraged to openly discuss their family plans with their managers and design a career plan that would compliment it.

New parents would also be permitted to keep their company phones, computers and email accounts while on leave, so they can stay connected if they choose.

It may not make their brochure, but small improvements such as reserved parking for pregnant women could help, too.

Most mothers understand that choosing to have a family can mean sacrifices in other areas. But employers could take many steps to soften the impact child rearing has on their employees’ careers, and instead make the experience as joyful and fulfilling as it should be.

Four months into maternity leave, I’ve tightened my purse strings and am surviving on a reduced income. I’m taking part in networking events as much as possible, and meeting up with my colleagues as often as I can. I’ve subscribed to industry newsletters and read blogs to stay sharp, too.

Significant changes may take time, but I believe progress can happen while I’m in my child-bearing years. By my next pregnancy, I know I will still be willing to go into the office on the day I’m in labour. But I hope, if that happens, it will be a moment to celebrate for both my company and myself.”

The winning essay can be found here.

-Kate Mercer

Here I am. Making it in a man’s world.

Ladies - you can do it!

Special thanks to Ryan Hicks for my very own “Rosie the riveter” poster!

Later this month, I will be addressing Ontario students at the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) conference on this topic, and in preparation, I’ve been thinking all week about what I may say. How AM I doing it? I’ve been trying to identify what has set me apart from other women and not just resort to fitting my own experience to the advice we’re told today to heed. I don’t have stories of extreme discrimination or feel I’ve had to fight for where I am. I worked hard, asked for what I wanted and took opportunities that came my way. Here I am.

 Despite the real challenges we face as women in agriculture, for the most part I have never felt limited personally. I was lucky to have some incredible managers early on who believed in me, supported my ideas and opened doors for me I might never even known existed. This wasn’t entirely by chance though either. My first summer job was more about the network and working in another part of Canada than it was the actual work. I filed expense reports and stuffed envelopes. Though there were some perks, it certainly wasn’t a glamorous job in of itself.  Despite this, I went to work with a “can-do” attitude which was recognized by that manager when it came time for me to embark on a full-time job after school.

At John Deere, this same work ethic, desire to learn and pursuit of excellence meant every last detail was covered. I was often the last to leave the office and constantly was on the lookout for opportunities for improvement. I have never been scared to speak up, ask for what I want and expect I can accomplish anything I set my mind on. I put in five years, criss-crossing the country, attending countless events, meeting customers and pushing for more Canadian content whenever there was a break in conversation. The scale of what I was trying to accomplish now seems dwarfed but the impression I left with coworkers has lived on. I can undeniably connect my “fans” and sponsors internally to those years, so the effort paid off.

“Did I work harder than my male counterparts though?”, is the question. I traveled every other week for a solid 3 years, and I actually loved it. For some people that would be gruelling, but when you enjoy what you do it`s not hard work. There is no doubt, it would`ve been harder if I had a family. I was told recently, “that’s why you’re so successful”.

And while I can`t help but notice the number of women in leadership positions without children, I see many others who master both and do it well. I can`t begin to predict what the success factors are for this though because I don`t have a family. I`ll find out when I do. I will still be determined and driven to succeed when I have kids. I poured five years of my life into my job. Then I poured nearly two years into my MBA. I’m no further ahead nor behind my male or female coworkers. I’m here. And it’s a good place to be.

It’s easy to focus on why it’s difficult to be a woman in any industry, let alone agriculture. There are countless articles on the subject. Not as often mentioned are the benefits to working in a traditionally male sector. The benefits go well beyond never having to wait in line at the bathroom.

 Why it’s Worth Being A Woman In a Man’s World

You stand out. As many women as there are entering agriculture as a career, there still seem to be a disproportionately low number at industry events, and internally within my own company’s events. This means you are more likely to stand out and be remembered. Time and time again, I find people know me by name and remember me, especially if I’ve spoken up at the event. If you’re trying to advance your career or get your ideas heard, this memorability is a great asset because people will seek you out when they have an opportunity they think you could assist with.

You “get” who the real decision maker is. While only 26% of Canadian farm operators are women, I know many more farms where the women play a key role in the decision-making regardless. Despite this, I hear countless stories still of salesmen ignoring them or treating them like their questions or comments are frivolous. We know better. We spend just as much time getting to know the women in the business and addressing them in conversation, not just because we know they get it but it’s just plain rude otherwise.

You have unlimited opportunities. Right or wrong, the focus on equality in the workplace has led many companies to actively look for skilled, intelligent women leaders to promote. If you know their “rules” (ie. mobility is huge at my company), then you literally have limitless opportunity. You still have to work just as hard as any other employee, male or female, to earn it but chances are there will be more options available to you than ever before.

You fly under the radar. I don’t disagree being talked down too, minimized and downright ignored sometimes makes me wonder if it’s 1950 instead of 2015. Admittedly, there are times, I have found this gross underestimation of my knowledge an advantage though.  I’ve learned a lot by asking questions when I think it was assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about. (I’m sure there were also times I really didn’t know what I was talking about!)  I would bite my tongue and soak as much information in as I could in the moment. At the very least, this made it especially easy for me to say “no” to sponsorships when the pitcher failed to realize I was the boss (see point 2 above).

You will see things no one else will. I read a Forbes article that stated “women see opportunity in everything and everyone”. Many of the future business opportunities, not only in agriculture but all industries, will solve social problems. Women are more likely to face the problems, recognize and can therefore address the situation first. Look around the agriculture industry and you will find women tackling the toughest challenges. Women like Alison Sunstrom and Chetna Sinha, who are worlds apart and yet see gaps in the industry for which they have ideas and are determined to make the world better by closing. Women, like Fawn Jackson, are leading sustainability efforts at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and as the primary grocery buyer, like Jennifer Carlson, are making food better for their family. However small it may seem, you will make an impact that will be profound in its own way, and possibly change not only the industry, but the world.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

-Jen C

Moms with (ag) Jobs

No more canning!

On Tuesday, February 17, fourteen women gathered in a meeting room at the OMAFRA building in Woodstock, ON to talk about maternity leave and how it impacts the agriculture industry.

Although extreme temperatures meant our guest speakers were unable to attend (barn freezes abound!), we were fed a delicious hot meal of lasagne and had an excellent open discussion and were able to reflect on the results from the recent survey that aimed to get a pulse on maternity leaves in the ag sector.

The audience was fairly diverse; two full-time farmers and twelve members of the ag industry, of which four were mothers.

Some interesting issues were brought up from a farmer perspective:

  • There is flexibility to choose whether to continue working on the farm or taking time off and still living on the farm, but many choose to continue working. This means babies and toddlers are taken out to barns and fields alongside their moms.
  • Isolation can become an issue. Mom & Tots events are not easy to attend when you live in a rural area. It takes more time, and also means leaving your work on the farm. Drop in events are easier to attend than scheduled ones because they provide you with flexibility to deal with farm issues as they arise.
  • Ask other families and farmers about rural community programs and co-op child care options.

From an industry perspective, it was fairly clear that most felt uncomfortable broaching the subject of maternity leave policies with their managers or Human Resources, and instead would welcome the HR groups to be more proactive and transparent in their communications with employees. Perhaps giving employees the option to ask questions anonymously would be a good start.

There was overwhelming support from the group to standardize a maternity leave policy across the industry to be more family centred. Agriculture could become the “Google” of maternity leaves – in-office child care, top up support, flexible hours, short weeks in the low-season, job sharing, and more. It could give the industry something to advertise about and tell women from outside of ag, “you want to work here!”.

We also discussed the pressure faced by women in client or customer-facing roles who have to entrust their relationships with someone else for the year they are away. Thanks to social media, customers can still keep in contact with you over your leave, but it also invites them to add pressure for your return. It was mentioned that a more team-based approach to customers could help relay this concern, opposed to a solo-contact approach.

There was an interesting question posed as to how will the rise of contract work (versus a full-time position) alter maternity leave policies. In some organizations, full-time roles are getting reduced and with that maternity leaves. However, other businesses are investing heavily in their people, as they recognize the competitiveness of the industry and wanting to retain as much talent as possible. The next few years will be interesting to watch as the economy flattens and commodity prices stay low.

A comment was made that women who don’t have children need to advocate for those who do, the same going for men. We all want to have the best talent in the industry, which means supporting women who choose to have families and careers in agriculture. This also means women need to stop judging other women’s family decisions, such as going back to work or not going back to work and using the full year of maternity leave or not. Let’s just support them however we can!

As the first generation of women who come back to work after maternity leaves, there are opportunities that need to be explored and capitalized on. It’s no longer an Old Boy’s Club.

We are seeing more men take active roles in parenting which should help reduce the stigma of women being able to have a career and a family.

So, where do we go from here? We need to hear more from women who have had families and returned to their same roles. How did that feel? How were you received? If you had another child, what was the reaction from your employer when you told them you were expecting again?

We also need to make use of support groups such as Women in Heels (please send a link if anyone has local connections).

We can add topics specific to women at ag events and shows such as FarmSmart, for example, how to navigate Employment Insurance while on maternity leave, family planning or child care on the farm. Let’s leave the “canning” and “cross stitch” topics out, though!

Providing a mini-orientation to a woman after returning from maternity leave would help her get reacquainted with any changes that may have occurred over the year and ease the transition for the person who was covering her role, too.

We can also take the opportunity learn about other regions and sectors who have supportive maternity leave policies and share these with our HR groups. We can help develop the systems for us and women who want families in the future.

So, please add your comments if you couldn’t attend and if you have experiences that would help us. The survey results can be found here.

-Kate Mercer