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A better workplace for women

In today’s tight labour markets, a workplace that attracts women employees may give your farm the edge you’re looking for

With the farm labour shortage expected to go from bad to worse all across Canada, farms that can attract untapped communities of job seekers may have a big advantage.

Which means women.

Women are Canada’s largest under-utilized pool of potential farm employees. The numbers prove it. Women make up only 36 per cent of the employees in primary agriculture — and an even smaller proportion once you get outside traditionally female roles like bookkeeping, marketing, human resources, and some livestock jobs.

So, being open to hiring women might help ease the labour shortage on your farm. But would women want to work on your farm?

When there is a labour shortage, farmers need to differentiate their farms from other farms, says Dr. Sara Mann, associate professor of strategic human resource management at the University of Guelph. They need to ask what could make their farm more attractive to potential employees, and to think hard about concrete steps they can take to achieve that differentiation.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary,” says Mann. “It could be working hours, working conditions, or the farm’s culture.”

While many argue that good HR policies will attract both sexes, Michelle Painchaud, a Winnipeg-based executive coach and HR consultant who specializes in agriculture, insists farmers would be wise to specifically ensure their policies and culture meet the needs of potential female employees.

“A good first place to start would be to create a culture that is inclusive of women taking non-traditional roles, a culture that embraces change,” asserts Painchaud.

Terry Betker, president of Backswath Management in Winnipeg, agrees. “Ask yourself what kind of place would make people feel safe, and put policies in place to create a respectful workplace for everyone. You have to walk the talk.”

According to Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s (CAHRC) online Agri HR ToolKit, some of the offensive behaviours to watch out for include:

  • Unwelcome physical, visual, or verbal behaviour.
  • Verbal or practical jokes, insults, threats, personal comments.
  • Touching, pushing, or any unwelcome physical contact.
  • Sexual acts, comments, or propositions.
  • Displaying offensive posters, pictures, or other materials in the workplace.
  • Offensive attitudes, such as leering.
  • Bullying or intimidating behaviour.

In addition to quashing these unacceptable behaviours, Betker recommends managers look around the shared common areas that employees use. Do you provide a lunch area? What kind of statement does it make? Are any pictures on the walls appropriate for everyone? Are the fridge and bathrooms clean?

The need for reducing sexism in agriculture is supported by the results of a 2015 online survey, Gender Roles and Equality in Agribusiness, conducted by AgCareers.com. Half of the women surveyed said they had experienced blunt sexism or discrimination in the workplace based on their gender.

There are several HR components that should be put in place to help ensure your farm is welcoming and inclusive. First, develop an employee manual that speaks specifically to a respectful workplace. This will make it easier to eliminate unacceptable behaviour, says Painchaud.

Also train family members and staff on the relevant clauses in employee contracts, and Painchaud recommends making sure everyone knows that disciplinary steps may be necessary for staff members who are disrespectful to other staff.

Since many women still shoulder the majority of domestic duties including childcare and elder care, policies that help female staff members create work-life balance are also helpful, Painchaud adds.

As well, clauses around offerings for maternity leave and flexible hours should be written into employment contracts. The desire by women for flexible hours and maternity leave, by the way, is also endorsed by both the 2016 CAHRC Supporting the Advancement of Women in Agriculture (SAWA) Needs Assessment and the AgCareers.com report on gender roles and equality.

It starts at the top

Creating an inclusive culture starts at the top, says Cathy Mak, vice-president of HR and compliance at Lakeside Produce, headquartered in Leamington, Ont.

“If you don’t have a supportive leader to integrate an inclusive culture, it’s not going to get very far,” says Mak. She says Lakeside Produce owner Chris Cervini, who has been hiring more women in a greenhouse sector that was predominantly male, simply does not tolerate inappropriate behaviour.

Cervini recently hired their first female greenhouse manager, and he hopes she will be able to advocate for other women and serve as a mentor.

Lakeshore employees are given some flexibility in their hours if they need to take care of childcare or other domestic responsibilities, and female employees are offered leadership development courses through the American Produce Marketing Association, which has specific streams for women.

Cervini emphasizes leadership development at all levels of the talent pool, says Mak, and women may be offered scholarships, mentorships or training to help them acquire new skills, including mechanics.

The opportunity to learn about machinery at a young age made the difference for Marg Rempel who has operated a grain and hog farm near Steinbach, Man., for 40 years. She got her first exposure to operating and maintaining equipment growing up on the farm, she says. “I learned how to do basic maintenance such as changing tires and cleaning an air filter. My father, who was a licensed mechanic, didn’t discourage me from sticking my nose in while he rebuilt a motor either.”

Later, when she had three young children, Rempel took a college course in large equipment operation and maintenance, and she says this course expanded her knowledge of good maintenance and operation practices.

Employers may also see a payback for offering opportunities for female employees to network wth each other and to be mentored.

When a farm has created an inclusive collaborative culture and flexible hours, these should be highlighted in a written Employee Value Proposition (EVP) to help recruit more women, says Painchaud. The EVP describes the mix of benefits and the appeal of working for an organization.

The EVP can then guide how you advertise and attract employees, and how you portray the farm during any interviews.

It should be fact-based, and can even include a quote or two from women working on their farm who can say they experienced a culture of collaboration and teams regardless of age or gender.

It’s not “one size fits all,” and it can appeal specifically to different groups of potential employees, Painchaud says. “The EVP should state that you embrace a diverse workforce, that you endeavour to help women grow their careers in the ag industry.”

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