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Where are the farm women?

The research is incontrovertible. Diversity creates strength. So why aren’t we making greater strides at getting farm women involved?

I’m one of a dozen women sitting around a long boardroom table. The surroundings are completely unfamiliar and slightly intimidating. We politely watch a video and quietly chat with one another about our farms, succession, our families and, of course, the weather.

The woman across from me taps tentatively on the little microphone that seems to pop magically out of the board table in front of each seat, and then looks around hoping the mics aren’t on. Another quickly jumps up and tidies the plates after lunch. The lady beside me gently puts her arm around the grandson she has brought along (she’s providing daycare for her daughter today) and a younger woman involved in organic production sits confidently unaware in the chairman’s spot.

The Chicken Farmers of Ontario has invited this group of women to network and to tour the head office as a way to encourage more females to step up to board positions. It’s part of the group’s ongoing strategic plan to increase the diversity of its governing body.

Having more females on the board would better represent the CFO’s membership that is close to 50:50 male and female, says CFO chairman Ed Benjamins. However, over the years this board, like most commodity boards, has only had a few females involved on a district level, and never any female directors sitting around the board table. “We need to bring some diversity and different thinking and different perspectives on leadership to our board,” says Benjamins, who grows broilers and crops near Moorefield, Ont.

To encourage this shift, the CFO has hosted meetings, invited special female leadership speakers to the AGM, and pushed the mandate on social media. Benjamins says they are still at the planting stage and hopes these efforts will result in a future harvest with a top-quality, more diversified talent base for the CFO board. There are signs of success already. This spring two female farmers were selected to represent districts.

The CFO’s push is part of a larger trend toward increasing diversity on business and organization boards. It’s a trend that goes way beyond agriculture.

The Canadian Board Diversity Council’s 2016 Report Card revealed that women today hold 21.6 per cent of FP500 (Financial Post’s list of the top 500 companies by revenue) organization board seats, up from 19.5 per cent in 2015.

To stimulate this upward trend, the CBDC put together a list of 50 women who are qualified to fill board positions, and it offered board training for females.

Numerous studies have linked boardroom diversity with better financial performance, governance and innovation. Benjamins agrees: “We are trying to attract the best people by broadening our base,” he says. “To include women is the right and smart thing to be doing.”

In spite of recent efforts, agriculture is still lagging behind, even at the large supply company level. The CBDC’s report showed companies in our sector are dead last in diversity. The top publicly traded companies in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting have only 12.8 per cent females on their boards.

However, building a more diverse board membership takes time, with concerted effort and a shift in thinking by everyone. This is especially challenging for farm boards when the number of farmers has been steadily declining for decades and the boards are still dominated by the baby boomer farmers who are mostly men.

The effect on board gender diversity is amplified because networks tend to pull and develop leaders that they know, (in other words, who are like themselves). The CBDC reported that nine in 10 directors rely on their personal networks of other senior male executives to fill board vacancies, rather than investing in a thorough recruiting effort.

Getting anyone of any gender or background to step up to leadership roles on farm boards can be difficult, but there’s also a bigger barrier if there are few role models. “You can’t aspire to be something you cannot see,” says Jen Christie who is event chair for the Global 4-H Network Summit and previously was a manager for John Deere.

To make it even more challenging, it’s been shown that it takes three women on a board for a woman to have any impact and not just be a token position. If that happens, retention becomes a problem. “People are more likely to stay in organizations that have people that look like them,” said Christie, who titled her recent presentation to a Canadian Association of Farm Advisors meeting in Woodstock, “Can I talk to the Woman in Charge.”

Christie notes the number of women involved in the agricultural industry has been steadily increasing, with more than 60 per cent of graduates from the University of Guelph’s agriculture programs for the last decade.

This increase in young women engaged in the industry is mirrored in the Ag Women’s Network, an online group that Christie helped create and chairs, which has ballooned to over 1,700 members in just a few years.

The statistics are showing a much slower rate of change. In 2016, the ag census recorded 28.7 per cent, or 77,970 female farmers in Canada, while in the U.S. close to a million female farmers were counted in 2012. Partly the slow pace of change is due to continued consolidation. Canadian farm numbers shrank six per cent in the last five years to less than 194,000, about the same population as Kelowna, B.C.

The spread in scale and the decreasing number of farms is being driven by technology and economics. Fewer farmers are producing more and more. Using the 10:90 rule of thumb, that’s less than 20,000 farms producing 90 per cent of our food and fuel, says Rene Van Acker, dean of OAC.

Van Acker is already seeing a drop in the amount of farm-raised talent going through OAC programs — at the same time that the demand for farm-raised graduates is increasing. This is a problem at the very root of our future, and it requires the industry to become more diverse, including gender.

“So much of what we do and where we want to go is about people capacity,” says Van Acker. “Diversity is a sign of a robust and healthy sector.”

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