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A question of equity

Ag corporations are making strides toward gender equity. What will it take on the farm?

With a young family, Steph Towers was told not to run for a board position. “We are shoved into a box by people who tell us we don’t have time.”

In our November issue, Saskatchewan farmer Jean Harrington triggered terrific online response — and some pushback — with her blunt assessment that today’s young farm women aren’t doing enough to break down barriers for women in agriculture. So we want to know, what exactly would gender equity on the farm look like?

“I actually understand Jean’s comments,” says Steph Towers, a young farmer from southwest Ontario. “My generation has the idea that if you just put your head down and work hard enough things will work out. We weren’t exposed to the real injustices, to the real inequalities women faced back then. Those were stories we heard.

“It’s hard to fight something you’re not sure exists. But as more of us get out in the industry, we see the challenges and barriers and become more aware that we need to be part of the change.”

Towers grew up on a hog farm and then worked six years on a large dairy before becoming herdsperson and HR director for Mackvilla Farms Ltd., the 120-cow dairy she and her husband Cameron run along with his family near Glencoe, a half hour west of London. At 31, she and Cameron have two small children, three years old and four months, and she spoke to me from her truck (hands-free) as she ferried the toddler to daycare.

Towers believes some things are better for women than they used to be, particularly in terms of employment in the industry. She points to Dairy Farmers of Ontario, an organization that boasts solid gender equity policies and is staffed largely by women in leadership and support roles. As for the boards and the committees that give direction to that staff and act as spokespeople to government… well, not so much.

DFO has only two women on their board of 12 directors.

There might be a reason. Towers now serves on her local producer committee, but was initially discouraged from doing so by the perceptions of others. “I was told you can’t run while you’re pregnant, and later that I shouldn’t run because it would be unfair to my children,” she says.

“In a corporate setting you simply could not say those things.”

No guff. Apparently the attitudes of previous generations are still very real; so, too, the concerns.

A Women in Food and Agriculture (WFA) survey released in December 2019 by AllTech reveals that gains have been made around the globe, but as with most recent studies — and we have been studied to death lately — a large majority of women in agriculture feel that big barriers remain to their career progress, including the gender pay gap, and the lack of mentors and a strong network.

Only half of women feel they are well represented in leadership of their organization, and only 43 per cent feel well-represented in the agri-food industry as a whole. No surprise, men generally feel women are better represented in all categories. Yet in Canada, as was mentioned in our November issue, the percentage of women in leadership roles across every part of the industry is significantly lower than either of those numbers.

FCC has a new $500 million fund for women entrepreneurs. Other groups are offering programs too. But it’s only a start. photo: Jeff Brown/Ridgetown Independent News

It makes the objectives of the study a bit opaque. What do we gain by tabulating respondent perceptions of the workplace while providing no actual numbers to compare those perceptions against? Just because people think there are more women in leadership roles, that does not make it true.

In fact, an August 2017 Harvard Business Review article assessed five studies and found that, “seeing progress for women’s representation in top leadership (either spontaneously or after reading an article) leads both women and men to think that women have greater access to equal opportunities. This overgeneralization of progress, in turn, makes people less worried about the persisting inequalities that women face daily, across a variety of domains at work and beyond… These findings are worrisome because people’s concern with inequality ultimately predicts their willingness to address it.”

Respect and flexibility

Perhaps Steph Towers’s sense of things gone awry is warranted. With a marketing background, Towers now cobbles together jobs that “fit into the existing pattern of things: the farm, the family, all of it,” she says. But she wants to engage in the larger agricultural industry.

“Just because we have more on our plates doesn’t mean we can’t do the job. We are shoved into a box by people who tell us we don’t have time. But they need to set things up so we have the option and then let us make our own decisions about what’s best for our families,” she says. “The barriers are still there to equality in ag for women, so we need to create the environment where the door is open, and then it’s up to us to step through it.”

“We need more respect for women in agriculture who have a lot on their plate,” Towers continues, indicating reliable, affordable rural childcare with flexible hours would be a start for women with small children. And for all women, an understanding of the nature of their lives is key to their engagement both on farm and in the industry.

“We need to introduce flexibility that allows us to work from home and to use technologies that exist. There is still an emphasis on face-to-face meetings but that doesn’t work for women who have complex schedules and who live far from the venue. A video call instead would mean I don’t have to travel and I can still meet other demands.”

“The barriers are still there,” Towers says. It’s time to open the door, “and then it’s up to us to step through it.” photo: Jeff Brown/Ridgetown Independent News

Within industry Towers would like to see a formalized training plan around gender equity for boards and committees, and she believes a corporate approach could even work at the farm level.

“Farming is a business, so why not have policies like any corporation?” she asks. “We have to follow Government of Ontario labour laws, so how is this any different?”

You could argue this might be hard to do within family operations, but perhaps policies and procedures would give clarity to everyone involved as women transition into the farm through marriage.

An industry-wide code of conduct is also needed, she says, citing the example of a salesman who showed up, watched her walk across the yard in her rubber boots and milking bib, and asked if the men were home because he needed to talk to someone who could make decisions. “I kicked him off the farm,” she says, adding, “The onus is on us to demand how we are treated.”

Whether women should have to make such demands becomes a moot point when faced with this kind of behaviour. It happens a lot. According to the WFA survey, almost half of women respondents have been mistaken for someone in a lower level position, compared to 27 per cent of men. If you aren’t a farm woman, you have no idea how much this pisses farm women off, and the irony is that many encounter this from people employed by agri-businesses that have internal gender equity policies.

Can the Syngenta’s show the way?

It turns out farm women and corporate executives aren’t that far apart on their vision for the future for women in agriculture. Industry standards are what Nancy Tout would like to see as well. The head of research and development with Syngenta Canada, Tout also leads their North America diversity and inclusion champion network. Born and raised in rural southwest Ontario, she participates in many capacities related to women in science and innovation in the agriculture industry.

She applauds all the networking and conferencing women are doing, but says, “We need to see changes in the workplace and at the board table because otherwise we’re having the conversations without any action.”

To that end, she organized Syngenta’s first Catalyst to Connect in 2017, bringing women together to facilitate discussion leading to action. While participants talked about the larger structural and social barriers to women in agriculture that Steph Towers mentioned, Tout was surprised to find women at all levels still dealing with the antiquated bad behaviour of men, basic sexist actions and attitudes that she thought were a thing of the past.

Yes, those attitudes, this year.

Is Jean Harrington wrong to say we haven’t come as far as we thought? Having dealt with these same issues as a young woman in agribusiness 30 years ago, and seeing the results of all these studies and consultations, it’s hard to argue with her assessment.

There’s more at stake than women’s careers. Nancy Tout insists that addressing this behaviour and moving toward gender equity is critical for women, but it’s also paramount if industry wants to take advantage of a projected $11 billion potential growth in agricultural technology.

“If we don’t make the industry inclusive, we won’t attract the best talent to tackle food security challenges, environmental sustainability and technology for agronomics,” she says. “From an innovation perspective we need a diversity of minds for product development and marketing.”

Under Tout’s lead, Syngenta is attempting to move toward inclusivity and diversity by establishing a specific matrix; understand the challenges, develop a strategy, and measure outcomes. The company supports grassroots groups of female employees and provides professional development and mentorship programs. Syngenta voluntarily publishes a gender pay gap report examining both salaries and benefits in its operations around the world. It’s a means of measuring the problem in order to find remedies.

“What gets measured tends to improve,” Tout says, a succinct way of indicating that good intention is not enough when it comes to addressing gender equity in agriculture. And Syngenta has by no stretch reached equity, something difficult to do with offices around the globe. While pay equity is mandated in some of the countries Syngenta works in, Tout admits many North American women don’t like mandates and quotas. But she supports them in some cases.

“We can be inclusive, or we can be intentionally inclusive,” she says. “Sometimes we need regulations or policies to spark that initial action.”

Do women merit a shot?

Define the challenges, make a strategy and measure the results. It sounds like a plan that could be implemented from a large corporation right down to the farm. But Steph Towers balks at the mention of quotas. “That’s a tough one. We don’t want to get something just because we are women. We need to merit it.”

But do we say this about men who have jobs? Do they all “merit” their position?

“It’s up to you to walk through the door, but the door has to be open,” Towers admits. “If it’s locked and bolted, it shouldn’t be up to you to figure out how to unlock it.”

In fact, some studies (reviewed in another HBR article March 2019) indicate that corporate meritocracy actually increases bias against women because it allows companies to deny workplace inequalities exist and to claim the under-representation of women is because of their own choices or inferiority.

Clearly it’s complicated, and Nancy Tout suggests solutions cannot be found by women alone. With little forward movement after the initial Catalyst conference, she says, “We had an ‘aha!’ moment. If it was up to us (women) we could move forward right away. But that’s not how it works and we need the men in the conversation.”

Love him or hate him

Some men are part of the discussion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the bar by ensuring gender equity in the Liberal cabinet in Ottawa, and this focus reaches across all government agencies, including the department of agriculture. Last year the federal government announced $500 million over three years for FCC’s Women Entrepreneur Loans Program to address the barriers farm women have in accessing capital.

This program is aimed at women farmers, agribusiness owners and those in food-related businesses. A one-time loan processing fee waiver is provided with the intent that money will be used to access skill development with access to capital available to new and existing businesses and farm women.

Candace Hill, manager of brand planning and execution at FCC, says the majority of initial uptake is from women in primary agriculture, which she says is interesting since the research found farm women have significant barriers beyond those faced by women in other parts of the industry, such as distance to urban centres and lack of childcare, as Steph Towers mentioned.

FCC conducted research in collaboration with EDC, BDC and provincial Women in Agriculture groups and found an abundance of available information, but the biggest challenge was an overall lack of awareness of how to access it.

“There are training, learning and financing options out there, but women have to know where to start and who to trust,” Hill says, so FCC created a consolidated list, with links to organizations and development opportunities. “It’s a launch pad.”

These are only a couple of government-based initiatives. Is it enough? Not likely. But maybe embracing such efforts is what action looks like, lobbying whoever is in power for the things women need to be successful.

This series began with the honest and astute observations of Leigh Rosengren in our November issue. “I can’t be your shadow,” she told her husband. “It isn’t enough for me.”

Define the challenges. Make a strategy. Measure the results. In taking these steps farm organizations, farm businesses, and perhaps most importantly for farm women like Steph Towers, farms themselves can ensure women have the opportunity to step into the daylight.

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