As remarks go, it was decidedly crude, so even though it was some years ago now that she first heard it, the memory still rankles Beth, especially because she’s so much more aware now how it fit into a pattern.
The day had been a workday like any other in any professional agricultural office. There were back-to-back meetings and deadlines, and Beth had also managed to connect with a business contact who had information that was essential to a project she was working to complete.
On the call, Beth took good notes and asked educated questions. When she was finished, she closed her notebook.
“Thanks,” she said. “I owe you one.”
There was the briefest pause on the other end of the line.
“Just wear a nice, tight sweater to the next meeting,” the man said. “That’s all the payback I need.”
Beth also remembers how she felt around her colleague after that. More than once she heard him brag that his company had sent him for sensitivity training a few times.
“But,” he chortled, “it never stuck.”
“He is a powerful person in the industry, and I felt uncomfortable when he would look me up and down in meetings,” Beth says. “Sometimes he’d say, in a sleazy way, ‘you’re looking really good.’”
Today, I still have to conceal Beth’s name to protect her from the consequences, so when I hear her story, I ask, as an industry, have we moved beyond that kind of behaviour?
Sometimes it seems the answer is yes. Sometimes it’s not even close.
Today, Beth is a successful executive in a small Ontario-based seed company. Encounters like the one above didn’t keep her down for long, nor have the other negative experiences she’s had along the way.
Still, when she’s standing alongside a male farmer who says about a new female sales rep, “she’s good looking — I’d let her on the farm,” it’s a reminder that for some men, a woman’s professional credentials take a backseat to the value of her physical appearance.
Beth still cringes when she thinks about the hours she had to spend while driving to meetings so she’d have some responses prepared for a particular man who would be there and who often made comments like, ‘you need to find a husband so you can buy a house’ or ‘did you come to make us lunch?’
She would rather have spent the time thinking about sales strategy, or working on what she needed to do to make the meeting successful and productive.
“Instead,” she says, “I was worried about how I would interact or deal appropriately with this man who made a point of making me feel like I just wasn’t welcome in the industry.”
And then there are the clients. Beth recalls a meeting her entire sales team once had with a farmer who was important to the company’s business. At dinner, and throughout the evening, the client made multiple advances toward Beth’s female colleague. No one on the team knew how to react.
“I find it’s the small, unremarkable pieces of sexism that build up over time… they weigh on me until it feels insurmountable,” Beth says. “I never officially reported any of it because I felt like I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and it wouldn’t change anything. I didn’t want a reputation that I was difficult to work with.”
Beth, like most people interviewed for this article, reported largely positive working relationships with the males in their professional circles. But everyone interviewed could also refer to a time when a boundary was crossed, when a person’s gender was a factor in a challenging situation.
“Women should succeed in this sector because they have the necessary skills and experience, not because they’re strong enough to endure the sexism,” Beth says.
Home on the farm
Mary worked for more than two decades in crop protection before deciding to partner with her husband on the family farm. They’ve divided duties evenly, and they’re equally responsible for running the business. Mary handles the agronomy. She also manages the operations at the storages, including staff.
“I’ve always known agriculture is a male-dominated industry, but I’ve never felt the level of sexism on a daily basis until recently when I’ve come to the farm,” Mary says.
Last year, Mary investigated a downed power line while her husband was in the planter. But when the hydro worker showed up for repairs, he insisted he would only speak with Mary’s husband, even after she told him he had no knowledge of the situation. When she reported the conflict to the utility, the supervisor claimed it was her word against the worker’s.
It’s the same with a man who once came to the farm looking for a job, confessing to Mary’s husband he hates working for women before he realized Mary was an active manager on the farm.
Or the gravel delivery that showed up and the driver walked past her in search of her male employees to ask where to dump it (“as if I didn’t know where the mud was,” she laughs). Or the suppliers who host customer suppers to talk business and offer separate “entertainment” programs that the wives are expected to attend.
“It’s discouraging and it’s very frustrating,” Mary says. “Farming is hard work, and often there’s an additional step in having to tell people that I’m in charge, or that they should come and talk to me. We’re farther behind than I previously thought. I feel like we’re lagging behind as an industry.”
Mary acknowledges there’s still a perception that if there’s a woman on the farm, she’s probably doing the bookkeeping. But she says there are plenty of women in her region who, like her, have more active roles.
And although she knows that for some men, those gender assumptions are sort of honest mistakes, and they only need an “ah-ha moment” to make them realize what they’re saying, for others, sexist attitudes toward women are more ingrained, and the offensive behaviour is intentional.
“Before now I’ve never really felt the need to empower women to speak out in this industry, but I’ve changed my mind,” Mary says. “There’s a need to bring this to the surface. We need to start bringing these issues up. My husband and I need to make a personal decision to do that, to establish how we handle these instances moving forward.”
Cattle rancher Laura agrees sexism can be a problem on the farm for some women. She notes family operations can be particularly challenging, because there’s no human resources office to set and enforce guidelines or to offer solutions.
Laura is an equal partner in her family’s operation, and she says there are steps she takes to ensure her role is clear. For example, when she and her husband start working with a new supplier, they make a point of attending meetings together to establish an equal platform.
Laura also knows, though, that she was fortunate to join a family where work has been divided equally for decades. “My husband’s parents both cook in the kitchen and pull calves together,” she says. “That’s been their life, so my husband’s mindset is similar.”
But before coming to the ranch, Laura had had a career in agricultural marketing. “Sometimes I was the only woman in the room. I had to get used to that, and I think it’s better all the time with more at the forefront of agribusiness, not only in the boardroom but leading on the farm as well,” she says.
In that process, however, men can also find it difficult to know how to help agriculture make the transition.
In Southwestern Ontario, for instance, Derek was a kid growing up on the farm in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, going along to farm meetings with his dad. He says the speakers always seemed to start with a crude joke. A blonde joke, a racist joke. Often there was a punchline about a guy in a turban. It was only when he took a provincial farm leadership position that he said a light bulb came on.
“People in power positions in agriculture are so often old white men,” Derek says. “I’d hear a joke or a comment, and think ‘What would a woman think of that? What would a young person think of that? What if we didn’t tell these jokes? Would different kinds of people be more comfortable here?’”
Recently, Derek was in a senior management position with a national company. His team included several men and one young woman with a professional marketing function. He says he worked closely with the female staff member. They regularly traveled to meetings together, and he valued their professional working relationship.
But Derek’s female colleague was regularly disrespected by one member of the team. Comments were heard or reported on her behalf. The disruptive team member often suggested she fetch the coffee or sandwiches. She should take the notes and do the photocopying. Derek learned this wasn’t the first time the man had caused problems with female colleagues.
“I spoke to her about it, and I spoke to my manager,” Derek says. “In the field we put up with a lot of crap. I had to ask myself, ‘Would he say this to anyone? Or is he saying it because she’s a woman?’”
Eventually, the situation escalated and Derek tried to file a formal complaint. He was not supported in his plan to terminate the problem employee. Then rumours began to circulate at the company, suggesting that Derek and the female employee were involved in a sexual relationship.
“It was embarrassing and devastating for both of us,” he says. “It wasn’t handled very well, and I respected my employee’s wish not to pursue legal action. It’s a small company, in a small community where it’s difficult to find a professional job at her level.”
Why diversity matters
In 2017, Jen Christie gained national media attention when she participated on a panel, “Broads in a Bro’s World” at the Chatelaine Big Dish, a Toronto-based event for women in food.
As founder of the Ontario-based grassroots organization Ag Women’s Network (AWN), Christie says supporting women and helping them overcome sexual harassment and discrimination are important objectives.
Christie also says the #metoo movement has motivated AWN to begin developing more tools to address problem areas.
“For the industry as a whole, AWN sees itself as one of the groups helping to address issues that limit diversity,” Christie says. She sees a role for AWN to develop more resources to help individuals who have been victims of discrimination and as resources for bystanders.
AWN hosts events that are open and of interest to men and women. Recent topics include work/life balance and speed mentoring. In 2018, they’ll host a session on board readiness and they are exploring anonymous forums to discuss these more sensitive topics.
“As an industry we talk a lot about how we need to innovate, and our potential to be the number two agricultural exporter in the world. But how do we get there?” Christie asks. “Innovation comes from diverse teams, and from taking advantage of everybody’s talents and of the perspectives that they bring to the table. Ag businesses and industry groups that limit diverse participation are going to be at a disadvantage.”
Christie notes the federal government’s new Canadian Agricultural Partnership also includes a funding stream to strengthen diversity.
“Creating a culture that embraces diversity and differences of opinion is hard work and takes effort and focus. The groups that are working on this already will tell you it’s not easy, but it’s worth it” she says. She’s also quick to point out that diversity comes in many forms, and there’s room for everyone.
“Our industry is full of people who didn’t grow up on farms,” Christie says. “Once they start working in agriculture, they love it.”
“Creating a culture that embraces diversity and differences of opinion is hard work and takes effort and focus. But the organizations that figure it out are the ones that win. They’ll attract the best talent and have the greatest success.”
Author’s note: Some names have been changed for privacy reasons. Thank you to the people who trusted me with your stories to explore this issue. #MeToo