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A woman’s place at the board table

In different parts of the country, Amanda Jeffs and Pam Bailey are rising to the same challenge, curbing the dominance of men on so many farm boards

Bailey has always bucked the trend. As a child, she was far more interested in Lego and Tonka trucks than dolls, and she had dreams of becoming a mechanic instead of a nurse, teacher or the other jobs that “girls were supposed to do.”

At 34, she’s still bucking the trend. Bailey has just become the first woman on the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA) board of directors.

How she got there is a story for our times, beginning 2,000 miles to the east in the tiny village of Heatherton, N.S., the sort of place where community is everything.

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Young woman with laptop sitting on the bale on the field. Tractor in background

“I grew up in an awesome community where public service was just something we did,” says Bailey. Heatherton boasted the first 4-H club in Nova Scotia, and Bailey’s grandmother was one of the first members.

Following in Granny’s footsteps, Bailey’s 4-H days provided her first taste of leadership. “4-H taught me basic leadership skills like how to run a meeting, how processes work, seeing projects through to the end, and judging,” she says. “Now I see the value in learning all those skills, especially in agriculture.”

Bailey later became involved in Nova Scotia Young Farmers, where she could apply her skills at a higher level and where she learned more about agricultural policy and the industry in general.

Although Bailey loved growing up on the family farm, she couldn’t see herself in primary production, so when she enrolled at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, she took a degree in environmental horticulture. Even so, she ended up taking a lot of the same courses as the agricultural diploma students, which turned out to be useful when she eventually went back to farming.

A new life in Manitoba

Five years ago, Bailey moved to Manitoba, where she took a job in agricultural parts sales at Portage la Prairie and where, within a month, she met her future husband, Rauri Qually. Although they were both working off-farm at the time, they soon started on a path that would see them start farming with Qually’s dad on the family’s 1,200-acre grain farm a half hour east at Dacotah.

Today, the couple have been married just over a year, and both have off-farm careers as well as working on the farm. Qually is an electrician and Bailey is farm safety co-ordinator at the University of Manitoba and program facilitator at the Bruce D. Campbell Farm and Food Discovery Centre, at the university’s Glenlea Research Station.

Where are the women?

Bailey is as busy as you’d expect any young farm woman to be, but the pull to serve the agricultural community remains strong. Although she’s no stranger to agriculture, she soon found that things work a bit differently in Manitoba, and she set out to learn all she needed to know, including about some of the agricultural organizations and producer groups in the province.

“I’ve always been active on boards and in non-profit organizations, so I started to take notice of who were the people on boards making decisions,” she says. “I noticed that in Canadian agriculture, specifically, the bulk of them are 55- to 65-year-old white males that are making decisions for a lot of younger people.”

While attending the canolaPALOOZA event, hosted by MCGA last year, she asked her neighbour, Charles Fossay, who was also MCGA president, why there weren’t any women on the MCGA board. He really didn’t have an answer but encouraged her to apply.

“I talked it over with a few colleagues and they said, what’s holding you back? You have the board and horticulture experience, so why not?” she says. “The other thing that convinced me was the thought that if I was complaining about the abundance of men on boards, I’d better be prepared to do something about it.”

Because a lot of women don’t have that voice and the ability to do what I am doing, I feel I owe it to them to do this,” says Pam Bailey.
photo: Deb Deville

Bailey considers herself lucky because she’s at a stage in her life where she can commit the time and effort to serving on a high-profile, provincial board. “I don’t have kids. I have a husband who is very supportive and in-laws and parents that can help if needed. I have some flexibility in my career and the financial luxury to be able to do these things,” she says.

She understands it’s not the same for all women. “You have to have a squad or tribe of people that are willing to support you and I think women in agriculture, especially, have always been there for each other,” she says. “But they’re always the ones that, looking back, have not been at the grower meetings, they haven’t been at a lot of these tables because they’ve been busy juggling all the other hats that women, in general, juggle constantly. Because a lot of women don’t have that voice and the ability to do what I am doing, I feel I owe it to them to do this.”

Facing the “old boy’s club”

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council surveyed more than 500 women involved in agriculture for its Supporting the Advancement of Women in Agriculture (SAWA) project. Their needs assessment identified a lot of the common barriers to women’s participation on boards and in leadership roles in the industry. One of those barriers is difficulty in breaking into the “old boy’s club.”

Bailey has taken the “old boy’s club” head on. She currently sits on the board of managers of the St. Andrews Society of Winnipeg as its first female board member in its 146-year history. Until two years ago, this Scottish heritage organization had never allowed women to even be members.

Bailey hadn’t realized this when she first applied to join. She’d been simply looking for an organization where she could share her Scottish heritage. She ended up in the thick of a fierce battle that almost ended up in court between those for female membership and those against.

In the end, the vote was in favour and the society changed its by-laws to allow women members. Bailey was the first to sign up and subsequently asked to join its board.

“They had to do a lot of soul searching,” says Bailey. “This incident had very serious implications and it all boiled down to whether or not women should be allowed in this organization. It sounds preposterous, but there were and still are some people who just don’t believe in that.”

Having made the decision, however, the board members who have remained have been supportive and open to change, says Bailey. “They have seen why this is important,” she says. “But, still, it can be challenging to explain to some men, and even some women, why diversity on a board is important, especially when they are very set in their ways.”

Bailey has observed that there’s often a subtle language barrier between men and women that could help explain why some women are reluctant to step into roles or situations they see as male-dominated. Maybe it comes from social conditioning from an early age, or perhaps it’s just a result of different perspectives or temperaments.

Whatever the cause, men and women definitely seem to speak the same language in very different ways, and Bailey has seen evidence of that throughout her career.

“I’m very comfortable with the learning curve that comes along with a new position, and that can include language,” says Bailey. “But I think there are environments where men use certain terms, and they’re very confident of the words and phrases that they use. Whereas women may use other terms, meaning the same thing, but they come across as less assertive or willing to speak up.”

As an example, working in agricultural equipment parts sales taught Bailey the differences between the men and women who came looking for parts. “A lot of men would come in and have no idea what the real part name or the tool was, but were confident that what they called it was correct,” she says. “Even if someone with more technical knowledge corrected them, they were insistent that the part was what they knew it as. That same part could be called a number of different things depending on the region the person came from, their age or their gender. So I think language has a big part to play in whether we really understand each other.”

Women completing the SAWA survey also cited career and family responsibilities and a lack of female role models and mentors as factors in why women aren’t as prevalent in the boardroom as men.

Bailey also had a feeling that she would fit in well on the MCGA board. Even though her knowledge of canola is limited due to her Atlantic Canadian roots, she’s there at the board level to learn in depth about the industry in order to support and grow it. She did her homework and found that the board has practices and policies in place that can assist her to achieve these goals and she hopes she can also inspire more participation by women in the governance of agricultural organizations.

“For example, the MCGA has a board orientation and ongoing leadership development process, and those are signs of a good board,” she says. “I know that even as a rookie at the table, I can help the organization achieve its goals while still satisfying my personal leadership growth.”

According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, almost 29 per cent of farm operators are women, but there are a lot more women involved in agriculture than that. Bailey is hopeful that by women taking leadership roles and being more active on boards and in associations, it legitimizes all women in agriculture. “I would like to see more participation, be a role model and foster women or anybody to be more involved in agriculture at a decision-making level,” she says.

“It’s easy to talk for myself about what my barriers were and what I had to overcome but I find with farming everyone’s experiences are different,” says Amanda Jeffs, who was recently appointed as the first woman on the board of directors of EastGen, a farmer-owned, not-for-profit organization dedicated to dairy genetics.

Boards aren’t representative of who is out there farming,” says EastGen director Amanda Jeffs.
photo: Deb Deville

“It’s definitely harder when you are worried about child care, and I think women feel that they need to fulfil all their roles as best they can,” says Jeffs. “I want to always make sure I am a good mom, but I also need to make sure my farm is running the way it should, and if I am going to be on a board I also need to be committed and make sure I am putting my work in there. So it’s comes down to whether or not you think you can juggle it all.”

Making it all work

Thirty-two-year-old Jeffs grew up on the family dairy farm in Stirling, Ont., serving on the local fair and other boards. After taking her animal biology degree at the University of Guelph, she went straight back to the third-generation dairy she operates with parents, Fred and Taleana and brother, Andrew.

Jeffs had to make sure it was going to work with the farm and her family before she made any commitment to the EastGen Board. As she soon found out, it’s a big time commitment. She spends at least 12 days a year away from the farm at meetings, then there are the many hours spent reading correspondence and preparing for meetings, as well as several conference calls a year that take at least a couple of hours each.

With two young children; Natalie (five) and Brent who is almost two, it’s not easy. Husband Luke owns a custom manure spreading business, so is often away from the farm, but the family all pitch in to help, and the board is very conscious that it needs to accommodate its farming members.

“A lot of the board meetings are December to March, which works out well for us, as Luke is home more during those months,” says Jeffs. “The board does try to plan our meetings around a farming schedule, so for example, after the first cut of crops and before we have to do the second cut. If we need a conference call and we see the forecast is for rain, we’ll schedule it for that day instead of a day when we could be planting.”

Bailey, at the moment, has the flexibility and time to dedicate to serving the broader agricultural community, but she also faces the same day-to-day challenges that other women face. She reflects how so often on the farm no one hesitates to bring in outside help to build a new barn or insulate a shed even if the family or farm workers could do the job themselves, but will balk at paying someone to babysit the kids for a couple of hours or do some light housework.

“One of the biggest banes of my existence is dishes or laundry, and it takes time to do those things, but it’s okay to ask for help. Asking someone else to pitch in, or spend $20 or $30 a week so those chores get done. It can be a spouse, a child, a neighbour, or professional,” she says. “A women’s plate is already full, but if being part of a board is something she wants to do, something needs to come off her plate, and that’s when it’s time to delegate it out. And don’t feel guilty about doing it.”

Boards encouraging diversity

Despite the barriers and all the juggling, more and more women are making the time and space for themselves to be able to add their voice at the governance level of organizations and groups shaping the future of agriculture. At the same time, progressive and effective boards understand the importance of having different perspectives at the table. That doesn’t just mean from women, but young people, and different ethnicities, and some boards and organizations are working to create inclusive policies and recruit for diversity in their ranks.

To a certain extent, as a woman in agriculture, Jeffs says she often feels she has to fight for her place in the industry, but the EastGen Board is one place she feels respected and valued. “The first day I walked into the boardroom someone said it’s so nice to have a woman on the board because women have a different perspective than men, and I think that’s true, and I think that’s regardless of who is on the board,” she says. “Everyone’s opinion is definitely recognized and validated. I got lucky. I am on a really great board.”

Jeffs is also thankful that she had taken some leadership courses prior to joining the EastGen board, because they have helped her to prepare for a higher level governance role. She also gives EastGen a lot of credit for making every effort to help her understand her role and be prepared, including allowing her to shadow meetings for a few months before she officially joined the board in March 2017.

Jeffs recommends women interested in a board role should consider taking some kind of leadership training and get as much practical experience as possible. “I would say get out there, go to lots of meetings, get your name out there,” she says. “I don’t think a woman should be on a board just because they are a woman, but everyone should ensure they’re putting the work in and understand what’s going on. Most boards aren’t representative of who is farming nowadays. There are a lot of women that are farming on their own, with partners, or parents, so it would be great if our boards and companies represented that.”

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