Comment: Why does agriculture only have room for women who fight?

A recent article ‘Why aren’t farm women fighting harder?,‘ for the December 2019 issue of Country Guide has garnered a significant amount of attention online and on social media. Upon reading our article, Angela Straathof wrote the response below as a “call to action” for the agricultural industry. – Country Guide staff

“Be bold. Speak up. Fight harder!”

Any woman trying to make an impact in agriculture has heard these lines many a time. Any audience member of a “Women in Ag” session, conference or panel, or any reader of articles or blog posts on the topic has heard this advice resoundingly. There’s much to be said for gaining confidence, practicing self-advocacy, and developing leadership skills. But how often are men in agriculture given this advice? And does this advice suggest that, as an industry, we are only open to listening to the bold, the loud, the fighters?

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Women in agriculture, it may be generalized, are cut from a certain cloth. They are often described as strong-willed, opinionated, and confident. Or perhaps stubborn, direct, and bossy. So, safe to say, they know what they want and how to get it. For many, it’s taken years of practice and encouragement, but for others it’s an innate personality trait that’s been fostered by exposure to other strong-willed women in their lives. When their hard work in combination with those traits pays off, they are invited to speak at conferences to tell other women in the industry how to be more like them. But often when we tell women to be bolder, to make themselves heard, to fight harder we are asking them to be someone they’re not. Again, there is inherent value in developing self-confidence, but for many women it is a huge leap from being confident to being bold. It is not who they are and it shouldn’t have to be.

Throughout our careers we should all strive for improvement; self-awareness, development and betterment are all important. But women in agriculture can strive for all those things and, if there’s room for them, they can achieve them without acquiring a boldness that may come unnaturally. If others are willing to listen and put their own fists down first, do we really need this fight we’re told we have to have?

“Be bold. Speak up. Fight harder!”

Let’s consider the flip side of the coin for a moment: Who are we being bold to? Who are we speaking up to? Who are we fighting against? And how might the balance of power shift if we put the expectation of change on that group of people. What might that advice sound like? “Practice active listening. Be more open-minded. Make room at the table for others. Don’t wait for someone to have to act boldly. Engage with them positively and proactively. Lessen the need for a fight.”

The question I have for everyone in the industry, men and women is: why aren’t we making space for people who aren’t bold? How can we give them the opportunities to speak up? By becoming better listeners, by considering the perspective and insight of the less bold, we are enriching the discourse. We are galvanizing ourselves as an industry. Unless we resist the urge to speak over each other, we are only ever listening to the loudest people in the room. If women aren’t given the opportunities to be heard without being told to fundamentally change their own personality, they will never truly be heard. They have critical  opinions and perspective. Instead of telling women to fight harder, we should all be asking ourselves why they have to fight so hard in the first place.

Angela Straathof is from a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario. She has a PhD in Soil Quality from Wageningen UR in The Netherlands and is the Program Director of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, and co-coordinator for the Guelph pod of 500 Women Scientists.

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