Gender roles: where are we now?

Is today’s agricultural industry better for women than it was 40 years ago?

by Taryn Milton

Women have always been a part of agriculture.

In a general sense and in the traditional role of farm wife, they worked hard to keep operations moving through the years.

Today, women are no longer solely wives of farmers. They are agronomists, veterinarians, presidents of ag companies and farmers themselves.

“Women are the ones graduating from ag colleges and universities with diplomas and degrees. We’re more knowledgeable and accredited than ever and I think that comes down to us feeling more confident and empowered to make informed and high-quality decisions and provide advice. So, it has resulted in women being treated with more respect than ever before – with the respect these women deserve,” says Shayla Hertz.

Hertz is a director and mentorship co-ordinator at Women in Ag, a Saskatchewan organization that empowers, supports and connects women in the agriculture and food industry. She also farms with her fiancé Nick near St. Walburg, Sask. and is the thinkAG manager at Agriculture in the Classroom Canada.

Indeed, women play a large part in Canada’s ag industry – but is there still sexism in ag?

Are women advancing as their male counterparts are? Do women have the same opportunities across the industry?

This month, Better Farming dives into these questions and explores what else needs to be done.

Look to the past

Several years ago, women in agriculture knew there were issues that needed to be discussed, so they started the conversation that still is ongoing today.

“If you go back and look 30 to 40 years ago when farm women were organizing, the challenges that they were trying to overcome haven’t really changed a lot. They were fighting to be better recognized, to be acknowledged for the work that they were doing in the industry and they were fighting to get more women into leadership positions. That’s exactly where we still are today,” says Jennifer Christie, who is based in Ontario.

two women kneeling in dairy barn inspecting hay
    Ag Women's Network photo

She is the chairperson of Ag Women’s Network (AWN), an organization that is focused on cultivating and connecting leaders through the empowerment of women.

Although the issues seem to still be the same, that doesn’t mean there have not been improvements.

“Some of the barriers of the past have been overcome, like in the ‘70s when women weren’t allowed to own land, for example, or they weren’t captured in the census,” Christie tells Better Farming.

Women in agriculture are now also openly talking about issues they’re facing, which is a good sign, says Hertz.

“They’ve become more connected than ever. They’re doing such an amazing job of communicating with one another, with the industry and with consumers,” she explains.

Women also started multiple groups across the country that have helped keep the conversation going.

Manitoba Women in Agriculture and Food (MWAF) is a non-profit that inspires and supports women to achieve their career and business aspirations.

“There is a lot of power in these grassroots groups because even though we are all volunteers and we are not paid to do anything, everything that we do is done out of passion and the need for empowerment,” Laura Lazo says. Lazo is the chair of MWAF and based in Manitoba.

She is also the founder of Careers in Agriculture and Food, a company that specializes in human resources services for the agriculture and agri-processing industry.

The positives and negatives

While every woman’s experience in ag is unique, there is often more good than bad for a lot of women in the industry.

Joelle Faulkner is the CEO of Area One Farms in Toronto. She is from a dairy farm in London, Ont. but worked outside of the agricultural industry for several years until she started Area One Farms in 2012.

Area One Farms is an alternative asset management company that invests in farmland and opera-tions with farmers and adds value to its land base through improvement.

“I didn’t like that investors who were starting to invest in farmland … were buying land and renting it out. It seemed like they had such high rents, and I couldn’t figure out how farmers would do well. So, I tried to create a partnership model where the farmer would do really well,” explains Faulkner.

When Faulkner founded the company, she was deliberate and forthcoming in emphasizing that farmers would be working with a woman from the get-go.

“I’m very clearly the person in this business or the face (of the company), so nobody calls and then gets sent to me and then says, ‘Hey, I want to talk to your boss.’ So, I don’t get to run into the test cases of when somebody was expecting it not to be a woman, because everything we have is super clear on that end,” Faulkner tells Better Farming.

“Nobody can ask my boss to work with a different person. They can’t say, ‘Hey, I don’t like Joelle, give me Jim.’”

She also doesn’t encounter people who may not want to work for a woman, because it’s clear that she’s the boss.

“That was one of the reasons I wanted to do something on my own.… Because it does create that design where there’s a whole bunch of problems that you get to avoid, even though the buy-in hurdle is bigger,” she explains.

“But once I had my own business, I felt like I was going to deal with fewer issues in the job that I might have at some unknown place where there could be a whole bunch of obstacles for women or personalities or anything.”

Hertz has also had a lot of positive experiences working in the ag industry.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in a lot of high-level and strategic conversations in basically every job that I’ve been in. I’ve worked for Bayer as a summer student and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture in the agriculture awareness unit, and now with Agriculture in the Classroom Canada.

“I’ve been asked for my input on things and have been actively listened to and acknowledged for my feedback within those different roles that I’ve held, which is just really great to see,” she says.

She is also involved in the family farm decision-making.

“I’ve worked on my parents’ farm, and now my fiancé’s family farm. I’ve been given the invitation to basically choose my role and how I want to help. I’ve operated machinery, I’ve jumped into meal-prepping mode and been part of long-term, more sustainability-based conversations. So, I’m very thankful for how I have been treated.

“I know this isn’t how everyone has been treated, so I wish that was the case for all women, especially within their own families or the ones that they’re marrying into. So, I hope that’s a goal that we ultimately achieve down the road,” says Hertz.

Both Lazo and Christie have had many positive experiences in the ag industry, but they’ve also experienced negative situations.

Lazo remembers being at a conference when she had an unpleasant encounter.

“During the networking part of the night, this man came to me and spoke to me in a disrespectful and racist way. When I answered him the way that he deserved, he got angry. I just walked away.

“At the end of that conference, my colleague and I were getting in the car and I noticed that she was angry – she was actually trembling because she was so angry. When I asked her about it, she said this man had made a dirty proposal to her and she was very offended,” Lazo says.

Christie’s experience happened during her time as a board member.

“Up until last year, I was part of a public board that is under the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and frequently in the three years that I was part of that board, I was ignored and talked over by one of the men who sits at that board table.

“I think it’s something that happens to a lot of women and I know it’s something that we often just brush off because, as women, we’re just used to figuring out how we need to behave and move through the world to be able to exist safely. But for me, that experience frequently made me question whether I deserved to be at that table, if I was capable enough or if I was the right fit for that board,” she says.

Another hurdle that women in the ag industry and other industries are facing is how COVID-19 is impacting their careers.

“There’s no question COVID-19 has set women back in every sector of the country,” says Christie.

mother at table working with young boy sitting beside her
    ilona titova/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“The challenges that women in agriculture are facing are very similar to their urban neighbours. With schools being shut down, the bulk of the childcare and homeschooling has fallen to women in the industry.”

Women in rural areas already had a shortage of childcare options so when daycare facilities and schools shut down, women stepped up.

“By nature, that then either detracts from what women are able to do on the farm, or from their day jobs. I’ve spoken to a couple of women who work in the industry and their employers still expect them to get everything done that they were getting done before, but now they’re also in charge of homeschooling their child for six to eight hours a day,” explains Christie.

Making strides

While many issues still need to be addressed, the industry is making changes to help.

“Companies are interested and doing things to engage more women and not just local women, but also women who are from under-represented groups.

“There are cases where the C-suite (executive level) of a company has totally bought in. So those would be the positive changes that I see and there are going to be more in the future for sure,” says Lazo.

Women are also being included in conversations and communicating with each other.

“We are actually finally receiving recognition for all we are and all we do through different organizations.

“Whether that’s different reward systems through organizations, as well as sharing our information that we provide on social media and making sure that our voices are heard that way. We’ve also been invited to present on various topics or areas of expertise at conferences and workshops,” says Hertz.

Organizations are also stepping up to make commitments.

“The Canadian Seed Trade Association has been going down this path for nearly 10 years. I remember when their incoming president at the time reached out to a number of us and said, ‘I think that we could do a better job here. What could we do?’ Something that we’ve all learned through that is that this is a journey. There are no silver bullets; there’s no ‘You do this tactic and this tactic, and you’re there.’ It is an evolution and a journey,” Christie tells Better Farming.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association “are almost 10 years down that road, and they’re not there, but in the process, they’ve engaged so many new people and they’ve started conversations that now the rest of the industry is starting to have,” says Christie.

Hertz is also seeing a change in the younger generation, which is promising.

“We had a student say that even women have a role in agriculture and as kind of plain Jane as that comment is, that really struck a chord with me.

“I think, generally speaking, people have this perception that agriculture and farming is really just a bunch of men, and it’s just so not the case. There are many women involved and that’s what’s so great to see in terms of the work we’re doing – that women have all kinds of roles to fill, both on-farm and off-farm in jobs in agribusiness,” Hertz explains.

Be an ally

While many good advances are being made every day, a lot still needs to be done and men need to be allies to women.

Men need “to work with (women). The more you take somebody’s calls, the more you make time for them or deal with them, the better,” says Faulkner.

Lazo agrees and believes men need to start thinking this way at home.

“When men side with women and support them in every way they can at home and with their businesses, it makes a big difference,” she says. “When men understand their women partners, they go to work and they bring that understanding in their minds at work in the things that they do every day. They can and they do change things for the better.”

Changing their way of thinking will also help the industry expand its workforce.

“We are competing with every other industry in Canada for talent today and the companies, organizations and industries that are more inclusive, welcoming and celebrate people’s differences, are the places where people are going to want to work and choose to work.

“If we’re going to achieve all the export goals and the growth goals that we talk about all the time in Canadian agriculture, that takes people and it takes great people,” says Christie.

Men need to actively make changes to help improve the industry for everyone involved in it, says Christie.

“Men need to realize that if they’re not actively trying to create space for women, people of colour and LGBTQ2S+ people to be involved in the industry, then they’re actually not being an ally. They’re just upholding the status quo and the status quo is that it’s not a safe or inclusive place for everyone. So, you do have to actively do something. Saying nothing does not help,” she says.

A good way for men to help be active in being an ally is to listen to women’s experiences.

“Try to understand that the experience and perspective that they have and what they experience in the industry may not be what you experience.

“Being willing and able to listen to people’s stories and appreciate that they do have different experiences than we do and then trying to understand how we might be able to help create a better experience for them is something we can all do and men especially. People don’t like to talk about power, but again, men hold most of the leadership positions in the industry and they have the power to create the change,” says Christie.

Hertz agrees.

female farmer walking through field with two buckets
    Taryn Milton photo

“Men, and all women for that matter, need to see us as equals. We deserve a spot at the table and a voice in every conversation. Women must be included in decision-making and people need to have our backs when we deserve to advance in our roles.

“They need to believe in us and our abilities and stand by their wives, sisters, moms and friends to make sure we get the same level of respect that everyone deserves in this industry and in the world,” says Hertz. BF

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