This is the second of a four-part series looking at the role women play in agriculture, how it has changed and what the future holds.
In Alberta, a woman sets up a Facebook group to provide a forum for women working in agriculture and within two weeks the group has 2,000 participants.
In Saskatchewan, a few volunteers set up a calendar fundraiser and before they know it, people are asking them for advice and news on coming events.
So they form Saskatchewan Women in Ag and attract 250 members before they’ve even had a chance to launch a formal membership drive.
These two examples illustrate an acute need that women across the Prairies are trying to satisfy.
There’s a void out there, left largely untapped until now.
However, as more women become established in professional roles in agriculture, they are reaching out to others — women in similar roles or those just starting their careers — in hopes they can provide support, confidence and guidance to help smooth some of the bumps in the road as women move into positions more traditionally performed by men.
For women signing up to these forums, it’s more than gender equality issues that attract them. It’s also about the isolation rural women face. For many, there’s no coffee room socialization during the day, and when they go home in the evening, the nearest neighbour or friend can be a considerable drive away.
Whatever the reason, there’s no ignoring the demand, as Nikki Szakaly discovered.
She noticed some time ago that Saskatchewan had a women-in-ag group that offered training events, seminars and trade shows, and she thought it would be a good idea for Alberta.
“Nobody got it started so one day I decided I would start a Facebook group and invite some of my girlfriends from college and then at least all of us could kind of talk a little bit more in open forum,” she said.
“And in two weeks I had over 2,000 women, and now we’re trying to make it a whole non-profit organization,” she said.
Ginelle Pidwerbesky tells a similar story about the origins of Saskatchewan Women in Ag.
Before 2013, the organization existed as a loose-knit volunteer club operated by Pidwerbesky, her sister and a friend to sell calendars to raise funds for Agriculture in the Classroom and to support a scholarship at the University of Agriculture’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.
However, people started asking more of the group. There were messages enquiring about seminars, messages from women who had recently moved to the farm looking for advice and messages about how to deal with certain work issues. Those requests inspired the organizers to expand the group’s role.
It has since set up a formal operational structure and recently held its first annual general meeting.
Pidwerbesky used to farm with her father near Borden, Sask., and now works as an area business manager for an agri-chemical company.
She said the 250 members they count today are based solely from information supplied by people who have asked to be involved with the group in some way. It is not a formal membership count.
“A lot of our group is connecting, kind of the ones who have paved the way with maybe the new ones coming in and haven’t experienced a lot of this stuff,” she said.
Many events organized by Sask-atchewan Women in Ag feature young women speakers who have stories and lessons they can pass along, she added.
While gender equality issues have come a long way, there is still work to be done to overcome some of the traditional role stereotypes that exist, Pidwerbesky said.
She cited an example of a disrespectful photo depicting a female field rep that was recently posted on Twitter with negative comments around it.
She said Saskatchewan Women in Ag social media networks were soon full of accounts of what could be done to counter the damaging effects of such incidents.
“We are trying to get the word out that there is a support system in place for women that experience these kinds of incidents,” she said.
“It’s one of those things, but I think if nothing else, it maybe showed a part of the industry that there is a group willing to stand up and defend and support and stand behind women that are going through this kind of thing and to maybe be a bit more mindful before those types of comments are made.”
Pidwerbesky said it’s common for the group to offer advice for women new to farming or how to assert themselves with confidence at a meeting or conference.
“It’s again just providing an opportunity to say you deserve to be there, and this member from our group will be there too and you guys can connect,” she said.
Gabrielle Achtymichuk, a third year student at the U of S’s agriculture college, said groups like Sask-atchewan Women in Ag link her to networking events where she can learn from women who have gone before her.
She said hearing stories from professional women in agriculture about how their careers have developed will likely shape her future career decisions as she be-gins to narrow her focus of study onto a particular field.
“It’s comforting to hear from others, how they got started and where they ended up,” she said.
Szakaly, an agronomist with a John Deere dealership in Red Deer, has experienced her share of gender equality issues as she came through the ranks as a young woman who started working in the agricultural industry 10 years ago at age 18.
She said in past jobs, male co-workers tried to sabotage her to get her fired because they did not want a woman in the job. When she approached management with the problem, she was told to leave it alone and be patient.
“I have no doubt they weren’t taking it seriously just because I was young and I was a young woman,” she said.
As well, she said farmers have questioned her abilities to drive big field equipment, and more recently, clients have expressed skepticism about her skills as an agronomist.
She said it was tough at the start of her career figuring out how to deal with these situations.
“I just found that I didn’t have anybody to chat with and really bounce ideas off when I was having a bad day.”
She said it was difficult to learn how to respond while also making it clear that her reactions were not simply complaints from a girl who was demanding to be taken seriously.
Szakaly said opportunities for women have improved in agriculture during the past decade, but shortcomings still exist.
“I do find that I think lots of times they want to test me because I am a female in a non-traditional role.”
She said coping with these obstacles comes down to having confidence in her abilities, in understanding the value of the work she offers her clients and working with those who value her expertise.
Szakaly has also started to grow into something of a role model.
She said women working in administrative jobs in her office recently told her how proud they were of her because they never thought they’d see the day that a woman would be working in sales.
As well, she’s been named one of Alberta’s Top 150 Up and Comers in the industry by A Seat at Our Table, a group set up by ATB Financial to share stories from key industry movers and shakers.
“I’m super excited.”
And last year, Szakaly was recognized by Olds College as an honoured alumni.
For all this, she credits her parents for encouraging her to try her hand at whatever she wanted, no matter the barriers.
“I just followed what I wanted to do. I knew probably from the time I was four years old that I was going to work in agriculture.”
The next step is to unite the two provincial groups into one umbrella group once the Alberta group develops a formal organizational structure. Pidwerbesky and Szakaly also hope to find somebody in Manitoba to get things started there.
As well, the Ag Women’s Network is up and running in Ontario.
The end goal for both of them would be to one day establish a national group for women in agriculture with distinct provincial organizations operating under that umbrella.