Getting on board

When Allison Ammeter discusses the future of pulse crops with her fellow board members, she doesn’t feel like she’s giving the “woman’s point of view.”

Instead, she says she’s asking questions that her male colleagues aren’t asking, and that’s a good thing.

“The men ask certain types of questions and us women ask certain types of questions,” said Ammeter, who farms near Sylvan Lake, Alta. “In the end, we get more information that way, and that’s critical when we have to make important decisions.”

However, when it comes to numbers, the men far outnumber the women on the Alberta Pulse Grower Commission’s 12-member board. The only women are Ammeter and Caroline Sekulic.

But the Alberta pulse group isn’t an anomaly.

Men dominate agriculture boards across the Prairies, and make important decisions with producers’ check-off dollars. Only 12 percent of all board members on agriculture commissions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are women, according to data compiled by The Western Producer.

In total, there are 438 board members on organizations with check-off programs on the Prairies. Of that, 386 are men and 52 are women.

Those numbers are a problem for some because they say decisions are better if made by a diverse crowd.

Norine Moore, chair of the Alberta Agricultural Products Marketing Council, which regulates the province’s agriculture boards, said she would like to see more female representation.

“If everyone comes from the same background and thinks the same, you don’t generate a good discussion,” said Moore, who runs a sheep and goat operation with her husband. “I really see this as an opportunity to make changes.”

However, some don’t view the lack of women on boards as a problem.

Kelly Smith-Fraser, who ranches near Pine Lake, Alta., and is the finance chair with the Alberta Beef Producers, said all that should matter is whether the right person is hired for the right job.

“For me, it’s more about having a group of diverse opinions than making sure we have a group of gender,” she said.

“I have no desire to see stronger gender equality, because our board is diverse, and it doesn’t matter to me, man or woman, as long as they have knowledge or experience.”

As well, statistics play a huge role in why there may be so few women on boards, said Kevin Bender, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, which has no women on its board.

He noted recent Statistics Canada data that reported 29 percent of Canada’s 271,935 farm operators are women.

“When I look at my neighbours that I farm with, very few that I farm with are women or actively involved,” he said. “They support or help out, but from what I see, the majority of active farmers are males.”

However, women still play huge roles on the farm, even if they aren’t considered the primary operator, said Moore.

“In a lot of farms, I think the husband and wife are partners,” she said. “My husband and I are equal partners, so I think that it’s not totally correct saying it’s totally men, because women are taking a lot more roles.”

Despite this, many women might still view themselves as the “farm wife,” rather than as active farm members, said Lisa Skierka, who was the former general manager of the Alberta Barley Commission.

Skierka is now the southern Alberta chair of Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to getting more women elected in political offices.

“A lot of families still remain under this traditional dynamic,” she said. “We see that on social media in how they describe themselves, even by women who maintain the farm books and provide physical labour.”

As well, women are usually working other jobs to support the farm and are largely considered the primary caregivers, according to Smith-Fraser, so they may not have enough time to sit on boards.

“Women are involved in other organizations that are just as important in their community,” she said. “I think men who are specifically working on the farm have that ability to become actively engaged in agriculture.”

But there’s more to it, argued Skierka, and it has to do with the culture inside the boards.

When Laurie Disney was first elected to the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association, no one seemed to ask for her opinion during board meetings.

“Without a good chairperson, you just think the women might not be asked their opinion,” she said. “It could partly be my shyness, but as a new person, you should be asked for your input so you can get comfortable.”

Disney said she eventually got comfortable, and now has no problem speaking up during meetings.

But had there been training in place initially, she said, there may have not been issues in the first place.

“We need to do stuff for people,” she said. “On my board in particular, it’s still an old boys’ club. I’m over 50 years old and I think it’s still that way, and it’s hard for men to give any kind of power to some women.”

JoAnne Buth, executive director with the Canadian International Grains Institute and formerly with the Canola Council of Canada, said there have been times where men have said inappropriate things during board meetings.

“When inappropriate things are said, I use humour or I’m direct, where I say to them, ‘I don’t think that’s appropriate or I don’t think you mean what I hear you saying,’ ” said Buth, who has also served as a Canadian senator.

“I have seen instances where it’s harder when you’re a younger woman, where it’s very uncomfortable for them to be in a situation in an all-men board. Some people get out of hand in social situations where there is alcohol involved.

“So, when you see anything or hear comments that are inappropriate, you try and correct it in a way that’s not personal.”

But not all women on agriculture boards have felt as if they’re lesser than their male colleagues.

Smith-Fraser said she has been treated as an equal at Alberta Beef Producers.

“I don’t feel like my opinions have ever been looked at differently than my fellow boards members,” she said.

“We are all treated with respect and we respect each other’s opinions. We may not always agree, but we have a good board and staff to ensure our opinions are respected and that our opinions are heard.”

However, Skierka noted that the few women who are elected to these boards are often intimidated because they are usually entering a group that’s already tightly knit.

“You can see that the boards are closed because it’s the same people on multiple boards and the succession planning is within the internal group,” she said.

The “succession planning” Skierka refers to is the system in which board members seek out people they know to run in their place once their term limits are up.

“It’s human nature in general to encourage the people we’re with,” Skierka said. “So they are recruiting from a friend group or colleagues locally who are the same as them, so there’s a lack of diversity overall.”

Buth echoed this sentiment.

“If you have a group of men on a board they tend to think of men that would fit in terms of the board, and will ask them to run or be nominated,” she said.

Ammeter agreed that she actively looks for people she knows would be a good fit for the Alberta Pulse Growers board, but said the system is wide-open for any producer who’s dedicated and interested.

“I tend to find someone I know to replace me because I feel this responsibility to make sure we get good board members going forward,” she said. “It’s not that I’m trying to only get my friends on or anything like that, it’s just that I’m trying to make sure the board keeps going with people who are service-minded.”

Even so, lots of commissions are thinking ahead and have launched programs to get younger producers interested in joining boards.

In some cases, they require that at least half of the members be women, while the other half be men.

The Alberta Canola Producers Commission requires that half of the farmers who are part of its young leaders program be women.

Greg Sears, chair of the canola board, said the commission believes having diversity is integral to moving the industry forward.

“This is something you’re not going to change overnight,” he said. “But it’s something you’re going to have to build, and building up young competencies is a good place to start, so that’s where we’ve chosen to focus our efforts.”

While gender balance isn’t mandated for the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program, lots of the ranchers with the initiative are women.

Bob Lowe, chair of Alberta Beef Producers, said it’s an opportunity to build a younger, and therefore more diverse board in the future.

“The average age of our board is going down and there’s a lot of pretty active young producers,” he said.

“I think I’m dead-set against a board that’s 50-50 because you want the best people not based on gender. We’re in a good spot right now, where our board has already changed drastically.”

Still, there’s more that commissions could do to encourage more women to run for the board, said Moore.

“We can’t force them, however,” she said. “We can’t force pressure, and I think that’s what will make it a slow process.”

Skierka agreed that forcing women to run isn’t the way to go, but said it usually takes a lot of asking before they want to seek election.

“Women need to be asked more times than men do, because there are preconceived ideas that they have different levels of responsibility at home, the office or the family,” she said. “Therefore, they need to be approached differently. It’s just a matter of overcoming societal expectations.”

As well, she said the commissions will have to advocate and show they want more diversity on their boards.

“I can’t help but wonder, if you had more diversity, does it change the conversation around farm safety legislation? Does it broaden our discussions around biotechnology, GMOs, community building, or relationships to consumers?” she asked.

“Having diversity strengthens a board, and creates one that’s more answerable so we have these broader conversations.”

As well, a cultural shift will be required, added Moore.

“It’s about re-enforcing that women are really important in agriculture,” she said. “I think coaching is the best way to approach it. We do some of that, but we can introduce the subject in a way that isn’t threatening. It’s something that’s positive and would be a good thing.”

For Ammeter, she’d like to see all agriculture boards become more diverse.

“I say yes to more females, yes to more young people and yes to diversity because you get the very best decisions,” she said.

“It’s just easier said than done. I remember I was home-schooling, chauffeuring kids all over — you are just very busy when your kids are little.

“Adding one more thing just makes it that much more difficult but, in the end, I’d love to find a way to help those people who have great opinions to offer.”

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