The boardrooms of agricultural corporations have large tables and many chairs. Few of those chairs are filled by women. They weren’t yesterday, and they aren’t today.
Canadian Grain Commission chief commissioner Patti Miller and former Cargill vice-president Fran Burr have both had experience as the lone woman at the board table. Though more women are attaining leadership roles in the agricultural field, progress is slow.
“I’m the second female chief commissioner in this organization that’s been around for 112 years,” said Miller, as she talked about women in agricultural leadership roles.
“I want to be positive, and that’s my nature. And there have been huge improvements that have been made, but I also don’t want to gloss over the fact that we’ve got a long way to go and we can’t take it for granted. And I also think we can’t think about this as a women’s issue. It’s an issue for the industry. It’s an issue for our society.”
“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still hurdles. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Burr and Miller are two of the 70 women interviewed by Jennifer Braun, assistant professor of sociology at King’s University, who recently obtained her PhD.
She has submitted two chapters of her dissertation for publication. They comprise data from one year of field research obtained by driving throughout the Prairies speaking with women in leadership and in other influential roles within the ag field.
She found a growing public awareness about women’s involvement in agricultural groups and in farm leadership.
“I wanted to talk to some of the women who were kind of in the midst of this, who had come up through the ranks … how they did what they did and the role that they saw for women in the future,” said Braun.
She was struck by women’s optimism about the future and also heard many stories about the challenges they have faced — and still face — as a traditionally male-dominated field evolves into something more inclusive.
“I heard lots of different kinds of stories. There’s lots of overt barriers, stories you hear of inappropriate comments or difficulty doing business because business happens at the bar after, or business happens on the golf course after working hours, which makes it difficult for mothers who have families to participate. Those kinds of cultural things I think definitely still exist and are still troubling in a lot of ways,” Braun said.
Barriers? Miller laughed when asked whether she faced any of those in her work with the grain commission or the Canola Council of Canada or at Agriculture Canada.
“How long is this interview?” she joked.
“Certainly I’ve got my share of stories. We all do. I don’t really like to dwell on it. I like to think about how we have improved and how we can continue to improve because there still is a lot of work to be done,” she said.
“The environment has changed a lot from when I started in the agriculture industry to what it is now, but we’re still having this conversation so inequality still exists.”
She and Burr are both pleased that Braun has brought an academic’s point of view to the matter.
“To single out leadership in particular was what really caught my eye,” said Burr. “People are doing a lot to attract women to agriculture … to agricultural roles, to elevate women who are on the farm.”
Added Miller: “I just found it fascinating. I think as women from time to time we can get together and tell our stories, but to have an academic look at it, to have more of an analytical approach and to see some of the conclusions that she is teasing out, was really interesting.”
One common observation among women in agricultural leadership, said Braun, was their need to prove farm credibility, by having driven a tractor or calved out a cow or otherwise showing they have a legitimate right to be there.
As well, she found women fully aware of changing dynamics.
“Women definitely see themselves, and I would also say are leading the way, in terms of doing the bridging between … the old school and the old guard on board with the new kinds of demands that consumers are making in terms of traceability, transparency, sustainability, all those kinds of things. I would say women are definitely leading the way,” said Braun.
“I found it very interesting that women were sort of in between all of that, working towards building the bridge between the old and the new….Women saw themselves as uniquely positioned to be able to do that.”
Braun found that more women are attending agricultural colleges, many with plans to take over the family farm or find some other career within the field.
They’re also using resources like peer groups, social media and events like the Advancing Women in Agriculture conferences to learn and gain support.
Are women in agricultural roles more assertive than in times past?
“Number one, there’s more of us and so you’ve got to network, and women are actively networking and supporting one another and mentoring one another,” said Miller.
“When I first started in this industry there were very few women to connect with. And there’s so many more now. That gives you more confidence. You’re not alone.”
As for gaining more women in leadership roles, Burr said the idea of bringing farm women up through the ranks has merit, but recruiting women from other fields is another way to bridge the gap.
“Agriculture needs accountants and HR people and research people and people in sales and marketing. We need managers. We need administrators. We need IT people.
“You can bring someone who’s at a more mature level in their career … and layer on the agriculture afterwards. And I think we would have a whole lot of success with that.
“We haven’t talked enough about the benefits of being in agriculture regardless of the point of your career. You don’t have to come into it from the ground level of your career. Agriculture has that appeal. It has that draw. I speak from experience.”
After interviewing so many women as part of her research, Braun said she promised them she would share some of her findings through the media and possibly other avenues including a website and a blog.
And she is encouraged by those findings.
“I was continually struck by how much women love their industry.”