‘Mommas, don’t let your daughters miss out on careers in agriculture!’
That’s how the Willie and Waylon classic could have been modified by anyone attending the inaugural Advancing Women Conference in Calgary.
The event, created by well-known conference organizer Iris Meck, was designed to provide life and leadership skills for women involved in agriculture. While many of the 360 attendees were women long established in their careers, there were also many young females just getting launched into agriculture work. And it was evident there’s demand for a lot more.
“The days of token women in agriculture are gone,” Meck told the crowd. “Now there are women among the top executives in industry.”
Agribusiness firms were out in full force — and in recruiting mode. Monsanto Canada recently hired its first full-time talent acquisition person, and reps from DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer Crop Science, and MNP all spoke of their efforts to hire and promote women.
“We need to start nurturing women in agriculture,” said Gwen Paddock, RBC’s national manager for agriculture. “With banking and the chemical industries doing initiatives to encourage women, if agriculture doesn’t create an environment welcoming to women, it will fall behind. It’s theirs to lose.”
Cargill marketing manager Fran Burr called it a ‘career highlight’ to see so many ag women in one room together. She said gender was more of an issue when she began as an ag sales rep three decades ago and, like several other speakers, she talked of working long, hard hours to stay ahead of men in similar roles. But things have changed.
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“Now the emphasis is on talent and experience, not gender, when choosing employees,” said Burr. “I’m optimistic about the changes I’ve seen and continue to see. Many agriculture companies now see gender diversity as a business accelerator.”
There are also more diverse career options open to young women, particularly in operations, she added.
“We’re finding that’s interesting to women now,” said Burr, noting several of her female Cargill colleagues at the conference are general managers.
“The driver now is how strong women are in the organization, and what they are doing for the company — the diversity of thought and the style that they bring.”
When she looks at her customer base, she sees a similar shift in the role women are playing, she added.
“They’re the actual farmer, not the farm wife,” she said. “The other part of it is how active the woman on the farm is in the farming decisions. It’s a dominant, decision-maker role. In our case, we find men are very emotional about grain-marketing decisions, where women cut right through. They’re putting the grain-marketing plan on the fridge so they never lose sight of when they’re selling. Women have always been contributors, but what they do now is very influential on the calibre of the farm operations.”
It’s no longer a question of whether there are opportunities for women in agriculture, but how to attract more women, she said.
“How can we make it something they look to first? We need these people in agriculture. We absolutely need this youth, and these new ideas.”
Conference participants got a glimpse of the diversity of careers in agriculture in a panel discussion, which included Senator JoAnne Buth; Alison Sunstrum, ‘chief technology evangelist’ and co-CEO for livestock tech firm GrowSafe Systems of Airdrie; and Angela Santiago, CEO of the Little Potato Company of Edmonton.
There were numerous mother-daughter combinations among the delegates, who came from all walks of agriculture.
Ponoka rancher Mandi Matheson said she wished she had brought her daughters, too.
“I came to see other ag women, and to see life out there,” said Matheson. “To meet and see these women has been great, and they’re all willing to talk and share.”
Women from six provinces, five states, and more than 150 organizations attended the conference.
“The most outstanding thing I’ve been hearing from women here is that ‘I’m not alone,’” said Meck, adding there will be another Advancing Women Conference (although she’s been asked to hold the next one in Eastern Canada, or even the U.S.).
The conference was a unique experience for me personally. As a woman who’s been reporting on ag and rodeo for more than 30 years, it was great to reconnect with many of the folks I’ve interviewed in the past, from ‘my era.’
But it was also exciting to see the young women, and learn about the spectrum of choices they have ‘in the field’ today. To meet the women, and hear their stories, and broaden both networks and horizons was truly inspiring.