Opinion: It’s time to finally address the lack of diversity in agriculture

Overcoming sexism and racism can’t be something we just talk about — bold action is needed

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Agriculture can no longer afford — literally — to be a non-inclusive industry.

As we look bravely to 2021, hopefully burgeoned by plentiful crops and improved grain prices, it seems fitting to assess where our sector is at when it comes to our most important resource — people — and where we intend to go.

How does agriculture’s scorecard look when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion?

Unfortunately, the answer to this is, ‘Not good.’

And it’s time we do something about it.

In recent years, agriculture has seen its share of criticism by prominent individuals over the low number of women in leadership and power positions, and our historic treatment and lack of recognition of women on farms. We have also seen many female-focused initiatives with the proclaimed goals of supporting each other, networking and building confidence.

But, have these efforts had any impact? Have they resulted in more women feeling secure in the workplace, free from harassment and sexism, and with access to the same opportunities as their counterparts?

Our own anecdotal experiences say no.

We have both experienced push-back when trying to raise this issue amongst our professional peers, essentially being told to be quiet and keep our “social issues” to ourselves.

The numbers reflect this attitude.

As of last year, only 12 per cent of the national and provincial agricultural organizations in Canada had female board chairs or presidents. More than two-thirds of these organizations have no female board members. Furthermore, according to a recent survey, 61 per cent of women in agriculture have experienced blunt sexism in the workplace and many women are speaking out about the harassment they’ve faced at agriculture-related trade shows.

To date, these conversations have focused mainly on women in agriculture, but this is just one aspect of true diversity. By leaving out other demographics, we are leaving a huge gaping hole.

It’s time to embrace the full meaning of diversity in the context of our people scorecard, by including race, sexuality, ability, age and religion in the conversation.

The numbers for Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) working in the agriculture sector also reflect non-inclusivity.

Despite the fact that there’s a growing population of Canadian farmers who identify as Indigenous, Métis and Inuit, only three per cent of Canada’s Indigenous people work in agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing. Furthermore, people of colour make up only 8.6 per cent of the workforce in natural resources, the agriculture sector and related production occupations.

Over the past year we’ve also heard how our sector and the Prairies are not immune to racism.

We don’t even have similar numbers available for the LGBTQ+ community in agriculture (although there is a wonderful Instagram account dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ people in ag — @PrideInAg).

We know without a doubt that diversity and inclusion is an imperative for thriving workplaces and industries in the 21st century. Multiple studies in recent years have shown that increased diversity within organizations results in increased profits, stronger creativity, innovation, as well as better risk management and decision-making.

It also increases the strength and resiliency of human capital.

All of this means that our organizations, and our sector, will be more successful, and our people fully valued, when we fully embrace diversity and inclusion.

So, as we look bravely to 2021 and assess where our sector is at, we are left with one conclusion: The time for platitudes is over.

Now is the time for change, and bold moves that are within our reach.

While there’s no harm in celebrating ‘women in ag’ and ‘diversity,’ right now we need action, accountability and a plan to effect concrete change.

While #AgTwitter is a great tool to keep us in touch, it isn’t the medium for the rich, nuanced conversations that are required about this important topic. So how do we move beyond these politically charged threads?

It starts with real conversations and more productive dialogue, with engaged and diverse voices and leaders from across our great sector.

This is why we are launching The Diversity Imperative, a podcast on this topic, later this month.

Canada is depending on our sector to help drive economic recovery post COVID-19. The entire world is depending on our sector to produce more and more healthy and clean food, sustainably, at a time when a large chunk of our workforce and leadership is nearing retirement age and we are facing a growing labour gap.

We simply cannot do this without a vibrant workforce led by progressive leaders.

The time for ‘shining the light’ on this is over. We are ready to dig into this conversation and ask that you join us.

Hannah Konschuh is a farmer and director of the Alberta Wheat Commission and Erin Gowriluk is the executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada. The website for The Diversity Imperative will launch later this month at diversityimperative.com. Podcasts will be available at Spotify, iTunes, Google Play and from other podcast apps.

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