Business skills and mentoring help women grow in agriculture
Jennifer Holland is like many plant biologists in the U.S. today. She goes to work each morning for crop science company BASF and, depending on the day, dons a white lab coat to collaborate with researchers in the greenhouse or a pair of boots to visit customers in the fields. She spends her days supporting new technologies that prevent disease in major crops.
In one respect, though, Holland is not like the majority of ag scientists in U.S.: She is a woman, and most of her colleagues across the industry are men. This doesn’t bother Holland, who received her Ph.D. in 2011. In fact, she says, she has never thought about gender in the context of her profession, or even in agriculture.
"While I have noticed there is a greater proportion of ag professionals who are male, at the end of the day we are all on the same team," Holland says. "We want to make our company a solutions provider for growers and help them get the most out of their farm production."
The reality is that women make up about one-third of ag professional jobs in the U.S., notes Mary Shelman, director of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program. The number of farm operators who are women is on the rise, as farming today takes less physical strength than in years past.
This transformational change started with education. Females are receiving 50% of the general agricultural degrees today, according to research by the group Education For All Children. Half of all business management and marketing degrees also go to women. More than 50% of ag science degrees were completed by women in 2009, and 53% of master’s degrees in ag science, according to USDA.
A survey of attendees at the Women in Agribusiness meeting this fall showed that of 127 respondents, 39% held graduate degrees. Yet less than 15% of respondents were on an executive team at their company. General employment data does not reflect an upward trend for women—men continue to outnumber women in the work force, particularly in professions that deal with profit and loss. In the general employment sector, women make up 15% of executive committee members at Fortune 200 companies, but 62% of those are in "softer" areas such as human resources, which rarely lead to a CEO role, says a 2011 McKinsey & Company study.
Brains, Not Brawn. "We need great talent, and that can come from everyone," says Susan Burns, manager of external communications at Bunge Limited. Since women make up 50% of the population and therefore 50% of the talent, it would be wasteful to ignore women in agriculture.
"When we look out at the new graduates, we are not looking for more women. We are looking for
good talent, whether it is a female or a male. Agriculture can’t be afraid to hire women," Shelman says.
The facts about women in agriculture don’t get reported often: Of the 3.3 million U.S. farm operators, more than 30%—1 million—are women, according to census data. Women operators have increased 20% from 2002, and more than 75% of women operators are full owners of their land.
Globally, 70% of all farmers are women, with the bulk in developing countries; however, they earn just 10% of the ag income and control less than 2% of the land. In Africa, the majority of those who produce, process and market food are women, but only one in four ag researchers is female, notes African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).
DuPont is collaborating with AWARD to provide $400,000 over four years to help strengthen the research skills of female ag scientists.
"DuPont and AWARD share a common belief that women play an indispensable role in agriculture," says Paul E. Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer. "Empowering women to have a greater voice in decisions will have a significant impact on food security and poverty alleviation worldwide."
As more women farm the land, roles and negotiating take on new meaning, says Roe Stone, tour
outreach manager at Monsanto Company. "We find women are extremely involved in farm operations; many times, they are the major decision makers," says Stone, who spent the bulk of her career as owner/manager of Stone Seed and is involved with her family farm in central Illinois.
In ag sciences, the number of women is on the rise, but there is still a disconnect with women in
management, notes Michelle Smith, field research manager at Dow AgroSciences. "I have seen
the number of women at Dow AgroSciences increase, but it’s still not uncommon to be the only woman in the room," Smith says. "As a company we are improving gender balance, but as an industry we have a leaky bucket. Women are prematurely plateauing careers or leaving the work force altogether."
Dow AgroSciences field research manager Michelle Smith, second
from right, talks with mentors and learners during a Women’s
Innovation Network meeting.
Mentors Key for Women. To improve leadership skills and the career track for younger women at
Dow AgroSciences, Smith helped develop a mentor/coaching program that is part of the company’s Women’s Innovation Network. This program engages longtime employees to actively
support and develop future women leaders. There were 30 women learners and 30 coaches in 2011, and more are participating in 2012. Volunteers commit to a one-year trial program that includes monthly and bimonthly one-on-one meetings with coaches, and quarterly or twice-yearly meetings on a leadership topic.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive, Smith says. "Not only have learners said they improved leadership skills, they report a positive reflection on Dow AgroSciences," she says. "Mentorship is good for the individual and the company."
Likewise, Holland says, BASF supports an internal affinity group called Women in Business, which focuses on recruiting, developing and retaining women within the company.
Carol Kitchen, senior vice president and general manager for global ingredients at Land O’Lakes, started a women’s leadership group within her company to fill in the gaps she saw in the younger women coming up through the ranks.
"We have a leadership challenge with women in corporate America," Kitchen says. "Yet, it is the 35- to 40-year-old woman who is buying our horse feed. It’s in our own best interest to help develop and promote women in agriculture because they are often the top buyers of our product."
Simply put, there is a business case for greater diversity within the ag industry, Smith notes. "Any
business analyst can show that investing in gender diversity makes a company more profitable because it brings different ideas and perspectives to the table," she says.
Build business skills at EWA
There’s still time to join Top Producer at its annual Executive Women in Agriculture event, held at the Hotel InterContinental in downtown Chicago, Nov. 29–30.
This two-day seminar is designed for women farm owners, managers, marketers and any woman in ag who is interested in honing her business skills. The seminar will feature dynamic keynote speakers and educational breakout sessions, as well as an evening reception. Hear from ag industry experts and network with like-minded women.
For more information, visit www.ExecWomenInAg.com.