Agri-food specialist Karen Brosnan says more needs to be done to bridge the gender gap in her sector with 50% of companies yet to address the issue.
Originally from a dairy farm in north Kerry, Karen Brosnan is a management consultant working with companies, boards and executives in the agri-food sector to plan strategically for organisation and culture change, and to implement programmes of leadership and people development.
She is the current chairperson of Gurteen College, a director of Nuffield Ireland and the former chairperson of Ceres, the women in agri-business leadership network, as well as a member of the agri-food inclusion and diversity (I&D) taskforce. Here she discusses a number of issues facing women in her field.
What can be done to get more women involved in the sector?
Research shows organisations that embrace I&D are more innovative, sustainable and successful in the longer term. In this fast-paced world, it is important to provide opportunities for both men and women to make the most of their skills and experience.
According to a study by AON last year, 50% of agri-food businesses surveyed have engaged or have started the process of engaging in I&D strategies. The other 50%, in order to compete for talent with other sectors, need to follow suit and continue to row in behind the national programmes and initiatives that are currently underway.
At a broader level, the goal of the National Women and Girls Strategy is to develop ‘an Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life’. The strategy’s success depends on the shared engagement of women and men, in building a fairer society. This involves finding the programmes, opportunities, and people who support change and working with them.
“Research shows organisations that embrace I&D are more innovative, sustainable and successful in the longer term.”
What are the biggest challenges facing women in the sector?
While the number of women in CEO positions in the Irish agri-food sector has increased in recent times, female representation on boards and at senior management level is still low and far from the 30% base-line considered international standard.
I believe that the biggest challenge facing women in the workplace is unconscious bias. This bias comes from our life experiences and the way we have been brought up. It is hardwired into us. We bring these unconscious biases into the workplace and they influence how we make decisions.
When it comes to women in decision-making positions in the agri sector, we need to consider what are the assumptions that men and women make that might stop them recognising and utilising talent and potential. What are the assumptions that women themselves are making that might be stopping them putting themselves forward. Individuals need to become aware of their beliefs and biases and to take part in conversations around how we support women, young men, and different nationalities in different roles.
“While the number of women in CEO positions in the Irish agri-food sector has increased in recent times, female representation on boards and at senior management level is still low.”
What needs to be done to increase female representation on boards of agri-food organisations?
Studies over the last decade have consistently shown a positive correlation between women on boards and the company performance. In a global analysis of 2,400 companies conducted by Credit Suisse in 2018, organisations with at least one female board member yielded higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those that didn’t have any women on the board. Increasing numbers of women in the workforce has not translated into significantly higher numbers of women in higher and management grades. Organisational cultures, and particularly agricultural cultures, need to become increasingly open to challenging gender and other stereotypes.
Is there a lack of talent in the pipeline?
Ireland has the highest rate of college students per capita, in Europe, and with an increasing number of third level programmes in agri-food with a high female participation, it means that a shortage of talent is not the issue; the issue is graduates’ perceptions of the industry. The agri-food sector needs to be able to compete with others for top talent. There are many businesses in the industry that are struggling to attract talent from traditional sources, because they cannot compete on reputation or compensation. The future success of the agri-food industry depends on attracting diverse talent and thinking. The pace of change demands it.
“I believe that the biggest challenge facing women in the workplace is unconscious bias.”
Are there opportunities for greater planning and review on family farm businesses?
As with every self-employed person in Ireland, some businesses are ahead, but for many, it can be hard to get the balance right. Entrepreneurs need to build in thinking time, and time for review. I speak for myself when I say that it is easy to get lost in the ‘doing’ instead of thinking. One of the best opportunities I have had in the last 18 months has been to become part of an entrepreneurs synergy group. We take one morning a month to review our business goals, our challenges and outcomes for the month. This gives us a great opportunity to take an honest look at the return on investment of our time and to look at what is stopping us being better, more courageous or to question our motives. It has encouraged me to be more realistic, and it is something I think all business, including farms, could benefit from.
The rise in veganism is having a previously unanticipated effect on meat farmers – just how worrying is this?
Growing public awareness of health, climate change and animal health are driving changes in food preferences. We know that the food industry is responding by providing more plant based products, which means that this is a new reality rather than a food fad. This is a complex debate with much broader social and environmental ramifications, which will greatly impact on farmers who serve as custodians of land and animals. We need a holistic view on the impact of our food systems, as we must also consider the nutritional value of what we can grow locally versus alternatives with lower nutrition and more additives, which may be imported from across the world.
The sector needs to choose to be informed, to challenge ‘fake news’ and to avoid polarised responses. Everyone wants better health, a stable climate and the vast majority of farmers are passionate about the health of their animals and their land, so committing to collaborating on policy and outcomes is imperative.
By Stephen Larkin.