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Women advancing in agriculture

Sarah Weigum’s advice for young female Grainews readers in the ag industry

In the summer of 2011 I went to a combine clinic put on by our dealership. I had returned to the farm only a few months earlier and was still finding my footing in a new-again world. There was one other woman at this clinic and I remember thinking, “I don’t want to sit by her at lunch, as if I’m obligated to talk to the only other woman in the room.”

How silly I was. I did end up chatting with her and that was the beginning of a great friendship. In the years since, I have become more comfortable in this male-dominated field, but I have also learned to value the female connections I make in agriculture. The reality is, if I had sat next to Allison’s husband, I would’ve had a good visit, but I probably wouldn’t have developed the friendship that I have with her.

Often humans are guilty of tribalism — avoiding anyone who looks different than themselves. Being the minority in one’s profession poses the opposite problem: you can work a long time without seeing someone who looks like you. With this reality, I was excited to attend the Advancing Women in Agriculture conference held in Calgary in April. I talk with men all day long about farm-related issues — how exciting to attend an event where I could talk about those same things with women. (Believe me, the experience is different, although it’s hard to pinpoint why.)

While I was anticipating this event, there was some chatter on social media about whether it was appropriate to have a women only event. I get it. Men are probably tired of being told they’re all privileged chauvinists. If my experience in agriculture has taught me anything, it’s that our menfolk are quite enlightened these days. I seldom get pushed around for being female and in fact I’ve encountered a lot of outright enthusiasm that I, as a young woman, would choose farming as a career. Men in our society receive a pretty clear message that women are not to be excluded, so why should there be venues for women to gather exclusively?

For the same reason that elementary school principals are excited to hire my brother. And for the same reason that a Swedish father and photographer I read about is documenting the lives of other dads on paternity leave with their children.

“I had a hard time finding literature, blogs or anything that was written for me as a father,” wrote Johan Bavman on his website.

Boys in school need male role models and men being hands-on fathers need to feel a sense of camaraderie. Similarly, when women see other women succeeding and in positions of leadership, they are empowered to strive for excellence in their career.

Kirstine Stewart, head of Twitter Canada and former head of English programming at CBC, expressed this sentiment on the second day of Advancing Women. She told us about a big announcement she made while at the CBC and her subsequent mortification when, rather than focusing on the content of her message, the media decided to talk about her shoes. It wasn’t until a young female CBC employee said, “It’s so good to see people that look like us up on that stage,” that Stewart realised she didn’t want or need to hide her femininity.

Of course, as women we shouldn’t confine ourselves to female ghettos (although, if we did the food and decor would probably improve dramatically). It’s important to meet the world in all its fullness and diversity and be challenged by it. We exist in social circles that are constantly dilating and constricting. If you’re a beef producer you might go to a cattlemen’s association meeting one month, a breed-specific gathering the next and a general farm meeting after that. The importance of gathering in both familiar and diverse crowds can apply to all facets of our lives, be they gender, age, religion, political affiliation or profession. Both like-mindedness and broad-mindedness make our lives richer.

A while back, Leeann asked me to write a column with advice for other young women starting out in agriculture. I thought for a while and realised that I didn’t have much — at least not particular to women, or even agriculture, really. Most of the lessons I’ve learned could apply to any young person starting any career. We’re not all that different, after all.

Nevertheless, most people are encouraged by seeing someone who looks like they do, succeeding at the thing they want to do. If you’re a man in agriculture — or a women in nursing or elementary education — that’ll happen without anyone thinking twice about it. So have empathy on those for whom it doesn’t come as easy.

If you’re an outlier in your field, there will be times you want your gender to disappear, but embrace the challenges of being in the minority and don’t make the mistake of being too proud to connect with those who look like you. At the combine clinic, I almost missed a great opportunity.

About the author

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Sarah Weigum grows pedigreed seed and writes at Three Hills, Alta.

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