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Reporter’s Notebook: Getting women on board(s)

Whether and how to work to recruit women to ag boards has become a contested topic

Should farm groups be actively recruiting more women to their boards, or are mostly-male boards reflective of the demographic they serve?

It’s a question that’s generated heated conversation this fall. As a non-farmer, I’m hesitant to tell any producer groups that they’ve got a problem, because frankly I don’t know what the climate is like on these boards.

However, I do have a few thoughts.

There is no doubt that there are more male primary producers than female. But it’s also well known that there are many women who do farm alongside spouses or family. And the number of solo female operators under the age of 35 is a fast-growing demographic, according to the latest Census of Agriculture. There were over 1,000 farms run by female sole operators in that age group, versus over 8,700 run by solo men.

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The number of women farming does vary by sector. However, I’d suggest that producer groups with an eye to the future should make sure they’re doing something to foster leadership potential in both young women and men. Many are doing just that with their young leader programs.

You may have heard of the study declaring that men are much more likely to apply for a job if they don’t meet all of the posted criteria. This is based on an internal personnel survey by Hewlett Packard. Whether this is due to gender differences in confidence, a female tendency to adhere to rules, or some other cause is up for debate.

But it’s something female friends and I have talked about over the last two or three years, and it generally matches our own experiences. And it’s something Leeann Minogue brought up when we were discussing the women on boards issue recently.

It’s likely that women with no board experience might need more nudging to step up than their male counterparts. Board orientations or other programs to initiate new board members can help (and benefit new male board members, too). A chance to help out with committees, event planning, or other activities before committing to the board could also be useful.

Another thing to think about is how the organization recruits new board members. In many organizations, much of this is done informally. Incumbent board members keep an eye out for people they think would be a good fit for the board, and then try to talk them into putting their names forward.

This is a practical approach, and helps ensure board succession. It sure beats the cricket chorus that sometimes greets the call for nominations during the general meeting. But critics of this approach say it often means incumbents recruit people just like them, which is a problem if you’re looking for diversity. Personally, as a board member, I’m not ready to chuck it from my toolbox yet, but I will be aware of the potential problems. And I think it’s important to encourage nominations from the floor during the general meeting.

I also think good governance is key to recruiting people to a board. Governance is one of those things most of us don’t fully appreciate or even think about until we witness a train wreck.

Many years ago, I was invited to step up to the board with a non-profit I’d regularly volunteered with. I attended one board meeting, where I witnessed a board member standing over the executive director, yelling at her. At the end of the meeting, this same board member shook my hand and said he looked forward to sparring with me.

It was not an effective recruitment strategy.

I hope that is an extreme, and rare, example of bad behaviour. But it happens. Most of us don’t have any desire to spend our spare time embroiled in that kind of board drama.

I don’t think solid policies and bylaws prevent every problem, but they can at least help a board deal with issues when they arise.

Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame Inductees

Speaking of women in leadership positions, all of the 2017 inductees into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame were women. Congratulations to Robynne Anderson, Patty Jones and Jean Szkotnicki.

Anderson was nominated by the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, Canadian Seed Trade Association, SeCan and Stokes Seeds for her work in the seed industry. She worked as a legislative assistant to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, working on the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act. From there, she founded Issues Ink, an ag publisher and consulting firm that worked with the Canadian Seed Trade Association. Issues Ink had with several magazines in its stable, including Spud Smart and Seed World. She now runs an ag consulting firm called Emerging Ag. Anderson was also involved in the campaign to declare 2016 the International Year of the Pulses, along with several other achievements. Anderson is based in Calgary, Alberta.

Jones, nominated by Semex, is a well-known photographer in the dairy industry. She has snapped over 70,000 photographs of dairy cattle in the last 44 years, a feat that has changed the way livestock genetics are marketed. Jones is a regular at the Royal Winter Fair, taking photos of every dairy breed champion. She also lends her photography skills to 4-H shows, from the regional to the national level. Her photos of proven sires and daughters have been used as marketing tools by the Canadian artificial insemination industry. Jones also breeds dairy cattle on her own operation, Silvercap Holsteins, at Puslinch, Ontario.

Szkotnicki was nominated by the Canadian Animal Health Institute and Byron Beeler. She is a leader in antimicrobial resistance issues, helping ensure antibiotics are used properly. Over two decades, Szkotnicki helped close legislative loopholes that allowed medications and veterinary pharmaceuticals to be imported and used in Canada that weren’t approved by Health Canada (the release notes these loopholes were being abused). She’s also active on several boards, including the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, and chairs the animal health product regulatory advisory committee to Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Szkotnicki lives in Moffat, Ontario.

Szkotnicki, Jones, and Anderson join more than 210 inductees in the Hall of Fame. Since the Hall of Fame was established in 1960, five other women have been inducted. They include Cora Hind (inducted in 1963), Jessie Donalda Dunlap (1963), Adelaide Hoodless (1963), Ellen McLean (1967), and Helen McKercher (1978).

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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