Australian agriculture is taking action to improve gender balance in its workforce, but significant challenges remain at all levels of the farm community.
According to the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women comprise 41 per cent of the agricultural workforce, but fill 18pc of management roles - compared to an average of 43pc across all industries.
A mere 2.3pc of chief executive officers in Australian agribusinesses are female, compared with an average of 17pc across other industries.
University of New England Business School lecturer Dr Lucie Newsome’s said in her recent article ‘Women in rural workplaces struggle against the ‘boys club’ that leads to harassment’ that a culture of male dominance is a major driver for a high rate of sexual harassment in the bush.
She cited a survey of 84 female workers from regional areas, not specifically in agriculture, that found 73pc of women had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to 25pc of women Australia wide.
“Workplace culture of victim blaming and geographic isolation from services (such as police and medical care) prohibited the reporting of sexual harassment,” Ms Newsome said.
Her colleague at UNE Professor Alison Sheridan said they had found traditional gender stereotypes pigeonholed women into limited roles and she encouraged agribusiness leaders to foster women’s careers.
“Gender roles in rural Australia follow traditional patterns and this culture sets rural women as outsiders in the workplace,” Ms Sheridan said.
“Women have represented more than 50pc of ag science graduates for a number of years and yet they continue to remain poorly represented in agribusiness roles.”
AuctionsPlus chief executive Anna Speer acknowledged the challenges, but said more should be done to improve gender balance.
While she doesn’t endorse “token seats at the table” for women, AuctionsPlus employees are more than 50 per cent women across all parts of its business - from sales, to finance and business development. But some areas of the industry still struggle.
“In AuctionsPlus, there are 900 assessors but just 10 women. Livestock agencies are deficient in women in the field, it’s the same with auctioneers,” Ms Speer said.
“One of the differences you’ll see between women and men when they apply for a job - the female applicants might have nine out of 10 skills required and not apply, but the man with two out of 10 will.
“We need to support women to believe in themselves, to have a crack at those roles.
“I’m a big believer that having gender diversity and cultural diversity contributes to better performance, it does empower a team to think through all sides of problem from different angles.”
Mentoring from agribusiness leaders has contributed to Ms Speers’ career and she said it should play a larger role for women.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told a gathering at National Farmers’ Federation launch of the Diversity in Agricultural Leadership program that organisational culture can play a decisive role in righting gender balance.
“I certainly found this in the banking world where I was able to increase female representation in management from negligible to 50pc in two years…It's just silly to lock out more than half of the nation's intellect.”
He said he did not favour gender quotas and prefers to appoint on merit, but requires lists of potential appointees to be as evenly balanced as possible.
The Department of Agriculture and Water are now at 51pc women as well as 50pc of senior executives and he is aiming for equal representation across the board appointments in his portfolio. Female representation on boards has risen from 37pc to 40pc under his Ministership since December.
Gender equality starts at the top
Independent MP for Indi in north-east Victoria Cathy McGowan has supported the cause of gender equality since before her time in politics.
“Better involvement of women doesn’t just happen by doing more of the same, you have to change to meet the needs of women,” Ms McGowan said.
She was a farmer in the Indigo Valley near Albury and her off-farm rural consultancy included a stint with Australian Wool Innovation to boost participation of women in the male-dominated extension activities.
Ms McGowan said agribusiness leaders should be proactive about appointing more women into the sector’s limited number of leadership roles.
“If we leave the normal competitive processes to take place there’s a natural inclination to appoint men. It’s the person at the top that sets the culture of an organisation, I really believe that.
“If a CEO, minister or chairman want gender balance they can make it happen.”