On Tuesday, February 17, fourteen women gathered in a meeting room at the OMAFRA building in Woodstock, ON to talk about maternity leave and how it impacts the agriculture industry.
Although extreme temperatures meant our guest speakers were unable to attend (barn freezes abound!), we were fed a delicious hot meal of lasagne and had an excellent open discussion and were able to reflect on the results from the recent survey that aimed to get a pulse on maternity leaves in the ag sector.
The audience was fairly diverse; two full-time farmers and twelve members of the ag industry, of which four were mothers.
Some interesting issues were brought up from a farmer perspective:
There is flexibility to choose whether to continue working on the farm or taking time off and still living on the farm, but many choose to continue working. This means babies and toddlers are taken out to barns and fields alongside their moms.
Isolation can become an issue. Mom & Tots events are not easy to attend when you live in a rural area. It takes more time, and also means leaving your work on the farm. Drop in events are easier to attend than scheduled ones because they provide you with flexibility to deal with farm issues as they arise.
Ask other families and farmers about rural community programs and co-op child care options.
From an industry perspective, it was fairly clear that most felt uncomfortable broaching the subject of maternity leave policies with their managers or Human Resources, and instead would welcome the HR groups to be more proactive and transparent in their communications with employees. Perhaps giving employees the option to ask questions anonymously would be a good start.
There was overwhelming support from the group to standardize a maternity leave policy across the industry to be more family centred. Agriculture could become the "Google" of maternity leaves - in-office child care, top up support, flexible hours, short weeks in the low-season, job sharing, and more. It could give the industry something to advertise about and tell women from outside of ag, "you want to work here!".
We also discussed the pressure faced by women in client or customer-facing roles who have to entrust their relationships with someone else for the year they are away. Thanks to social media, customers can still keep in contact with you over your leave, but it also invites them to add pressure for your return. It was mentioned that a more team-based approach to customers could help relay this concern, opposed to a solo-contact approach.
There was an interesting question posed as to how will the rise of contract work (versus a full-time position) alter maternity leave policies. In some organizations, full-time roles are getting reduced and with that maternity leaves. However, other businesses are investing heavily in their people, as they recognize the competitiveness of the industry and wanting to retain as much talent as possible. The next few years will be interesting to watch as the economy flattens and commodity prices stay low.
A comment was made that women who don't have children need to advocate for those who do, the same going for men. We all want to have the best talent in the industry, which means supporting women who choose to have families and careers in agriculture. This also means women need to stop judging other women's family decisions, such as going back to work or not going back to work and using the full year of maternity leave or not. Let's just support them however we can!
As the first generation of women who come back to work after maternity leaves, there are opportunities that need to be explored and capitalized on. It's no longer an Old Boy's Club.
We are seeing more men take active roles in parenting which should help reduce the stigma of women being able to have a career and a family.
So, where do we go from here? We need to hear more from women who have had families and returned to their same roles. How did that feel? How were you received? If you had another child, what was the reaction from your employer when you told them you were expecting again?
We also need to make use of support groups such as Women in Heels (please send a link if anyone has local connections).
We can add topics specific to women at ag events and shows such as FarmSmart, for example, how to navigate Employment Insurance while on maternity leave, family planning or child care on the farm. Let's leave the "canning" and "cross stitch" topics out, though!
Providing a mini-orientation to a woman after returning from maternity leave would help her get reacquainted with any changes that may have occurred over the year and ease the transition for the person who was covering her role, too.
We can also take the opportunity learn about other regions and sectors who have supportive maternity leave policies and share these with our HR groups. We can help develop the systems for us and women who want families in the future.
So, please add your comments if you couldn't attend and if you have experiences that would help us. The survey results can be found here.