Is It Time Ag Boards Talk About Gender Quotas?

Noted as the "greatest progress women have made since gaining the right to vote", Germany is the latest country to adopt mandatory quotas to increase gender diversity on their boards. If public boards do not have at least 30% of seats held by women they are to be left vacant. If Canadian agriculture could achieve this, our boards would at least represent their members (approximately 30% of farmers in Canada are women).

Today, agriculture lags all industries in Canada, with the exception of construction and enterprise-management corporations, when it comes to women on our major corporations' boards. That's third last. Not exactly a position to be proud of nor one which we can expect will command a lot of respect as equality and leadership diversity are likely to become a greater focus going forward.

Are quotas the answer?

When I posed this question to our group, is sparked a rich discussion. Women shared their experiences, debated the merits of a quota and began unpacking the current gender imbalance. The "Old Boys Club" is a common response to what's preventing women from reaching leadership positions. It was cited most often in the Canadian Agricultural HR Council survey but what does that mean?

I don't believe the men occupying the boardroom seats today are telling women they can't be involved. Indeed, many women's experience has been quite the opposite.

"I've never been discouraged to go on a board. Usually they're happy to have someone step up." - Karen Dallimore.

Talk of quotas also tends to lead to an assumption that merit no longer matters. Along with many other women, I believe it's quite the opposite. Merit should always be the first hurdle before any other consideration is given. Women are always quick to point out they do not want to be selected based on gender over leadership.

I think we need to stop making this argument because it suggests there are those seeking promotion based only on gender, which is a ludicrous assumption. Then, it also discredits the work of every woman who has earned her seat at the table. I called this out in a large, agricultural publication's article last month and with respect to Canada's current female cabinet ministers, it bears repeating:

"...what's to say the ones that are there aren't as strong or stronger than their male counterparts? Just because there's fewer, doesn't mean they are any less qualified or deserving. Given the barriers they've likely overcome to win their seat, I don't have an inkling of doubt they're not up to the job or as fully qualified."

Some maintain force is not the answer though, and it only promotes progress in the metric being measured. During the recent World Economic Forum, Sheryl Sandberg addressed this on the Progress Towards Parity panel.

She cites Norway as an example where their quota has increased women's participation on boards and in government, but it hasn't helped increase the number of women in management or leadership positions in those organizations, which is equally important. For her, the motivation for diversity is a no-brainer due to the performance advantage diversity offers to companies and organizations

Is Agriculture Up to the Challenge?

One thing we can be certain of is that agriculture doesn't like regulation. If mandatory quotas are not something you believe our industry should be entertaining, then it's time you start looking at how you can increase diversity in your sector.

If you're a woman interested in getting involved, but haven't been brave enough yet to volunteer, then follow along with us this week. We will be sharing advice and inspiration from other women who have been there. Tell us what you feel you need to feel prepared to step forward, and we are committing to continuing to build on this conversation.

A screenshot from the Canadian Liberal Party's campaign to recruit women to run for election. Source: Liberal Party of Canada

If you're a man, then consider asking a woman to run for your organization's board. "Invite her to run" was a successful campaign used by the Liberal Party of Canada to recruit women to run in the last election. They recognized women were 50% less likely to consider themselves a candidate for elected office, but encouragement from a friend could motivate them to consider.

Everything we know about how women tend to approach opportunities supports this could work in agriculture. This HBR article goes into more detail examining the often quoted statistic: women will wait to apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the qualifications while men will apply if they meet only 60%. It also suggests more information overall about your organization's nomination process could help increase recruitment.

The bright side is there is only one direction we can really move, and in the past few months we are proud to say many women in the Ag Women's Network have stepped forward to help guide our industry forward. The question still remains whether we're making progress fast enough or if we need a little push to make this a higher priority?

I've never supported quotas myself, but maybe it's time we give them some serious consideration in agriculture. We often look to Germany for their leadership on technology in agriculture, perhaps it's time we also consider their approach to leadership in general.

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