Veronica Braker has spent nearly her entire 27-year career in industries and roles traditionally dominated by men — manufacturing, engineering, plant management and agriculture — all while raising five children.

“I can’t tell you how many people have said to me ‘You must not have any kids,’” said Braker, who is the senior vice-president of global operations for Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM). “I’ve had people tell me that women shouldn’t be in a plant, that they wouldn’t let their wife or daughter work there. The women I know are very focused and driven. People can try to make you uncomfortable, but they can’t unless you allow it.”

Veronica Braker a senior executive with ADM, said having a mentor and being a mentor is a critical part of success. Photo courtesy of ADM.

Being confident, working hard and doing the job she was hired to do have gone a long way in Braker’s career, which has included management and senior level leadership positions with GE, BASF and Flint Hills Resources. She made the move to the agriculture industry when she joined ADM in March 2019.

But it’s not always been easy finding that work-life balance and breaking into fields, like agriculture, where women are the minority.

Having a diverse workplace is better for companies’ financial performance, studies have shown. Men and women have different viewpoints, opinions and insights, making for better problem solving, according to the Gallup study, “The Business Benefits of Gender Diversity.”

It’s a fact being recognized by major agribusinesses as well as smaller grain companies, feed mills, flour mills, agriculture associations, universities and governments across the globe, and they want to do something to close the gender gap within the industry. In a time when the workforce is rapidly aging and retiring, it doesn’t make sense to exclude 50% of the population from the job candidate pool.

“If we do not have more women contributing, then we are simply missing out,” said Randy Garvert, senior director of operations at Ardent Mills and vice-president of the International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM). “The industry needs new ideas to push boundaries and those new ideas come from people. People who have different backgrounds, upbringing, schooling and areas of expertise all bring new and exciting perspectives.”

Key factors contributing to the gender gap include unequal pay, a lack of mentors and the lack of a strong personal network, according to a Women in Food and Agriculture survey conducted by Alltech and AgriBriefing. More than 2,500 respondents from across the supply chain and around the world participated in the survey.

Anecdotally, women in the agribusiness industry say some of the barriers include lack of knowledge about the opportunities available, the perception that these types of careers don’t mesh with having a family, and the feeling that they don’t belong.

Companies hope to find answers with a multitude of initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. Some examples include Together We Grow, a consortium of large agribusiness players committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness, and Women of Wheat, an employee resource group at Ardent Mills that fosters a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Agriculture associations are addressing the topic, including the IAOM, which had a special meeting on the topic at its 2019 annual meeting, and the National Grain and Feed Association, which had a session on boosting business through diversity and inclusion at its Country Elevator Conference and Trade Show in December.

In addition, groups like Women in Agribusiness are giving women a platform to meet and discuss relevant agriculture topics at summits and informal meetups.

A key component of many of these programs, and a need expressed by many women in the agribusiness industry, is providing role models or mentorships. Learning from people like Braker, who have “been there, done that,” can make a huge difference in women choosing to enter a male-dominated field and having success.

“Build a network, both male and female,” Braker said. “Have a mentor and be a mentor because a lot of people have been there. Sometimes you just feel more comfortable with people who have had similar experiences.”

Gender gap

In 2018, women’s global labor force participation rate was 48.5%, down from 51.4% in 1990, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that works with companies to create workplaces that work for women. Men’s labor force participation rate also dropped in the same time period, from 80% to 75%.

While women account for 40% of the labor force in many countries, the level of participation varies widely. For example, in Australia, women’s labor force participation reached 60.5% in 2018 while in India participation is just 27.2%.

On average, women are still less likely to participate in the labor market than men, according to the study “World Employment Social Outlook: Trends for Women 2018” by the International Labor Organization (ILO). While the gap narrowed by 2 percentage points, the rate of improvement has slowed since 2009 and is expected to stop between 2018-21, or even reverse.

Within developed, developing and emerging countries, there are significant differences in access to the labor market for women. The gap in participation rates between men and women in developing and developed countries is narrowing but it continues to widen in emerging countries, the ILO said.

Gender gaps are particularly wide in Arab states, northern Africa and southern Asia, the ILO said. Restrictive gender and cultural norms mean women in these countries are more constrained in their options for paid employment.

Developing countries have the lowest gender gap at 11.8 percentage points in 2018. This likely reflects the economic necessity for women to seek employment. Women in these countries also are often defined as members of the informal economy, and are outside the scope of labor legislation, social security regulations and collective bargaining agreements, the ILO said.

Although there has been progress, women are scarce among senior leaders, Catalyst said. As of the 2018 Fortune list, only 24 women were chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies. Globally, women account for less than a quarter of senior roles.

There was a vast difference in workplace perceptions among the female and male respondents in the Alltech survey. Half of the female respondents agreed that women are well represented in the leadership of their organizations while 65% of men agreed.

In terms of overall female representation in the agri-food industry, 43% of women agreed women are well represented and 59% of men agreed.

When it comese to wages, 41% of men strongly agreed women are fairly compensated compared to 22% of women who strongly agreed.

Respondents in Asia were most likely to report women were well-represented in leadership (83%), followed by Europe (67%), Africa (66%) and the Americas (65%). Only half of those in Oceania agreed.

The differences in access to decent work opportunities between men and women is a major obstacle to creating an equitable and inclusive labor market, the ILO said. Significant effort is needed by governments, employers and trade unions to bridge the gap in the labor market, as well as initiatives to address the unequal household and care responsibilities that women face. This includes fostering the transition from informal to formal jobs for women; continuing to encourage female enrollment in formal education and vocational training; improving public policies to expand coverage of child-related services; and promoting redistribution of family responsibilities.

“Reducing gender gaps in the labor market therefore requires comprehensive measures, tailored specifically to women (in recognition of their widely varying circumstances), which will ultimately contribute to the welfare of society,” the ILO said.

The Alltech survey showed that, for the most part, the agriculture industry is making great progress in closing the gender gap and employees are feeling positive about the future. Fifty-eight percent of all respondents feel that women are well-represented in the industry overall, 79% agree that their organization is becoming more inclusive and 80% said the industry overall is becoming more inclusive.

Since she started in the agriculture industry in the 1990’s AFIA’s new leader Constance Cullman said she has seen female representation in leadership positions grow. Photo courtesy of AFIA.

In the recent past there have been several examples of women ascending to leadership roles in the private and public sector: Patricia Woertz, who was CEO of ADM from 2006-14; Marie-Claude Bibeau in March 2019 became the first woman in Canadian history to be appointed federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food; and in October 2019, Constance Cullman was named the president and CEO of the American Feed Industry Association.

“I started my career in the 1990s and I can tell you from firsthand experience that the number of times that I have gone into a meeting and been the only woman has dropped dramatically,” said Cullman, who’s involvement in the agriculture industry has included time as an extension associate, an administrator with the Foreign Agricultural Service, government affairs leader for Dow AgroScience and CEO of the Farm Foundation. “It’s so exciting to see the talent of women in our industry being recognized with prominent roles in agriculture.”

In Colombia, Claudia Maria Diaz Chaustre has seen the role of women in milling grow. When she first started in the industry, women had access to positions in the quality area of mills. Now, because of the implementation of standards and certifications, more women are involved in the milling process. Diaz Chaustre worked her way up from laboratory assistant to plant director for Molinos Santa Marta’s mills in Buga and Santa Marta.

“Current technology is making it easy for the milling industry to open its doors and welcome women,” Diaz Chaustre said. “Through media, we can visualize new trends, careers, processes and we are able to see the female leadership growing, which is an objective in many countries.”

Still, more work needs to be done to have women involved in all aspects of milling.

“That is the big challenge for women, to have access to other areas in the whole manufacturing process,” she said. “Women are prepared to rotate shifts and work in teams with attention to detail.”

Diversity benefits

Mary Gleason, plant manager at Siemer Milling’s facility in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, U.S., said there is lots of growing and learning in the milling industry, and it takes all kinds of perspectives. Photo courtesy of Siemer Milling.

Gallup found in its study of 800 business units from two companies in two different industries that gender-diverse business units have better financial outcomes than those dominated by one gender. In the case of retail, revenue was 14% higher in diverse units and for the hospitality company, revenue was 19% higher for the diverse units.

In addition, a gender-diverse workforce expands access to resources such as various sources of credit, multiple sources of information and wider industry knowledge. Companies are also better able to serve a more diverse customer base, Gallup said, and diversity helps attract and retain more female employees.

On an even larger scale, improving gender parity could have a significant impact on the global gross domestic product (GDP), according to the World Economic Forum. Closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25% by 2025 could increase global GDP by $5.3 trillion.

Beyond the numbers and studies, women already blazing trails in agribusiness have witnessed the benefits first-hand of a diverse workplace. For one, women are good at multitasking, juggling multiple complex topics at one time, Braker said. They are also natural nurturers.

“People matter to us,” she said. “Sometimes we can miss that in an industrial environment. But it is important to truly engage an employee, not just their hands, but their heart and head. We can get the best out of the situation and get the best possible results.”

Women are detail oriented, which is a major benefit for the feed industry, said Larisa Bontrager, regulatory compliance senior manager with Belstra Milling Company’s feed mill in DeMotte, Indiana, U.S.

“Details are very important for producing safe, quality feed for our animals, and that is something we strive for,” she said. “For the feed industry, I think we would benefit from having more women involved.”

More good can be done when there is more than one perspective addressing a problem, said Joy O’Shaughnessy, chief operating officer, HighQuest Partners, LLC and managing director of Women in Agribusiness.

“Different genders come at problems differently,” she said. “Because business has been run by men since the beginning, the way in which business is conducted is very masculine. Part of my goal is to make feminine behavior in business more common and acceptable. I think there’s a lot of good that comes from a female perspective.”

At ADM, diversity is core to the company’s success and its ability to fulfill its mission and goals, said Michael D’Ambrose, chief human resource officer. Decisions that are made by diverse teams in an environment that is inclusive are more powerful and more effective.

“Diversity in our company is one reason why we are recognized as being a leader,” he said. “We want everyone in the room to represent the world we live in and represent our customers. The better the environment is for all of us, the more successful we are for shareholders and ourselves.”

Overcoming obstacles

The benefits of gender diversity are clear, and agribusinesses recognize there is a gap in the industry that must be closed. But building that bridge will require overcoming obstacles real and perceived.

Some of the very real obstacles involve infrastructure, such as the lack of female locker rooms and restrooms.

“We must invest in our physical locations to ensure our locker rooms and break room facilities are meeting the needs of all of our team members,” Garvert said. “We must invest in training and development for those in hiring roles to bring awareness to bias and the benefits of a diverse and inclusive work environment. In our diversity and inclusion efforts at Ardent Mills, we are doing work in both areas. ”

Agriculture is one of the oldest industries, and traditionally women were not employed in the more technical aspects, Braker said. That’s starting to change, but it’s going to take time to reverse the trend.

“Some of these facilities haven’t had the most positive environment where women felt comfortable,” Braker said. “They also thought because of the job requirements, they couldn’t have kids. That’s changing. We’re decreasing that gap between men’s and women’s needs in the workplace.”

Within the milling industry, there’s definitely a “good ol’ boy feeling,” that can make women feel unwanted and that they don’t belong, said Mary Gleason, plant manager at Siemer Milling’s Hopkinsville, Kentucky, U.S., flour mill.

“I’ve heard ‘girls, can’t do that.’ It really burns me,” she said. “I think everyone can have good ideas. There’s lots of growing and learning to be done in the milling industry and it takes all kinds of people. I bring a different thought process and ideas. I’ve seen a lot in a not-very long career.”

The misconception that a woman can’t handle as much as a man is a common complaint from those in the industry. Some of the best experiences Fran Churchill had during her 20 years in the milling industry was where the men had the same expectations toward her as they did for each other. Churchill is now the NAMA instructor at Kansas State University’s Department of Grain Science and Industry.

“When I returned to Kansas State as a faculty member in 2012, I was surprised to hear women still experiencing the same attitudes as I did 20 years ago,” she said. “What’s insidious is when a female doesn’t get the right training because of a boss’ bias about what he thinks a woman can do. If you don’t get the training or the experience you need, it’s certainly harder to advance.”

The agriculture industry doesn’t always do the best in marketing the careers that exist and the diversity in those career choices, D’Ambrose said. The industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and it’s going to continue to evolve.

“We’re not doing a good job of marketing the jobs that exist and how impactful those careers can be,” he said. “It’s not just about working in a field.”

The 100% placement rate for Kansas State University’s milling science degree is what convinced Gleason to pursue that path instead of the medical field as she originally intended.

“I visited the milling science department and I really liked it,” she said. “It was a small, tight-knit group.”

Since graduating in 2009, her career has moved briskly through management with Cargill, then Ardent Mills and now Siemer Milling.

“The milling industry has so many opportunities,” she said. “You never stop learning and you’re never going to get bored. Every day is different. It’s fun to look back at how many different challenges that have come up and what a learning experience they all were.”

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Gleason said she has had to work harder to prove herself compared to male counterparts. In many of her jobs, she was the first female to have that position. She has been told by a leader in the industry that they would never hire a woman as a head miller because women will just quit once they get married and have kids. She’s been asked if it would be weird to go on a work dinner because it might look like a date.

“People have an unconscious bias because it’s just not something they are used to,” she said. “That makes it just a little bit harder. You have to earn their respect; it’s not just a given.”

Gleason is opposed to hiring women just for the sake of meeting a diversity quota. She has heard people say that she got that job simply because she is a female, which undermines the qualifications she possesses.

“I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at and I’ve sacrificed a lot to get there,” she said. “We need women to be successful. The more examples of successful women we have working in the industry, the more we’ll get rid of the bias.”

Jobs like Gleason’s and others in and around milling and grain storage and handling aren’t easy. It’s dirty, hot, loud and she’s on call 24-7; it’s not easy to find anyone — man or woman — who wants to take on the challenge.

“I have my phone on me at all times,” she said. “I’ve canceled vacations. It’s pretty demanding. It’s really hard to find and retain talent. People don’t want to work nights and weekends. With other industries making jobs more flexible, the less desirable it makes our kind of job.”

At the same time, there is a misconception that jobs in operational facilities require a high degree of manual labor, Garvert said.

“We are not throwing 100-pound bags of flour anymore,” he said. “There have been great improvements through technology and the resources available. There is a lower number of women in the vast majority of our facilities to begin with and being a woman hired into that environment can be challenging for them.”

Bontrager said because she works in a feed mill, she is often asked if she throws bags all day.

“People are unaware of all the different parts and pieces of our industry and believe it is mainly an industry for males,” she said. “Most women believe you have to be in the mill all day in dusty or dirty environments. I think increased education about all the different jobs available would help to expand the female presence in our industry.”

Bontrager is one of a few women working in production at Belstra, but she said the company has women in a variety of jobs throughout the facility from warehouse to order entry to management.

“I have never felt that I have been held back from opportunities by being a female at our company,” she said. “I believe we give women opportunities to excel.”

Sometimes women build their own obstacles, O’Shaughnessy said, thinking that if they work hard, good things will just come to them.

“That’s not the case; you have to go after what you want,” she said. “Networking is as important as being good at your job. Women are less inclined to do that. Women also don’t self-advocate nearly as much as men.”

When it comes to retention, the sometimes-remote locations of agriculture industry jobs can be a challenge. A common issue is whether there are job opportunities for employees’ significant others. For example, in many of ADM’s locations, it is the single largest employer, D’Ambrose said.

“When people decide to have a partner in life, that partner wants to have a career, too,” he said. “There needs to be other employment opportunities for those people. It’s a real challenge for the industry and a challenge for us. We’re working on how we can be a conduit to find remote work for people so both can pursue careers.”

Gleason and her spouse met while on the job, and their employer at the time, Cargill, was good about moving people together and finding opportunities for both. When she left Ardent, the couple decided they would follow her career.

“Now he’s in consulting and we can live anywhere in the continental U.S.,” she said.

Finding solutions

Mary Gleason checks flour at Siemer’s mill in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, U.S. Photo courtesy of Siemer Milling.

Some of the solutions will come from within, according to women working in the industry. Results and confidence matter, Braker said.

“Be confident in what you do,” she said. “The way you get credibility is through execution. Be good at what you’re coming in to do. Know what’s expected and execute it.”

As a female leader in a male-dominated business, Gleason said it’s important to stand up for yourself.

“You have to learn to stand up for yourself and have a voice, or you’ll get trampled,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest help in closing the gender gap and ensuring the success for women is hearing from others, like Braker, Gleason and Churchill, who have had success in the agriculture industry, and with balancing home and work life. According to the Alltech survey, one of the key barriers in progressing a career in the industry is the lack of mentors, with 75% of women agreeing it is a significant barrier.

“We need role models and the insight from women who have been there,” Braker said. “What are the strategies and how did they make it work.”

Mentorship programs are essential, as well as exposure to leadership, both male and female, Braker said. Discussions about career paths need to start early, she said, as soon as grade school. Gleason agreed that women need good mentors, people who are going to be honest, help them and teach them along the way.

“True mentorship from high-level leaders taking an interest and making sure women are successful would help,” she said. “Retention of women is such an issue and if mentors genuinely take an interest, they can recognize when someone is struggling or having a hard time and help guide and develop. If more women are getting into the industry, but they’re not being successful, it’s moving us backward.”

Churchill echoed the sentiment that mentors and support is needed among the women in the agribusiness industry.

“Women need to stick together and support each other,” she said. “There’s no need to be so competitive that you shut other women out. Companies follow EEOC laws but there’s still the male political layer to navigate, and like it or not, it is still difficult for a woman to gain access to that group. You have to support each other and help each other, whether that’s moving ahead or working to make the workplace more family-friendly.”

AFIA’s Cullman said she takes a special interest in mentoring talented young men and women.

“It’s on all of us to recognize that the talent is there,” she said. “There are opportunities now that we didn’t have before. There’s less stereotyping but we have to continue to push against that. I think no woman wants to be hired because of her gender. But no woman wants to be denied an opportunity because of her gender.”

Companies like ADM and Ardent Mills are trying to foster those mentorships through a variety of programs. For example, it has formed employee resource groups and diversity councils in each region of the world, D’Ambrose said.

“They are diverse themselves and are focused on driving diversity and inclusion everywhere in the world,” he said. “It promotes a more inclusive environment because the teams themselves are more inclusive.”

Ardent Mills is also actively addressing diversity within its workplaces. The company has created employee resources groups; is investing in Project Elle, which includes physical assets such as locker rooms, break rooms, medical and mothers rooms; hiring with a focus on recognizing and eliminating bias; university partnerships in diversity programs; partnering with Future Farmers of America and Agriculture Future of America; and organizational awareness with in-depth reviews of minority equity reviews, engagement, turnover and retention.

“Further, we are carefully assessing areas that are deemed barriers, like the number of days worked and hours worked, relocation requirements and enhanced maternity/paternity support,” Garvert said.

A key part of its diversity plan is Women of Wheat (WOW), which focuses on the development of women in leadership, increased engagement and relationships. It was established in 2017 and is led by Ardent Mills team members, with CEO and senior leadership sponsorship.

WOW has established mentoring relationships across the business and has regular forums where guest speakers or panels share insights and learning to everyone across the business, Garvert said.

“A great, recent example is CEO and founder of The Bakery Cos., Cordia Harrington, who spoke to the organization on topics ranging from raising a family while building her business to providing a great customer experience,” he said.

For ADM, diversity is not just a human resources issue, it is part of the company’s culture from the chief executive officer down.

“Our CEO (Juan Luciano) is a champion of it and leader of our efforts,” D’Ambrose said. “Focus on diversity is something we’re all accountable for. It’s been a core part of our culture and strategy for a very long time.”

That’s why when D’Ambrose noticed difficulty in recruiting a diverse workforce, he started talking to his peers at other agribusiness companies about their experiences. When they reported similar difficulties, he suggested they come together to share best practices and learn from each other. A group of 75 people came together in 2016 from a broad spectrum of ag interests.

From those discussions, they created Together We Grow, a first-ever industrywide consortium of companies, non-governmental organizations, universities and government agencies with a stake in American agriculture. Its goal is to create a diverse workforce through sharing best practices and data; creating awareness about agriculture among students; creating better access to post-secondary students; deepening collaboration among stakeholders and developing programs; and maximizing investment to promote more effective funding platforms.

“It’s really exciting, for an industry that competes so fiercely with each other, to be together on a topic that is so important,” D’Ambrose said. “We have to be the most effective industry and that means we have to be more diverse and we have to be the most inclusive.”

Together We Grow announced in November 2019 that it is creating an educational and research center at Colorado State University in Denver, Colorado, U.S. Kristin Kirkpatrick was named the center’s executive director. She most recently directed the Colorado regional office of the national nonprofit Big Green, which integrates food literacy education into school curriculum across the country.

The CSU System will fund Kirkpatrick’s salary and provide space for the headquarters, and TWG will provide operational funds for the center. The office will be located at the CSU Campus at the National Western Center, slated to break ground in 2020 with a 2022 completion date

As an initial offering of the center, Kirkpatrick presented on a panel discussing the challenges and opportunities on the journey of creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures, at the CSU Ag Innovation Summit on the CSU campus in Fort Collins in December.

“Diverse perspectives and experiences are how we innovate quickly to solve some of the world’s most pressing global challenges,” said consortium member Melissa Harper, senior vice-president of Global Talent & Inclusion, Bayer Corp. “TWG’s Center for an Enhanced Workforce in Agriculture will leverage and embrace these perspectives to shape our industry and future leaders.”

In the Alltech survey, 65% of women said a lack of a strong personal network was a significant barrier in career advancement. Networking is a key aspect for anyone who wants to advance in their careers, and it’s an area often overlooked by women, O’Shaughnessy said, which was part of the impetus for starting Women in Agribusiness.

Part of HighQuest Partners, the concept was born in 2012 when the company’s CEO noticed the lack of female participation in its annual oilseed and grain event.

“We started asking around if people thought there was a need for a women’s conference in the industry, and the idea was met with absolute glee,” O’Shaughnessy said.

Within four months, the first Women in Agribusiness Summit was held and 212 people attended.

The summit has since grown, attracting more than 800 attendees to its 2019 event, and expanded to include meet ups throughout the year, an awards program, a quarterly magazine, a career board and a European summit this year.

“It’s all about building community and support,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Once you leave college, conferences become one of the key places for continuing education. When women don’t come to a conference, they’re missing out. The best way to support advancement of women is to make sure they are up-to-date on the latest trends and solutions.

“At the same time, there’s the motivation and encouragement that comes from seeing the expertise of other women in the industry.”

The conferences stick mostly to topics related to agriculture, and the issues people in the industry need to know about, O’Shaughnessy said. Summit organizers work hard to have predominantly female speakers.

“We invite male speakers when we feel the topic is critical to the conversation and we can’t find a woman who is knowledgeable or is available,” she said.

Companies often fall into ruts where they have the same people attend all the conferences, and the same people speak at the events, oftentimes men.

“I’ve heard from companies who tell me they are making sure they have female representatives who can speak expertly,” O’Shaughnessy said. “A lot of the women who speak at Women in Agribusiness wouldn’t be invited to other events because they’re not part of the system. We’re helping spread the spotlight among different people.”

Networking at the event also has a different feel, O’Shaughnessy said. There’s no preening or posturing. People are just engaged, supportive and making critical connections, she said.

“People have found new jobs from connections they’ve made,” she said. “We’ve introduced ag students to people who would hire them. We’ve connected people with mentors who helped with careers. The networking here is like nothing else. When you get women who are jazzed about what they do, it just creates an environment that is dynamic and engaging.”