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Women need to strive for more leadership jobs in ag



DANVERS, Mass. — As Joy O’Shaughnessy sees it, too few women working in agribusiness are in “mission-critical” roles for their employers.

O’Shaughnessy is chief operating officer of agribusiness for Danvers-based HighQuest Group, a strategic advisory, conference, and media company. She is also event director for the annual Women in Agribusiness Summit in the United States.

“Women are working in support roles such as marketing, sales, human resources, and customer service,” she explained. “They’re not doing the thing the business is known for. It’s not the glass ceiling, but the sticky floor.”

Depending on the business, roles that would be considered mission-critical include research and development, genetics, procurement, and traders, O’Shaughnessy said.

“Those are the things those companies do. The advancement of women into these roles is dependent on efforts by women toward networking and self-advocating. Those are things women don’t do enough that have held them back.”

She described the “tiara syndrome,” which is “the thought that if you work hard, good things will come to your door. That’s not how it works. We know it, and we still do it.”

Often, the perception of what roles are best for males and females is set in childhood, she pointed out.

“As a society, we set expectations in childhood and they try hard to live up to them. When we set expectations for women, they’re generally in roles not considered scientific or rational or logical. For boys, we tell them to grow up to be a doctor. For girls, we tell them to grown up to marry one.”

Given the broad variety of jobs available under the umbrella of agribusiness, the industry would benefit by promoting all the different careers in agriculture, O’Shaughnessy said. “The jobs are there. We just have to get young women to realize it. I’m seeing efforts by companies trying to find and recruit women.”

Kelly Tiller, president and CEO of Genera Energy, Inc., said when she attends agribusiness-related conferences, there are still more men than women in attendance.

“I can count on one hand the number women in the audience,” she noted. “But there are many good examples of women in leadership in ag-related businesses. That success may help others.”

Genera, based in Vonore, Tenn., provides agricultural-based pulp and molded fiber products such as foodservice tableware and to-go containers.

Just as farmers understand the importance of diversity in soils, businesses should recognize the benefits of diversity in their workforces, Tiller said.

“Agriculture has often been a pretty homogeneous group of people,” she explained. “There are benefits of different ideas and backgrounds. Companies can be stronger for it. Companies need to understand why diversity is a good thing and why it’s worth the effort. Once they cross the barrier, everything else takes care of itself over time.”

The number of female applicants Genera has depends on the job offering, Tiller said. There were few female applicants for a couple engineering jobs, while there were more for a recent opening for an environmental health and safety manager.

Applicants should remember it’s important to stand out and have something that causes them to be memorable, she noted.

“I can see some changes over the years. Companies are more diverse with more females today than I remember about 30 years ago. Men and women have different perspectives and outlooks. Females tended to be competitive with other females rather than with males. Today, I think females are more supportive of other females.”

While O’Shaughnessy and Tiller said they’re unaware of any studies regarding the number of women in agribusiness, the Census of Agriculture does include statistics for women in production agriculture.

The 2017 census asked for information on up to four operators per farm; in previous census years, it asked about three. The census found 970,000 female producers in 2012 and 1.23 million in 2017. The census reported 2.21 million male producers in 2012 and 2.17 million in 2017.

“The 2017 census is a better representation of women in U.S. farming,” noted Virginia Harris, statistician and demographer for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. “But when comparing the number (in 2017) with 2012, we don’t know if that difference came from the change in methodology or if there are more women involved in farming.”

The census also looked at the roles of male and female producers in decision-making on the farm. The top two categories for female involvement were in day-to-day operations (78 percent of women; 92 percent of men) and in recordkeeping/financial management (74 percent of women; 75 percent of men).

“Farming isn’t just what’s in the field now,” Harris said. “It is about how you produce crops, but you have to sell them as well. They have to look at how they market their crops.”