'Where's your husband?': Women in farming still fighting against old boys' club

A younger generation of women farmers is determined to break through some of the barriers that still prevent a majority of women in agriculture from assuming leadership roles by being bold, increasing their visibility on social media and speaking up.

Younger women determined to break through glass ceiling and assume leadership roles in agriculture

Amanda Brodhagen is in line to take over her family’s farm in southwestern Ontario and become the fifth generation running an operation that's focused right now on raising beef cattle and growing corn, grain and hay. (Amanda Brodhagen)

Amanda Brodhagen knows a lot of people wouldn't peg her as a farmer.

She's young — just 28. She's not tall — just five feet. And she's a woman.

But she also knows she's in line to take over her family's farm in southwestern Ontario and become the fifth generation to run an operation that looks after a 100-head herd of beef cattle and grows corn, grain and hay.

"A lot of people ask me … 'So why do you farm?'" says Brodhagen, who works part-time on the farm and part-time for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association.

Brodhagen keeps Jack Daniel, a seven-month-old bull calf, in line as she does outreach for the Beef Farmers of Ontario at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair recently in Toronto. (Janet Davison/CBC)

"And my response to people is: 'If not me, then who?'"

Brodhagen's enthusiasm for agriculture and life on the farm near Stratford runs deep.

She also knows that if she assumes the helm, she will take on that role in a world where many say that despite progress, there are barriers that limit the potential for women to become successful farm operators and agribusiness leaders.

Brodhagen can easily rattle off a list of barriers. There's the challenge of balancing career and family and trying to break into "the old boys' club" on commodity boards and throughout the agribusiness industry. There's a lack of female role models. In isolated rural areas, it can be hard to find child care.

"Women wield influence in certain circles," she says, "but perhaps not always at the management and senior levels, and we also have a big gap in the policy realm."

Across Canada, farms are getting bigger and farmers — a majority of whom are men — are getting older. The overall number of farms and operators is declining. Figures from Statistics Canada show that in 2011, 27.4 per cent of operators were women. One recent study suggests more new farmers in Atlantic Canada are women than men.

"When we look at those leadership roles in the industry, that's where there seems to be a real drop-off," says Jennifer Wright, senior human resources adviser for the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.

"Although there has been some improvement, we're still looking in some cases at it being like around 15 per cent of the leadership roles being women."

Psychological barriers

So why isn't that percentage higher? Is there a glass ceiling on the farm and in businesses and organizations that support farmers?

The human resource council has spent time delving into the subject. One of the top issues to emerge was "a real feeling that there's the old boys' club," says Wright, "that especially in the commodity boards and associations, that it's older gentlemen that have been in these roles for a long time and even in some of the senior leadership roles in agribusiness."

Women don't see other women as role models in senior roles, she says, and sometimes may not feel confident enough to put their names forward.

Other perceptions could be at play, too.

"Some of it might just be psychological, not just from the woman in agriculture … but everybody else," said Eric Micheels, an assistant professor of bioresource policy, business and economics at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Terry Banack has run into some of those psychological perceptions.

Terry Banack has seen that women aren't always regarded as the primary decision-makers on the farm. (Terry Banack)

Now 54, she says she's seen things change "immensely" while she's been farming 85 kilometres southeast of Edmonton. But as recently as last year, she had a reminder that women aren't always seen as farm decision-makers.

A sales representative brought a combine to the farm that's been in the family since 1906 for a demonstration. The first question was: "Where's your husband?" But he wasn't there.

'Very frustrated'

Banack eventually did a test drive and asked the representative a lot of questions.

"At the end, he said: 'Oh … you were the one I was supposed to talk to,'" Banack recalled.

"So, he came around to terms without me having to go: 'What are you doing? I am the one.' That's just not my approach on things, but yes, I have been very frustrated."

Brodhagen gets ready to greet visitors to the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association booth at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair recently in Toronto. (Janet Davison/CBC)

Banack sees great potential in networking for women and mentoring. So does Brodhagen, who has felt at times that she is not being taken seriously.

"I have been able to overcome a lot of this thanks to mentorship … and being bold, putting myself out there on social media and speaking up."

She finds support in networking, particularly through the Ag Women's Network, a three-year-old online forum and support group for primary producers and other women involved in all aspects of the industry. It also holds events and has grown to 1,500 members.

Brodhagen also values the support she's received from her father and mother and Lorne Hepworth, the mentor she had through the Cattlemen's Young Leaders program. Hepworth is a former minister of agriculture in Saskatchewan, worked for 10 years as a veterinarian and another 10 years in agribusiness.

'Preponderance of men'

Hepworth says that over the past decade or two he's seen a change where "running the farm is very much a partnership now amongst the two spouses."

In the classic, corporate world, however, he doesn't see as much progress.

"At the very top, in terms of the business leadership and at some of the boards, you've still got a fair preponderance of men," he said.

It's not malicious, he says: "It's just you tend to recommend or draw on people you know or that have been part of your network."

They realized as a board of all men that in their 50 years of existence, they've never had a woman even at their regional representation.- Jennifer Wright, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council

So he suggests, when boards or companies are looking for members or leaders, they should be "very explicit and very disciplined in terms of … making sure you do get and ask for a diverse array" of candidates.

Some companies and boards are taking steps to address this. Hepwoth cites the Canola Council of Canada, which "has a long track record" of women at the CEO level, as one example.

"The Chicken Farmers of Ontario have just come up with an initiative to get more of their female producers involved at the board level," says Wright.

The organization also sponsored women producers to attend a networking conference this fall.

"They realized as a board of all men that in their 50 years of existence, they've never had a woman even at their regional representation."

Making decisions differently

Having women in decision-making positions could have an impact beyond balancing the numbers.

I think there's a lot of value that women bring to the table in managing a multimillion-dollar operation.- Eric Micheels, professor, University of Saskatchewan

"I think there's a lot of value that women bring to the table in managing a multimillion-dollar operation … like a large grain farm or a dairy or a poultry farm," said Micheels.

"A lot of the research has shown women make decisions differently than men do," he said.

Women want more information before making decisions and might take fewer risks in stressful situations, he said.

"So, in a multi-operator farm with more collaborative decision-making, there's maybe some more opportunity for balanced year-to-year returns than extreme highs and lows based on the risks that those operators are taking," Micheels said.

Embracing diverse groups

Brodhagen and other women in the industry also see some of the potential to overcoming barriers within themselves.

"If I don't believe in myself and my abilities and my confidence, then I'm not going to go as far. That's something I've had to work personally on … and I wouldn't be where I am today without the mentors and people that have helped influence me in my life."

Despite the barriers, Brodhagen says her experience has mostly been "overwhelmingly positive" and sees a recognition that things are changing for women in agriculture.

"I think agriculture in general realizes we need to be open not only to women but other people who may not have grown up on a farm getting involved in agriculture.

"That includes women and other minority groups … just being more open-minded in general."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.