The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 008

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 008 - Leading Women

In this episode you will hear a very frank discussion with three leading women in the ag sector -- Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Mary Robinson, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, and Kathleen Sullivan, CEO of Food and Beverage Canada. All three are the first women in their positions. All three are advocates for making our sector welcoming and inclusive for all.


Kathleen: I hope when people hear this or if they look me up, what impresses them isn't my gender, what impresses them is my experience, my qualifications and my resume. I have spent twenty-five years where being a woman has been an issue. And I would love to be in a world where it just wasn't even something that was considered important or relevant.

Kirk: Welcome to the First Sixteen, I am your co-host Kirk Finken.

Sara: And I am your other co-host Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk: The voice you heard at the opening was Kathleen Sullivan, CEO of Food and Beverage Canada. And in this episode, we are talking with women in positions of leadership in our sector.

Sara: In addition to Kathleen, we have two other guests - Mary Robinson the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the honorable Marie Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Together, these three women represent a major shift in the agricultural and food sector. They are the first women ever to be leading their organizations.

Kirk: All three are accomplished and strong leaders. They are also advocates for making our sector welcoming and inclusive for all – women, youth and minorities.

Sara: And inclusive at all levels - in the field, in the processing plant, in the boardrooms and the corridors of power.

Kirk: Alright but before the interviews, we have this small public service announcement. We all have a stake in making this an inclusive and diverse sector. This is a conversation we all have to hear. From the combine to the board room. It’s all about keeping our sector on the cutting edge of competitiveness – in the global market and the labour market.

Sara: I am glad you mentioned the labour market…Of course, we know that women make up 50 per cent of the population. But according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, women account for only 30 per cent of the total agricultural workforce. And when we look at the proportion of women who go on to assume leadership roles, it gets even thinner.

Kirk: And we know this… More women than men graduate with postsecondary degrees in agriculture and business.

Sara: So there’s a bigger pool of qualified women than men when they finish university.SO where are they going? What’s happening? what is keeping women out of our industry and importantly out of the upper ranks of the industry? And as a sector, how can we prevent this brain drain?

Kirk: It’s not about changing women - they are already qualified - it’s about men and women changing the system together. I just really want to make that point.

Sara: I want to start with Mary Robinson’s pitch.

Kirk: A pitch? It’s not Dragon’s Den….

Sara: Yes, her pitch for this sector. Let’s not forget. She’s the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, but she is also a managing partner of a 6th generation family farm operation in PEI. She is all about possibility and potential of this sector.

Mary: It's perhaps one of the best kept secrets, Sara, but farming actually offers the most incredible diversity in a job ever. You name any job you can think of. And I bet you there is an equivalent in agriculture that offers greater diversity, greater work-life balance and a greater place to grow up and raise your kids. You can't beat it. My workday is inundated with variety, as also is my year, because the seasons obviously require different work. I have science, I have technology, I have heavy equipment. I have the great outdoors, I get to see some of the most beautiful places. There’s way more than dirt under your fingernails and a sore back. There is so much excitement. And we also have plant breeding opportunities. We've got veterinary medicine, which is so interesting. I met with the Deans Council this week and the work and the opportunities of the Deans Council could tell you about in agriculture, you have soil science, you have biology. You think of the journey that food made from when it's a seed, until it's on your fork going in your mouth and that is a long complex, journey that requires a whole lot of science, a whole lot of business. And perhaps one of the most important parts of working in agriculture are the people. You will not meet better people, people that love to collaborate and come together and work to solve issues. It is the best part.

Kirk: Sign me up!

Sara: Kirk, you’re already signed up….

Kirk: I know. But, sign me up again. So, I hear the pitch. How do we get more women working in this sector? How can we make it more inclusive? And yes for this episode we are focusing on gender diversity but much of what these three talked about applies to diversity in the broadest sense.

Sara: Kathleen Sullivan thinks we need to look at the system as a whole and reminded us who has to do some of the work.

Kathleen: I don't think it's incumbent upon women or whoever is unrepresented alone to solve this problem. This is really a systemic problem. And this is where we talk about systemic discrimination, where it's not because any one person is bad or setting out to discriminate. There's something about the whole system that hasn't worked. If ultimately our leadership positions, as you narrow down the candidates, is starting to look all with one particular characteristic, whatever that happens to be, I wouldn't want a board of directors that was all women either. I firmly believe that our leadership bodies need to be reflecting who we are now and who we really aspire to be. You know, I look at my board of directors now, for example, and it's a phenomenal board, the best board I've ever had, the best board I've ever worked with, and still I think we're about twenty five percent, maybe 30 percent women, but closer to twenty five percent. I think if you look if you look at employment overall in the food manufacturing sector where I work, it is quite diverse, particularly women, new Canadians. If you think of the line workers, the people actually working in plants manufacturing the food. As you get more and more senior into the executive roles, it becomes more and more disproportionately male. Again, progress has been made. But I forget who it was who came up with a study who said that to get to full gender equality globally, it's gonna be two hundred years.

Sara: That study she referenced was done by the World Economic Forum. And it was 200 years globally. Here in North America the prediction is lower, but still much too far off. Change like this does take work on multiple fronts. There’s no one and done solution. But I can’t believe it’s going to take 200 years before we see qualified women leading in our industry. Minister Bibeau, what are your thoughts on that?

Minister: We see that things are moving in the right direction, but maybe not fast enough. We have all these women entrepreneur taking care of the business, but also scientists in the ag sector. And just at Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, we have one hundred and forty four women scientists and we see more women on the board of directors. And I think of Mary Robinson was the first woman president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, or Jane Hufford, who is the chair of Farm Credit Canada, for example. So I think we still have to work hard to open the doors and to encourage these women because they have a lot to contribute.

Sara: And certainly, Kathleen Sullivan does see some great work being done.

Kathleen: In companies I work with a lot of work that's being done in individual companies to really take a look at how do we ensure systemically that we are enabling all of our employees, no matter what their backgrounds are, no matter what they look like, so that they have these equal opportunities to succeed. And then equally, even in jobs that aren't executive level jobs, like if you think of skilled trades, for example, which is the electricians, the millwrights, predominantly male, even if we wanted that, we don't have that luxury anymore. Our labor force is so tight right now. We need to be more inclusive in who we hire because we just need good people. And certainly going into covid-19, there was historic unemployment in this country. We can't find enough people to do the jobs we need. But if you say we're going to deliberately go out and hire women to be in the skilled trades and now you're introducing women into a field that is predominantly male and has a certain culture, you've got to make sure you have the right supports in there for all of your workers to ensure that the culture is adapting, is welcoming to people who may, too, may be diverse. And so there's work that goes into this. And one hundred percent food companies across Canada are doing that kind of work, partly because it's the right thing to do, but also we need workers. On any given day we are short 10% of our workforce. We need to be hiring the people who are best to do theses jobs and we need to make sure that our workforces are set up so everybody feels welcome and wants to stay in those jobs.

Kirk: The culture piece Kathleen brought up there is an important part of that systemic change. These have to be environments where everyone can see themselves reflected in management to know that it is possible to climb the ladder. Minister Bibeau talked about her experience jumping into a new culture as well.

Sara: Right, she is the first woman to be appointed Federal Minister of Agriculture. That is the first in 152 years. Talk about upsetting the apple cart. I was interested to know from Minister Bibeau what that was like. So, when you were first appointed to the position of Minister of Agriculture and Agrifood, what was the reaction when you walked into those first meetings with stakeholders?

Minister: Yes, I would think that the tone of the conversation might have changed a little bit because most of my stakeholders are experienced men, but I would say that they have been very generous in sharing their knowledge. And they wanted to they wanted me to be an ally as soon as possible. And honestly, I think they are all used to deal with women at home who are strong willed.

Sara: What part of it was it because you were a woman or because you were from outside the sector?

Minister: I think there were three things I was a woman, I was not coming from the ag sector and I was a Francophone. And I would say that the doubts came from these three elements. I had to show very quickly that I could learn fast and that I would also be as sensitive for the small family farms in Quebec as for the bigger type of agriculture and export oriented agriculture in the Prairies, for example.

Kirk: It must have been a challenging first few months.

Sara: Yes, Kathleen had some experiences starting out in her career that were gender specific. She had to find her own path and her own solutions.

Kathleen: I’ll tell you, when I started, there were no women for me to look up to. In my job, everybody virtually, who was senior to me, more experienced than me, was a man. Now because perhaps sort of my generation, that is sort of the first wave of women who are moving into executive positions. The women I turn to are really my peers. Still, I'm fifty five. It's very rare, certainly in agri-food, to find a woman who is older than me in a senior position. Women you're talking to are probably about my age, right? We're kind of that first wave. And what I really had to do early on it and it was a hard lesson to learn because I constantly had very talented, very successful leaders that I worked with wanting to mentor me or provide me with advice and very well-meaning. But their advice, really, I learned, didn't always apply to me. I remember one senior executive gentleman, very successful, who was giving me advice on my career. And at the end he stopped, and he said sort of self reflecting, “But of course, I didn't see my children much when they were growing up.”. I sort of laughed and I thought, well, how does that help me? Because I plan to see my children growing up. And so it was so interesting. It was completely well intended. But I really had to learn that a lot of times when people were giving me well-intentioned advice, I had to, in my head, sort out what it was really applicable to me and useful to me and that I could draw on, because the experience, my environment, my context was so different than the context for a lot of these older, very experienced, very successful men that I that I was working with and who really were mentors, if you will.

Sara: With both Minister Bibeau and Kathleen Sullivan they are not saying that there was a sign hanging up on the boardroom door that said, “No girls allowed.” It’s more that they were welcome, they walked in.

Kirk: And it’s like everyone is discovering they need to recalibrate and adjust.

Sara: You know, I think Mary put it best.

Mary: But I definitely believe in the quote. I think it was Marian Wright Edelman who said you can't be what you can't see. And I think it's really important when we talk about women in agriculture. I think it's important for me to point out that, here in PEI, which is what I know, I saw women in these roles growing up.

And I know it's not like that across the whole country or beyond Canada. But I saw in particular Bertha Campbell, who's now on the board, I think she's interim president of the board. Bertha lives down the road from, from us. And her husband, and my dad used to be on the Canadian Hort Council together. And Bertha was a very strong mentor to me to bring me along. She was president of the PEI federation before me and before Bertha, we had another woman. So I didn’t think it was at all out of the realm of possibles. I hope that where I am does the same for other women.

Sara: Kathleen echoed that sentiment. But she went a little further in her reflections on role models and mentoring.

Kathleen: I think by having women in senior positions, it allows younger women coming in to see that they, too, can be in a senior position, that doesn't mean they have to act like maybe like me. You know, I think one of these things that happens sometimes is this idea that all women are the same. We're completely different. As Sara, you well know. And, you know, at the end of the day, we all have different strengths and different weaknesses. And I think what helps you in being successful is really understanding those in yourself and really working to your strengths. So I always think it's very difficult for me to give advice to a younger woman on how she should be or how she should act, because she's not me and she has to be true to who she is. I think by virtue of being in a CEO position, which is still not that common in this sector, I hope it signals to anybody that they, too, could be in that position.

Sara: You are listening to interviews we did with Mary Robinson, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Kathleen Sullivan the CEO of Food and Beverage Canada, and Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal Minister of Agriculture and AgriFood. We’re talking about women in leadership in the agricultural and agri-food sector.

Sara: You are listening to interviews we did with Mary Robinson, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Kathleen Sullivan the CEO of Food and Beverage Canada, and Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal Minister of Agriculture and AgriFood. We’re talking about women in leadership in the agricultural and agri-food sector.

Kirk: You know, Sara, in listening to all three of our guests one thing that is obvious is that people in leadership positions, women and men, all need to think about time.

Sara: How so?

Kirk: They all talked about time, time in many senses: work life balance, time to give to those extra things that move careers forward, like boards and associations. Those are things that take time above and beyond the work day.

Sara: Minister Bibeau highlighted that one as a barrier as well, even while pointing out that women are often in the role of CFO or COO on the farm.

Minister: Obviously, work life balance is a big issue. They are very involved on the farm, they often are responsible for the finance of the business and they take first responsibility for the family most of the time. So they don't take as much time to build their network to make sure that they are informed of the latest best practices or, you know, they are not saving time to participate in Congress and conferences.

Sara: Yeah, work-life balance is like universal design: it makes work better for everyone and might help fix our retention challenges. But if the industry is going to benefit from all these talented women, we need to go beyond CFO and COO for an individual farm. You know these associations and boards are such important pieces when moving up in leadership positions….and you are right they are quite the time commitment. I asked Mary how she ended up at the CFA. So how did you decide first to get involved? What was your motivation?

Mary: So in 2008, my husband and I had two children, and they at that point were four and two years old, and I said I wanted to do something more. And my husband said I better do it because I think he was concerned I'd just be home more and creating more projects for him to do so. So I actually reached out to the PEI Federation of Agriculture and asked them if they would ever need someone like me, if there would ever be a place for me to be involved. And I think the guy actually dropped the phone because he'd never actually received a call with someone saying, I'd like to be involved. He was pretty shocked. And the next thing I knew, I was on the board and then as a county rep. And then from there I was brought up to be on the executive. And then from there I went through the ranks to eventually become president, past president. And in there I had opportunity to join the Canadian Ag HR council. It's incredibly difficult for someone in their 30s, in their 40s or in their 20s, to step away from their full time job that’s incredibly demanding and to give to an organizations like a Federation of Agriculture. That’s just an issue of timing. If all of us look at our lives and say, so, when are we going to have the least amount of time? It's when we're starting our business. It's we're raising our family. It's when we're finding our spouse or whatever it is. That's a time when you don't have a whole lot to give beyond your own life. So I think we have to be realistic at what we're asking of people to take on outside of their own existence roles, what puts the gas in their pickup truck. So I think we yeah, we have to be realistic in what we're asking of everybody there.

Sara: Minister Bibeau had an interesting observation…

Minister: Just a personal observation, I've noticed more women. And the team and as director of the Farmers Association, but not so many more around boards of directors. So I think we should celebrate that they are more present in the organization, but they also have to be there where the decision are taken.

Sara: And what’s your take on this Mary?

Mary: I agree 100 percent, and when I look around the different organizations I've been involved with and continue to be involved with, I think of some of the extraordinary women who make sure those organizations are running shipshape. I think of Portia McDonald- Doherst at the Canadian Ag H.R. Council as executive director. At the World Farm Organization, their executive director is a woman as well. Traveling in Denmark. We met lots of women who were on the board of the Danish Federation. And I think what needs to happen in Canada for us to see more women coming up through the ranks to the role that I'm in is, we need to see… If we look at the path I traveled to get here, we need to see more provincial organizations and commodity organizations cultivating opportunities for women and making sure that those women realize that we're not just looking to tick off a box to say we have a woman at the table. But instead, there are always going to be people, regardless of gender, who we need to identify, who bring excellent skill sets to the table. And it's I know in Prince Edward Island, when we go looking for new members for our board, we're always trying to identify strong people that will also represent some of the diversity that we're lacking around the table. And it does take a lot of work. The more perspective you can have around the table it just makes the boards so much stronger.

Sara: I just have to jump in here. It seems we are thinking that we have a systemic problem that needs to be responded to by the system. Which is true, but can be daunting and very long and seem unmovable. We can also start by changing a little thing, like the way we approach mentorship, right?

Mary: I find for people sitting around the table, they might not realize that they are viewed as having seniority. And for those people with seniority to kind of reach over and say to whether it's Paul Glenn who sits on our board for the Canadian young farmers to say to Paul, You're doing really great, Paul. Speak up more. You've got lots to bring to the table. And people want to hear it. And you've got to you've got to. I've been pushing Paul along in particular to have that confidence to move forward, because not only do we need more women around our boardroom tables, but we need more youth.

So in regard to mentorship? I have been really so fortunate and I would have to say that The people who have mentored me kind of unofficially have not had official mentors, but unofficially, a lot of those have been men. And I I read an article recently where someone was saying, you know, I really want to look looking at the structure of this business. I really want to hate all these white guys that are in senior management. I want them to be absolute jerks. But they're not. They're good guys. They have daughters. They brag about their daughters. Those guys are just traveling the path that was laid out in front of them. So I think the challenge for mentorship to me is when does someone realize they're at that stage in their life where they can mentor someone else? It's recognizing that the people who have traveled the journey have seen the sights and can really offer you some advice. You got to be open to it. So I think it's a it's a two way street, the whole mentorship thing.

Sara: And whether they get mentorship or not, Kathleen had some great advice for new people in the industry.

Kathleen: I think ultimately you're hired by your organization to say the truth that needs to be said. And don't ever let anyone make you feel that because of your gender, your race, your religion, anything else, that you don't have as much right to say it as anyone else. And sometimes that can be hard, even just by virtue of being young. You walk in a room sometimes and you see people who are all in their 50s or older and have twenty five years under their belt. And you're sometimes intimidated to say what you need to say. Don't be and make sure that it comes from a good place, that it's substantive and has been thought out and say what, say what needs to be said. I think that diversity also includes voices of people who are younger and come with fresh eyes. You know, I always like to say for those of us who've been around for a long time, we haven't solved those problems yet. So it would be I think sometimes we need to open our ears and listen to what to what other people have to say or how they think it should be done, because sometimes it's how you do it is equally important.

Kirk: I am just going to repeat those last two words… Equally. Important.

Sara: So mentorship and representation are crucial and we have to harness those two strategies to improve diversity in our industry.

Kirk: I come back to what Kathleen says. It’s all of us, yes. People in leadership have to take a lead on this. Does your board represent the future like Kathleen mentioned? Who are you mentoring? How are you building a culture in your respective organization where under-represented groups feel they can fully participate in the sector and rise into leadership positions.

Sara: I would add, on top of mentorship, there are some basics around time too – like if you have organized a series of networking events, were you able to include everyone? Could that networking event be at a different time of day, to make it easier for everyone to attend? You have to meet people to meet mentors, they don’t fall out from the sky!

Kirk: And we can all be mentors and leaders to make sure we see real change that our industry can capitalize on.

Sara: So we’ve solved it? (sarcastically)

Kirk: We talked about it. Now we need to act on it.

Sara: Yeah but before everybody gets up and does so. We want to thank these three for coming on the show. We hope to have them back for future episodes to talk about subjects like labor and innovation.

Kirk: Let us know about how you are making our sector better.

Sara: Let us know if you would like to hear about specific topics.

Kirk: We love hearing from you.

Sara: And until next time.

Kirk : You know what to do…

Sara: Try something new.

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Episode 008 - Leading Women

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