Inspiring Words from Inspirational Women in Agriculture

by Len Kahn, Founder, Kahnsult

We continue our celebration of International Women’s Day and Canadian women in business with this piece from Len Kahn, founder of Kahnsult and founder and Past President of Kahntact, our agri-biz partner in the Nourish Network. Len reflects on his time in the agriculture industry and how things have changed (and how they haven’t) for women in the field. Plus, he shares candid observations from several successful women making their way and making a difference in the Canadian agriculture sector.

Like many people whose careers started in the 1980s (and well before), on the first day of my first job, I was assigned a secretary. Her name was Lawanda Jackson. I was barely twenty-two years old with zero practical experience, wet behind the ears and a bit green around the gills. But still, my position warranted the clerical support afforded by a secretary (now probably known as an administrative assistant).

Lawanda was an intelligent, efficient, and skilled professional who had worked at the company for over ten years. She would quote scripture to me on occasion. For example, if I became frustrated and angry about a work situation, it was, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Or “The wheels of justice turn slow but grind fine.” Not only was she a huge help to me in finding my way in a complex corporate ecosystem, but she also was great at her job and knew more about company matters than most of the company’s executives, the vast majority of whom were male.

Sadly, Lawanda’s prospects for advancement were minimal. First, because the rise from the secretarial pool to the V or C-Suite was almost unheard of back then. And second, because she was female. With exceedingly rare exceptions, most senior management and leadership positions were held by males, not by merit but by custom and a certain close-mindedness.

The situation repeated in my next two places of employment. Lots of females on staff; very few in positions of leadership or authority. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that I encountered a woman holding the ‘top job’ – Sharon Zadorozny, who held the country manager position at DuPont Canada.

And where are we now?

Fast forward almost forty years. On the surface, the situation seems to have improved. In many client meetings that I attend, females now outnumber males. And while the glass ceiling is certainly not shattered in terms of equality in opportunity and compensation, it seems to have been cracked. The hidden barriers to advancement for women appear to have receded, with many companies and enterprises gravitating to a more effective merit-based promotion system.

But how much better are things really? Data and statistics tell part of the story. For example, this month, for the first time in the Fortune 500 list's 68-year history, more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Still not great, but trending in the right direction. And still not necessarily reflective of the situation in the agricultural industry.

To get a ground-level picture, and being chromosomally challenged in this area (XY instead of the more coveted XX), I reached out to a group of female ag industry leaders to get their take on the barriers and opportunities that exist today for women in agriculture.

Respondents include Crystal Mackay (Loft32), Brenda Trask (Independent public relations and communications professional), Mary Thornley (Canadian Agri-food Marketers Alliance), Andrea White (Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef), Diane McKenzie (farmer, historian, and researcher of rural women), Gwen Paddock (Royal Bank of Canada), and Katrina Schmidt (FMC Canada).

All of the respondents hold either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree (not all from ag colleges) and are currently active in the agricultural industry.

Thinking through your career, do you have any examples where being female has held you back?

  • I’ve never thought being female has held me back in any tangible way. Growing up on a farm, when there was work to be done, it was all hands on deck. Age or gender were never really considered. When I entered the business world, there were times when in group settings, participants might look first to a male over a female for their insights, even if the woman was better qualified in a particular instance. So, it was more subtle than overt.

  • Honestly, I have been extremely lucky in all my roles and have never felt discriminated against or held back for being female. Working in the food industry, and perhaps, in particular, the last number of years in communications and marketing, there are a lot of exciting, rewarding roles for women, with an amazing community of women (and men!) I have been lucky to work with.

  • To be honest, I don’t think I ever really thought about my gender getting in the way of career progress. This may not be the case for all women. I am very fortunate to have been raised with the attitude and confidence that “I could do anything I wanted” as long as I was willing to put in the time and work. I always wanted to be selected for a job or board position based on my experience and ability to contribute, not because I was the “token broad.” I do think the environment has changed over the decades. What might have been acceptable early in my career wouldn’t be acceptable now (the nuances, jokes, etc.), mostly because there is greater awareness and recognition of what every individual has to offer, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or other considerations. I do think that, in some cases, there is a disparity in pay equity. Hopefully, that, too, is being addressed.

  • One way myself and other women are held back is by not having the opportunity to be the primary operator/owner of family farms.

  • Thankfully, no. I’ve been really fortunate to have had great support over the years from managers and mentors.

  • Likely more a perception on my part rather than a factual point — sometimes, I have been intimidated trying to crack into the “boys club.” This can happen in any industry or company, but the fact that most agricultural companies have men in leadership positions can really heighten this sense of being an outsider as a female. I recall also being at the point in my career of wanting the next step but also being challenged to balance that desire with starting a family of my own. I placed priority on staying home with both my kids for the full 12 months. It is a reality for many women, that we need to put our jobs or careers temporarily “on pause.” And, sometimes, when we return, it’s not to the same job. I recall feeling like I gave up something great upon my second leave. However, things worked out for the better in the end. I don’t feel I’ve been held back otherwise. I’ve been quite lucky to work with terrific leaders who value my contributions and have never felt being female has been a detriment in my career.

  • I’ve been fortunate to have a career that has progressed in the agri-food industry without feeling like I was held back as a female. The only time I noticed there was a lack of female representation in the industry was around 1996. I was asked to attend ag industry conferences, and I was one of a handful of females attending the conferences as participants.

In the same vein, are there any instances where being female has been an advantage?

  • I think that women are intrinsic communicators and, as such, have experienced working environments where women naturally work to lift each other up, especially when working together in higher-level roles.

  • I was raised from a young age (my father, whose dad died when he was 12, was a brother to three sisters, married my mom with only sisters, and father to two girls!) to be fiercely independent, with the belief that I could do anything I wanted. This confidence has served me well throughout my life and career.

  • YES! I am sure it has been proven that women can bring a different perspective to problem-solving and team building. Over the years, I feel I have contributed in some non-measurable ways. “People may forget what you say or do, but they will remember how you made them feel” — this has been my personal mantra and has served me well (and the organizations I’ve worked with).

  • I am very fortunate to be a privileged white woman in an amazing country, and that advantages me, but not to the extent that it is an advantage in the big picture. Patriarchy does not advantage women.

  • I think there have been instances where being female, in conjunction with being capable, was an advantage. The particular instances I’m thinking of are mentors I’ve had during my career who were champions of increasing the diversity within the company’s workforce.

  • I feel I had to work a bit harder than my male counterparts to establish credibility early on, but once I built trusted relationships with farmers and colleagues, I felt they were more personal and valued than those established by my male counterparts. And being a female and a mother helps me connect with shared values more easily, in a relatable way.

  • I pride myself on being a very empathetic leader and can put myself in someone else’s shoes. So I can offer insights and advice to other employees at earlier stages in their careers facing similar challenges balancing work/life that resonate with them. I am easier to remember in a room full of men — kidding, but not really kidding!

  • The progression of my career has been based on my growth and experience. At no time have I felt that being a female was to my advantage or would I ever think of using it to my advantage.

What are some of your accomplishments (professional and/or personal) that you are most proud of?

  • When I was 19 years old, I travelled for a year with a group called Up With People, an international leadership program where groups of 150 young people brought together people from many countries, learned the value of community service, and learned from the over 90 host families we stayed with over the course of the year. Incidentally – I also met my husband there!

  • Completing my Master's degree was a bumpy and challenging road, with a variety of twists and turns throughout, so completing that was a huge accomplishment that has served me well throughout my career.

  • I have been lucky throughout to have experienced a broad range of opportunities, from food processing, retail product development and labelling to food production, policy, sustainability, communications, marketing and stakeholder relations. Nearly all of them began as term positions, turning into long-term, full-time, fulfilling positions. I like to think that is at least partly due to my loyalty and dedication, and the contributions I made.

  • Over the past 10-15 years, I have worked on the non-profit side of the agriculture industry, and that is where my heart truly lies; I am proud to work with/for the humble farmers and ranchers that we have the opportunity to support and share their stories, and in my role at the CRSB, it has been a privilege to learn from the diverse range of dedicated people across the supply chain and well beyond. In recent years, working on the marketing side in the beef industry, I am proud of several awards and initiatives recognizing our collective advancement, putting Canada as a leader in sustainability, including 4 CAMA awards, a Beef Sustainability Innovation Award, and countless opportunities to share our collective story. Partnerships forged with others to bridge the gap between the beef sector and environmental groups and sharing that story with Canadians has been one of the highlights, as well as opportunities to work with folks around the world.

  • Personally, my pride and joy are my daughters, who have grown into strong, kind, and independent young women. Our greatest legacy is our children and the contribution they make to society in their lifetimes. Professionally, I am proud of the work accomplished over several decades for multiple companies and organizations. The pinnacle of my career was organizing the International Seed Federation Congress in Calgary in 2010. Recognition from my peers along the way has been extra rewarding.

  • I went back to school as a mature student and earned a BA and MA. I think that by broadening the impact of my research, it may help women and men in agriculture in the long reach for parity.

  • I pursued a career in agriculture banking because I wanted to stay involved in the ag sector but didn’t see myself as a farmer. Now, 38 years later, when I look back over my career, I’m proud of the fact that through my involvement with the bank, I’ve seen many agriculture & agribusiness operations grow and achieve their goals. I’ve also had the pleasure of sitting on a number of association boards. In retrospect, I feel I’ve contributed to the overall success of the sector.

  • I’m very proud of the leadership and guidance I have provided to my direct reports and others in the broader organizations I’ve worked for. I hope I’ve been able to ‘lift up’ other women to aspire to pursue their career ambitions and full potential. I hopefully serve as an example of pushing/striving to excel while respecting others and treating others with kindness and gratitude. I try to inspire my kids to work hard and have fun while doing it! I am very proud of all my recent business accomplishments, like growing net revenue and EBIT by double digits and growing market share.

  • When I began my career as Executive Director with CAMA, the association was already well-established and respected. Through my continuous dedication and appreciation for its members and wanting to better CAMA, CAMA has become an association that is appreciated and more respected in the industry. CAMA offers its members more benefits than ever before! The “Best of CAMA” is now a ‘not-to-miss’ industry gala event — it’s a well-oiled machine, and I like how the competition continues to evolve with new categories and recognition for great leaders and marketers in the industry.

  • I started with CABEF from the first day it was discussed as an idea. We’re now in our 10th year as a charity foundation and have been able to fundraise almost half a million dollars, and we’ve supported 58 students with scholarships. And we’re just starting with CABEF – there is so much more we could do. Also, in 2021, I was part of a powerful threesome of women who started the “Grow Our People Summit.” We were friends in the ag industry who came together to offer an opportunity for others to build their personal skills. It was really exciting to start something new and successful, and I’m looking forward to Grow Our People 2.0. But my proudest moments will always be as mom of my now teenage boys. Through their failures and successes, I’ve been there for them. I’ve been able to have a full-time career in the ag industry with the flexibility to raise and support my children. I’ve been very fortunate and thankful for my career, and appreciate the friendships I’ve developed with many in the ag industry.

Thank you to all of you for your inspiring words! As Lawanda Jackson may have said to me back in the day, “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.”

Cheers to all the amazing women in agriculture!

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