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Editorial: Why do women in agriculture go largely unrecognized?

Two realities collided in our news release inbox last week.

First, we received a release from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) announcing a research project that will examine and address critical barriers to advancement that women face in the agricultural industry.

“The purpose of this initiative is to engage women and stakeholders within the agriculture community to develop and implement a strategic program to support improved access to leadership opportunities and strengthen business success for women working in agriculture,” said CAHRC executive director Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst.

The press release said the project will assess the current situation facing women in agriculture using a “gender lens” to explore the contribution of women to the industry, the barriers they experience, prioritize options for improvements, and assess the effectiveness of current services.

To be honest, it raised a few eyebrows around our offices. Is this necessary in this day and age?

Looking around the agriculture and agri-food sector today, we see many women involved in many capacities, including those occupying prominent leadership roles. They head up faculties and academic institutions and industry associations. They occupy executive chairs in commodity groups. They are involved in research; they are entrepreneurs who have built successful companies, some of which are active internationally.

Statistics Canada tells us 28 per cent of the farm operators in Canada are women, although it is still relatively rare to see them listed as the sole farm operator.

Women are also well represented if you look at enrolment numbers in agriculturally related programs at the University of Manitoba. In fact, they outnumber men in the B.Sc. program (82 to 67), and food science (57 to 28) and human nutritional sciences (237 to 33). They are one for one in agro-ecology and only outnumbered by men in the diploma program (39 to 133).

So, we’re thinking, where’s the problem?

Then came the release announcing this year’s inductees to the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame, all of whom are men.

Make no mistake. This year’s eight inductees — as is the case in all years — are stellar individuals. No one should interpret this editorial as suggesting they are somehow undeserving of recognition. They have all made enduring contributions and shown sincere commitment to service with little thought of reward. As well, these inductees date back to an era in which women were less likely to be in prominent industry roles.

That said, we think the lack of women on this list merits reflection.

You have to go back to 2009 before you find a woman who was inducted solely because of her individual contributions. Women were recognized as “the other half” in 2009, 2010 and 2013, but there were no women inducted in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. This is just a hunch, but we suggest there has probably never been a year in all of the Ag Hall of Fame’s history when women made up the full slate of inductees.

True, the contributions of Pioneer Women of Manitoba were formally recognized during the hall’s first induction ceremony in 1978. In 1990, a man and his wife were both included on one plaque for the first time, recognizing “the need for a supportive mate was usually essential to the person who was being inducted.”

Perhaps Anton Chorney, who was inducted with his wife Adeline in 2010, said it best: “Anton attributed their success to the skill and vision of his life partner Adeline, who participated in every aspect of the farm business. This team approach resulted in many successes in local, provincial, national and international competitions.”

Many farm operators and organization leaders would say the same about their partners. Yet somehow, when it comes to recognizing contributions, women are assigned to being “the other half” or more frequently, the invisible one.

Part of the problem may be a lack of nominations. Perhaps women don’t see one another’s contributions as being anything different, or more worthy of recognition than anyone else’s. But it’s not solely up to women to nominate other women.

Perhaps the criteria — the means by which success or contribution or commitment is measured — needs a rethink. The word “impact” surfaces several times in the list of selection considerations.

Most would agree that women contribute; many would say their efforts are invaluable. Much of it is unpaid. It undoubtedly has impact — just not the kind that gets singled out for recognition.

We don’t know why women in agriculture go unrecognized. But the fact that they do is a serious oversight. Perhaps the CAHRC study will shed some light on the matter.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Glacier FarmMedia. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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