Leadership Diversity in Rural Australia – Will Women Lead The Way?

Australian agriculture is seen as one of the last male bastions. For many, when they think of ‘agriculture’ and ‘farming’ in Australia, the image that comes to mind is of ‘man on a tractor, kelpie by his side’ .

While agriculture has not traditionally been seen as a sector for women, it is becoming more so. Alison Watkins, Managing Director and CEO of one of the largest industry players, GrainCorp, is calling for more women in leadership in rural Australia because, she believes, women and their leadership style are essential to cope with the changing face of rural Australia.

Ms Watkins recently spoke at the Rural Women’s Award lunch about the need for greater diversity in leadership in rural Australia, not just the need for more women in leadership. In her mind this is essential if Australia is to withstand the Asian food boom. It also reflects the diversity that is Australia and the changes in approach required if rural Australia is to be a significant force in feeding the world for the future.

Women and Agriculture

There can be no argument that the Australian agricultural industry has in the past been led by men. And the first significant issue that many women face when entering the field is overcoming the dated perception that the female role is that of the farmer’s wife.

GrainCorp is leading the way for women in agriculture. Ms Watkins has a commitment to achieve a better representation of women across GrainCorp, setting a target of at least one quarter of employees to be women. GrainCorp is also leading the way in gender pay equality, unlike most ASX listed companies which have, on average, an 18% gap in pay between men and women.

Ms Watkins’ passion about bringing more women into leadership generally, but into rural Australia specifically, begs the question ‘What do women bring to the table?’. While Ms Watkins is convinced of the need for diversity in leadership, and that women are required, is that a valid view?

What Women Bring To Leadership?

A good starting point when looking at the benefits women bring to leadership is the Noway example, two years on from the introduction of a quota for women on Boards.

Interestingly, there was initial opposition to the introduction of the quota, including from women already holding positions on Boards. Norwegian Board members – women and men – now agree on the same benefits of diversity that women bring.

A commonly held observation from Norway is that women bring more matrix, organisation, and people considerations. The main difference seeming to be that women are more likely to see their organisation as a ‘living thing’. One can only imagine that would be a distinct advantage in rural Australia.

This overall diversity often leads to better decisions, with the needs of your market and your customers being reflected in the decisions. Broader consequences, not just the bottom line, are acknowledged as key advantages that women are bringing to Norwegian Boards.

Rural Australia needs women in leadership roles. It needs the perspectives of women who will be concerned about the greater organisation and consequences rather than just the bottom line. It isn’t difficult to see that having the perspective of women in leadership in rural Australia will help us to survive in times of natural disaster, economic downturn, changes in environmental expectations and changing farming practices.

In such times, the balanced and consequences-based decision making that women bring, is essential.

Quotas and Pipelines

The “pipeline” principle has clearly not worked according to Ms Watkins, and is evidenced by the lack of women in executive positions. The principle is based on the assumption that higher intakes of women in junior positions will translate to more women executives down the track.

The quota system, however, has been shown to work in Norway albeit that these were quotas for women on Boards. Many believe that those companies with female Board members were able to pull through the global financial crisis because they adopted a longer, organisational view, and found ways to survive other than by simply cutting staff.

Would a quota system work in rural Australia?

Much of Australian society seems disconnected from the issues in rural Australia, and the challenges facing our farming communities, except in times of natural disasters – floods, drought, cyclones, or fires. So it is difficult to envisage a quota system being introduced as a nation-wide initiative for one industry sector.

Australian figures have shown that equal opportunity quotas at lower levels do not translate to greater representation of females in leadership positions over the longer term.

The lack of female representation in Australia’s new government leadership team illustrates that the introduction of a ‘women in leadership roles’ quota is not on the Australian agenda. It seems that industry drivers like GrainCorp’s Watkins, are set to lead the push from within – one company at a time.

Rural Australia needs more female leaders to see it through the substantial changes it faces, our economy faces, and the Australian community needs. As Ms Watkins points out women can lead the way not just in company structure, but in the debate, in agri politics, and in rural innovation.


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