Smashing the grass ceiling

Women in ag leadership program helps smash grass ceiling


Alison Southwell and Sally Martin talk about the grass ceiling and the value of the NFF's Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program.

LEADING LADY: Sally Martin says the Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program positively challenged her thinking.

LEADING LADY: Sally Martin says the Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program positively challenged her thinking.

Ask women why men outnumber them 10 to one in Australian agriculture leadership roles and the answer is likely to be something we simply can't print.

There's a mix of sexism, conflicting priorities, a paucity of mentors and, in some cases, self belief.

Alison Southwell, a graduate of the the National Farmers Federation (NFF) Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program, explained it well.

"When you have kids, your career has to slow down for a while to be able to do everything that you want in terms of family life," she said.

"There is still the expectation that the woman does the majority of the, particularly early stage, child rearing.

"I didn't want to miss that, either.

"As a result, opportunities that would have been presented to me probably were not because people just assumed that I wouldn't want to take on some of those opportunities or that I wouldn't handle those opportunities.

"And so I guess I was potentially passed up early on because of the 'mummy' thing.

"I also think that, particularly in agriculture, women are expected not to know how to do things and you've got to prove that you do.

"If I was male, it'd be the opposite; you're expected to know stuff, that you can take on things and have knowledge."

Not that Ms Southwell needs to prove herself.

As Charles Sturt University discipline lead for agricultural science, she has carved out a high-profile career and is well networked but the Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program had still brought some impressive benefits.

"I think what I've learned most is that there's a whole network of really inspiring women out there doing great things and I didn't even know they were there," Ms Southwell said.

The program matches aspiring female leaders with mentors to establish leadership goals and strategies to reach them.

"A mentor you can speak frankly with and can develop strategies, and who says, 'I've got your back, go for this initiative' or 'This is how you should approach it' is something that's really valuable, so I encourage other women to do it, if they're interested in leadership," she said.

READ MORE: Is agriculture sexist?

Another program graduate, Sally Martin, also appreciated the opportunity to extend networks and be challenged.

"It wasn't just a case of ringing up to have a chat, it was well structured," she said.

"Having a sponsor, broadening your network means there are more opportunities that you might otherwise have missed out on.

"Getting someone to critique, looking in from the outside and to challenge you, asking why you do things a certain way, or put you in touch with someone who can help you make progress, was very valuable.

"You've got to have the time and the energy to take advantage of these opportunities.

"I was making some quite big decisions and this helped me to be more strategic about those decisions in terms of my long-term future."

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