Over 300 delegates from 26 countries made their way to Amsterdam for the inaugural Women in Food & Agriculture Summit. The agribusiness and food event brought together some of the sector’s most progressive and disruptive thinkers with an audience that wanted to openly debate the inclusivity and diversity of the agrifood industry.
The speakers covered a host of progressive topics including the role of blockchain in generating more income for farmers, how the Dutch are planning to pay farmers for the true cost of food production and what the sector needs to do to address its sustainability challenges.
The boldly named gathering, which encouraged all genders to attend, sparked an intentional stream of questions on social media according to the event organiser Olga Korzhova.
“The event was not about sexism nor feminism, it was about an intentional provocation of some hard-hitting conversations,” she says. “When we first raised the idea with our 20 strong steering committee, and number expressed their concern with a gender biased event.”
However, she adds that the survey the organisers conducted prior to the event highlighted the need for it to be held and in the way that it was held.
The survey had 2,500 respondents, 72% of whom were women; the dominant feedback was that there is a difference in how women feel women are treated in the sector, versus how men feel women are treated.
Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, the sponsors of the survey, addressed the event on the first morning, and said that he’d heard a number of times at the event that women felt that the sector was male dominated.
“One of the biggest challenges we face across the industry is the war for talent,” said Dr. Lyons. “We cannot lose great people because they perceive the ag industry as male-dominated. That’s a crisis for the entire agri-food sector.”
There were very frank and open discussions between speakers and delegates agreed that the sector is making some great strides in becoming more inclusive, but also it highlighted what barriers there are for women in all ages and stages of their careers.
“Topics like the danger of unconscious bias, managing changed and the importance of mentoring for women at all stages of their careers were dominant in conversations that we heard,” Ms Korzhova added.
Commenting on the event, Jane King, CEO of AHDB, the UK agricultural and horticultural levy board said: “I was hugely inspired by the warmth, ambition, talent of the women that gathered in Amsterdam. It felt as if a movement had begun to drive change for an industry that we are all passionate about. The tone of conversation was very progressive – a preparedness to tackle the biggest challenges of our time together to help build a more resilient, sustainable industry in tune with our planet and with consumers. From here I think that it’s important to build on this momentum and I’d be very keen to attend next time.
She added that “women-only events can be different to those dominated by men, not necessarily better but uniquely different and that’s a good thing. We should encourage diversity in all forms as it will help the industry to embrace change effectively.”
Lena Johansson, Political Editor-in-Chief at Land Lantbruk in Sweden said: “It was really rewarding to meet so many skilled and prominent women from the agricultural and food industries. It gave me lots of new energy and inspiration. The atmosphere at the summit felt so warm and inviting. I hope that there will be another WFA next year which will gather women from even more countries. Women in the agriculture and food industry need meetings like this to be able to lift and support each other. If the agrifood businesses are to cope with future challenges, it is necessary that both women’s and men’s skills be utilised.”
Christine Tacon, Chair of MDS Ltd who spoke about careers in Agrifood added: “I really enjoyed being on a panel discussing what we had learned and the career advice we would pass on to others. All three of us agreed that having someone outside your work prepared to give you honest feedback was essential and that women entering the industry should have no inhibitions about what they could do or how far they could get.”
Sarah Bell, a supply chain consultant and speaker at the summit described the event as a showcase of some of the brightest leaders in agriculture, she said: “All of the speakers I listened to bought interesting information and perspectives to their subject. Many led me to question my own unconscious bias and think about how I can do things better in both farming and my work with the wider supply chain. The collaborative and educational elements of the conference make it a valuable event to anyone who wants to see a diverse industry where merit and talent are the key components of leadership.”
Finally, Patricia Marks, CEO of the Newbury & District Agricultural Society said: “It was a wonderful event for discussion, debate, knowledge transfer, learning, listening and networking. An annual event is a must to continue the work from this first event.”
She added a comment about the Twitter discussions sparked by the summit: “This was an event looking and discovering the female perspective to the challenges facing our industry, in a supportive and understanding environment. The event is, and will always be, open to all but the focus is on the female perspective, similar to youth events for the perspective of the young, similar to sector specific events for the perspective of a particular industry.”
The event was a resounding success and the team are busy planning the 2020 Summit for the same time of year and location to be announced.