29 March 2019- “In veterinary school in France, 75% or 80% are women. In agronomic schools… the same trend is observed. [In a few years] our roles will be filled more by women than men…we will have a misbalance in the opposite direction.”
Frédérique Clusel, General Manager of Phileo Lesaffre Animal Care, is definitely worried about justice and inclusivity in agriculture. However, she’s not worried about women finding their place in it, at least in occidental countries (although, she admits, the situation might well be different in other sectors of agribusiness, such as commodities trading or machinery.) When it comes to advanced biosciences where she has worked for the last 25 years, she sees an environment where women are well-set to succeed based on their abilities, provided they allow themselves the chance to succeed.
Of course, that in itself is an accomplishment, and a relatively recent one at that. As conversations about gender equality have become more and more mainstream—and have touched women at earlier stages of their career—this has caused a shift from earlier epochs, Dr. Clusel opines. “The world is changing and [women] are studying more. It takes time, but it is happening.” Today, she has plenty of young women applicants for positions all across the business, from R&D to commercial to technical roles—in fact, she says there is a majority of women applicants and that those with the best profiles tend to be women. However, she acknowledges, the same is not true when she is filling positions requiring more experience. “If you’re looking for a regional director role, managing a whole region’s salesforce… you practically have no [CVs from] women if you want someone from the generation of 45-50 [years of age].”
Still, in Dr. Clusel’s view, this is less a question of structural discrimination as a question of attitudes. “For the elder generation—above 45 and 50—it’s true that we still have more men than women, but I never had to face sexist behavior during the last five years since I joined Lesaffre and the nutrition world,” she recounts (although she notes her husband, a teacher and the primary caregiver for their children a few years before that was common for fathers, endured perhaps more sexist remarks for his choices). Instead, she thinks, there are a lot of limits placed on women, particularly those of older generations, by themselves and their own internalized beliefs about their worth and capabilities.
She hypothesizes a situation with a man and woman whom she is examining for a position of responsibility. “The man immediately comes to me, and said ‘you know what, I have everything you need and I’m sure I would be very good for the job, I need to get the position.’…The woman, who might be as qualified, says ‘But I don’t know, I’m not too sure, I don’t think so, because I don’t have this, I’ve never done that.’ This was quite often the behavior that we were told to have in the society for [my] generation, just to show how much we limit ourselves” she recounts.
Being aware of and asserting one’s own worth not only affects the positions women will occupy, but also the salaries they will take home, she adds. “When you propose another job or a different mission to a man, he will immediately [respond] ‘yes, interesting, how much [does it pay]’ but not as many women do that. But why? It’s true it’s a new mission, so why should you not [dare to ask for a raise]?”
“We need to allow ourselves to take the risk. This is what I see in the young generation, who will dare to act, who will say ‘you know what, I can do this job as much as anyone’.” At Phileo and in the larger Lesaffre business of which it is a part, she says, women occupy multiple strategic functions across domains including global R&D, communications, and intellectual property, bringing different backgrounds and passions to the company’s global activities, while positions are filled based on competencies and motivation and not based on gender.
Distilled into a single takeaway, she suggests being bold. “When I was young, I was asked where I wanted to be…in fact, I dreamt too small; at 35 I was already in the position I imagined at age 50. I could have maybe dreamt larger….Whoever we are, we can dream much bigger.”
Boldness will be necessary, because there are other terribly urgent points of structural disadvantage in the agribusiness world to be addressed. Dr. Clusel is passionate about the “heartbreaking” situation of small farmers across the globe, including in France, who are worn out by financial pressures which take a mental and emotional toll. “It’s absolutely abnormal, we need them [in order to eat] three times a day, but don’t recognize their worth” she asserts, pointing out that they are demonized for environmental degradation yet squeezed ever tighter by large companies buying their products. “We as occidental consumers are ready to buy fair trade coffee, chocolate and cotton (to support ‘far away’ farmers), but are not ready to buy milk at a decent price that will allow the local farmers to have enough money. How just is this? How fair is this? …it’s not a men and women story, it is a human story.”