Ahead of the WFA Summit in December, Jez Fredenburgh catches up with one of the speakers Jane Rickson, president of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers, about the need to get more women into the industry and why confidence is key.
As the first female president of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers, Jane Rickson believes it is important to fight sexist prejudices with technical knowledge and professionalism, while mentoring and supporting young and mid-career women to have the opportunity and confidence to continue their careers.
“I think it’s all about professionalism,” says the professor of soil erosion and conservation at Cranfield University.
“How do we give that to young women so that they have the confidence to walk into a room full of men and stand their ground – because not everyone has that confidence.”
Everyone, male or female, has to prove their worth professionally, says Ms Rickson, but there are some people out there with prejudices against women, she says.
“It’s a red-rag to a bull for me – I want to challenge those stereotypes in a methodical, professional way. If people have different expectations just because I’m a woman, that’s their problem, but we do need to challenge them.”
She acknowledges that this might be more difficult for younger women just starting out.
She advises: “Be confident you know your stuff – there’s no reason to feel inferior. Know that you can turn around any prejudices by demonstrating your capabilities.”
Tackling gender splits in science
Growing up, Ms Rickson says she was always interested in the outdoors.
“I saw how fundamental soils are for producing our food (97% of our food comes from soil), storing water and reducing global warming through carbon sequestration – no wonder soils are really moving up the agenda.”
But as she became more specialised in her studies and work, she found that she was increasingly one of only a few women working in her field.
Why that is, she’s not sure, but she thinks there is a need to go right back to school education to understand how science subjects are taught.
“We need to talk to educationists,” she says. “I have three daughters – I see no reason why they couldn’t study a subject like agricultural engineering if that’s what they want. It’s about having the opportunities. If an opportunity is there but they choose not to pursue it, that’s another thing.”
How to support young women
“Senior women need to be role models,” says Ms Rickson. “We need to develop early career women and share with them how we got on in our careers.
“I think mentoring is really important – where we talk with young women about good (and not so good) experiences to show that they can succeed. It’s all about leading by example.”
Creating a workplace culture that allows more flexibility is also important for encouraging young women to stay in their careers, says Ms Rickson.
Improving that culture for both men and women is important, so they can more easily juggle commitments outside of work, such as caring for children or elderly relatives, she adds.
Looking ahead to December 3-4, Ms Rickson adds events like the WFA Summit are useful in highlighting the challenges the industry faces, while also bringing together like-minded individuals to find solutions.
She says: “I think the Summit is important and timely because agriculture is increasingly recognised as the solution to several global challenges, including food security, rural development and climate change mitigation.
“As the agricultural sector evolves to meet these challenges, more women are taking on more diverse roles, at all levels. The Summit will recognise and celebrate the contributions women can make to agricultural innovation to meet the challenges ahead.”