Women in Food & Agriculture
The world of agricultural inputs is extraordinarily demanding, involving the use of some of humanity’s newest and most advanced science, applied to one of the most ancient and vital livelihoods, sometimes in the world’s most remote locations. Recruiting successful candidates is already difficult enough. The last thing the industry needs is rigidly defined gender roles discouraging, or actively weeding out, the female half of the pool of potential employees. Thus, it is quite logical that Rahul Kalia, head of human resources for the Crop Science division of Bayer Crop Sciences in Asia-Pacific, is an advocate for greater gender diversity in the workforce.

Obstacles, both social and tangible

Unfortunately, as he explains in an interview during the run-up to the Women in Food and Agriculture Summit in Amsterdam this December, when it comes to parts of Asia Pacific, progress on gender equality is not simply a question of recognizing the problem and maybe grappling with some unconscious biases all around the table. Instead, the obstacles are tangible and anti-woman prejudice can, in some cases, be both deeply held and openly expressed.

For, while women make up a significant chunk of the agricultural workforce in many developing countries of Asia-Pacific (perhaps 35-40% of the personnel, Mr. Kalia estimates) among smallholder farming environments in this part of the world, women tend not to be the decision-makers in terms of what is grown, and, crucially, what products are used on the crops. This reverberates throughout the industries serving these farmers. As Mr. Kalia observes, “If the decision-makers are mainly men, historically I think there were more men in that part of the world in the agricultural input industry in terms of the salesforce…when you want to actually reach out to these farmers, today still we are going through a personal connection.”

The idea that men would be more persuasive and authoritative company representatives among these largely male decision-makers has slowed the growth of women in the front-line ranks of agri-input companies. Indeed, in some particularly traditionally rural areas, he says, there is a “[hesitation] with most of the male farmers to converse with female commercial executives.”

Additionally, he points out that in some places, the very infrastructure poses an obstacle to women travelling around some of the rural territories. “For example, having the basic [women’s] washroom facilities available [can sometimes be a challenge],” he acknowledges. “And security becomes a challenge…in some of these countries.”

Rather than relying on a blunt instrument such as gender quotas in hiring, therefore, Mr. Kalia highlights that there is real work to be done, collectively, to address these obstacles. Moreover, he urges that the industry must take the lead on this, instead of waiting around for the government to implement solutions that will improve the situation on the ground. “I feel more can be done by the agri input companies to come together, as an industry body, to say ‘what are we doing about it?’ To me, if we say there is no infrastructure in place, then this presents an opportunity for the companies to come together to provide better security and a better working environment, even something as basic as a toilet in rural places.”

Opportunities: what a non-diverse industry is missing out on

Overcoming the very real obstacles in place to integrating more women across the business is not just a feel-good social initiative. As Mr. Kalia points out, there are severe business-critical consequences to leaving such a massive portion of the talent pool on the table when recruiting. “50% of people who actually graduate out of agricultural colleges are women. Why are we, as an industry, not able to hire them? Where do they go? …It’s a big, big miss for the industry itself.”

But beyond simply the sheer weight of numbers, he is also convinced that marginalizing women in the workforce means depriving a company of important skill sets, not to mention customer insight. After all, he repeats, most consumption decisions are made by women. “If we really want to be customer-centric organizations, or consumer-centric organizations, better diversity would lead to better innovations for companies like us.”

He cites Bayer’s choice of a woman as the commercial country lead for Pakistan as an example of this principle in action. “She told me that initially there was a lot of resistance from farmers to converse with her …but being a woman also helped her to connect with the families of the farmers, because if you want to connect emotionally with the farming community, you actually connect with the whole of the family, and being a woman really helped her to make those connections.” He opines that women’s strengths in compassion and empathy can be extremely relevant to success in positions such as media public relations, while active listening and other social skills can help in a leadership position, and curiousity can be essential in R&D.

However, he argues, to profit from this effectively requires that companies abandon standards that are implicitly biased towards male strengths. “One particular competency that everybody [judges by] was courage… but we don’t describe courage by the ability to be curious, to be inquisitive, to ask questions; we measure courage by our ability to actually stand up for ourselves, fight for it, which comes from a very masculine definition of courage. And that perspective really needs to change.”

Of course, overturning established cognitive habits is a lot easier said than done. And indeed, it will require engaging with everyone in the workplace. In Mr. Kalia’s words, “we in the industry need to take the initiative in changing the mindset, especially focusing only on the women—attracting them— but we also need to educate a lot of the men who are leaders in the organization, because there needs to be a will from willingness on their side to contribute to it.” It will also demand a rethinking of what it means to manage: “What is the job of a leader? The job of a leader is not to judge people…but to get the best out of everybody you have on the team.”

“The right intent is there…now we just need to pick up some speed”

Mr. Kalia is optimistic that things are going in the right direction; having been involved in the industry for the last 10 years, he detects a pick-up over the last 2-3 years, when it began to shake its reputation as an old, conservative and transactional industry and push forward a more modern, digital image. “I do see a lot of millennial women especially who are getting attracted to this industry… but still we need to do a lot specifically in attracting women in the smaller Tier B, Tier C kinds of cities in South and Southeast Asia,” he says.

He is encouraged by his own company’s leadership on this front, most notably via Bayer’s “Samavesh” educational initiative. This program offers opportunities to female students and gives them a taste of the front-line career opportunities available in the life sciences, as well as providing them a supportive environment to help them integrate into the organization, including female mentors, special induction plans, and training for both the students and their managers. It is understood they have close to 50 women enrolled in this. “But if you asked me, I would say that is just the start. Compared to other industries, I would say we are have still not [caught up] but at least the right intent is there, in order to move in the right direction…. Now we just need to pick up some speed.”